Sporadically throughout the past few decades when we could finally afford to subscribe to magazines, I have received Reader’s Digest monthly.

I treated each little issue in much the same manner as I once treated the Sunday newspaper comics, the “funny papers,” by finding the “Laughter is the Best Medicine” section immediately. It was only in my senior adult years that I discovered the better way is to save those goodies for last. Somehow my day is made brighter, my outlook more promising, if I get the bad news or the serious articles out of the way early on, ending with a few smiles and chuckles to recall throughout the day. The latest RD issue’s cover caught my eye, sending me to an article titled “Laugh Yourself Smarter” in a Genius Special section. (The regular Genius Section is filled with brain games and such.) I now know more than I thought there could be known about humor, most of it confirming the magazine’s declaration that, truly, laughter is the best medicine.

Today’s top headlines are hard to overcome. There is too much sadness, too much bitterness, and certainly too much uncertainty to be taken lightly. We find ourselves laughing to keep from crying. There seems little to laugh about, yet a redneck one-liner from Jeff Foxworthy can give us at least a momentary giggle to offset the frustration of the latest tragedy. In the comics, Snuffy Smith’s antics with his Loweezy make us smile, along with Garfield and my favorite, Ruthie, from the “One Big Happy” strip. Often a lesson in honesty or virtue is hidden amid those familiar faces and settings, a subliminal reminder of the value of humor.

It isn’t always the spoken word that tickles our funny bone. Clowns and mimes and America’s Funniest Videos, not to mention those beloved animated cartoon characters, can take our minds and thoughts away from reality for a time, girding us for the next newscast.

In my never ending project to clear my bookshelves, I’m hindered by being drawn to those books that brought so many hours of laughter. I can’t read all of them again, but oh! how I want to scan a few pages just for fun. Lewis Grizzard left us with volumes of his special brand of storytelling, his way of embellishing a story, often with a hint of hypocrisy or dishonesty, causing us to examine our own misgivings, but bringing us to laughter in the process. I was in the audience for one of his stand-up appearances, and I distinctly remember that my facial muscles were so sore from laughing that it hurt to talk afterward. I may find it difficult to part with his books. And the same is true for others, like Ferrol Sams and Bo Whaley and our own Jimmy Townsend whose “Mountain Echoes” reflected our culture here at a time when we were still in mountain country. A few examples: “Politicians are like polkas. They all sound alike but have different names.” “Nobody ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.” “If winning ain’t important, why do they keep score?” Television came along to get us through some troubling times with unforgettable stand-up comedians and hilarious comedy shows. Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Milton Berle and dozens of others became fodder for lively, laughter-filled conversation. When my husband retired in 1992, one of his gifts was a set of Amos ‘n’ Andy videos, and during his terminal illness we would often hear his failing voice in happy laughter as he watched those episodes over and over, as funny then as they had ever been.

Lee Walburn was an Atlanta journalist, and I found in my collection of useless information a piece he had written for the old Atlanta Magazine section of the Atlanta paper. He began by saying that he could not prove that laughter is good medicine since most books about that were published by writers “who shamelessly prey on folks seeking the easy way to happiness,” presumably for money from the sale of such books. He goes on to tell a story about two sisters he had met, and their Uncle Zach, who died at age 95. Zach left behind a book he had typed himself, a collection of jokes he had accumulated over many years. Walburn quoted a couple of the entries. “Stealing a kiss can ultimately lead to marriage. This is a perfect example of crime and punishment.” “The woman who thinks she can hold her man with just her cooking should remember that he wasn’t eating a sandwich when he proposed.” Thinking Zach was probably a popular after-dinner speaker, Walburn asked about that, but was told by the sisters that he just shared the jokes with his friends and patients. “His patients?” he asked. “Yes. He was a wonderful doctor until he retired because his practice had become so big he couldn’t handle it anymore.” The healing power of laughter…

Juanita Hughes is a retired head of the Woodstock Public Library and a local historian.

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