Sunday, September 9, 2012


Dateline: 08/10/2012

Did you know that rats can laugh? No joke! I’ve been reading “Scientific American” magazine off and on since high school, whenever I could latch onto a copy. Someone here subscribes to the magazine, and I’ve enjoyed reading several of the most recent issues. That’s where I learned about the laughing rats, in an excerpt from Jesse Bering’s new book, “Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That? ..And Other Reflections On Being Human,” in the July, 2012, issue.

I don’t know why the penis is shaped like that — you’ll have to read the book to find out — but I found the questions about animal laughter and whether only humans have a sense of humor fascinating and thought-provoking.

Jesse Bering prefaces the story about laughing rats with an anecdote about his experiences with a 450-pound western lowland gorilla named King. When Bering was 20, he spent some time with the 27-year old gorilla at a zoo, listening to Frank Sinatra and The Three Tenors, playing chase, and tickling the big guy’s toes. King would stick one huge, gray foot through the cage bars and leave it dangling in anticipation, erupting in shoulder-heaving guttural laughter when Bering grabbed hold of one of King’s toes and gently squeezed it.

“If you’ve never seen a gorilla in a fit of laughter,” Bering wrote, “I’d recommend searching out such a sight before you pass from this world.”

In another life, I had close encounters with a gorilla at the Houston Zoo, a cigarette smoking chimpanzee at the Lowry Park Zoo who would blow perfect smoke rings, and an elderly, retired boxing orangutan in a sanctuary near Palm Harbor, but none of them were laughing.

Do animals have a sense of humor? We’ve heard of laughing hyenas, dolphins with their fixed smiles, and many dog owners swear their best friends express a range of emotions, including smiles of joy in their physical expressions of pleasure.

The question that I’ve been asking and seeking the answer to for years in prison is “Do humans have a sense of humor?” Many times the answer is no.

Growing up watching The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, I Love Lucy, and so many other world-class comedians, along with sharing raucous laughter with gatherings of relatives when the men would crack jokes, I took it for granted that everyone had a sense of humor. Coming to prison, I found out differently.

Standing in a group of men listening to a “chain gang comedian” telling (most off-color) jokes, while most of the audience would be laughing (or groaning) at the punch lines, I was more interested in observing the ones who never cracked a smile, expressionless, like a cigar store wooden Indian. I wondered why the jokes that elicited laughter from everyone else had no effect on those others. Did they have a higher tolerance level? Did it take more for them to laugh? Or was there something inherently lacking in their personalities?

Having grown up in the South listening to my father and his brothers play one-upmanship with their expressions of humor, I developed an appreciation for well-told jokes that resulted in my recall and repeating of many old favorites over the years. I found that sharing some of those laugh inducers gave me opportunities to conduct a simplified personality inventory of certain people I wondered about. Prison can be a great laboratory.

Southerners, particularly Florida natives, have a particular affinity for humor involving out-of-state visitors. This is an example of one that is usually guaranteed to garner vaying degrees of laughter from my Southern compatriots:

A tourist made a wrong turn off the interstate and got lost in North Florida. After driving around for hours, he happened upon a country store, where he hoped to obtain directions back to civilization.

Getting out of his rental car, he approached an old farmer wearing overalls sitting on the porch playing chess with a bird dog. The old man moved a pawn, the bird dog moved a bishop, the old man took a pawn, and the bird dog put him in check. The old man turned over his king.

“My goodness,” the tourist said. “That must be the smartest dog in the world!”

“He can’t be too danged smart,” the farmer said, spitting tobacco juice into a can. “I done beat him three out of five games.”

Well, perhaps it’s not that funny, but you should have been there.

I’ve never told a joke to a rat, but Jesse Bering is sure that they laugh, all the same. Some of the most significant findings to emerge in comparative science in the past decade, Bering writes, have involved the unexpected discovery that rats — particularly juvenile rats — laugh. Scientists are now studying the possibility that our most commonly-used animal subjects may have “social joy-type experiences” during their playful activities. They especially like being tickled!

How do you tickle a rat? The lab assistants do it by rubbing the juvenile rats’ bellies with their thumbs, which evokes “laughter,” not like human laughter, however. The rat laughter comes in the form of high frequency ultrasonic calls, or chirps. The rats even have their favorite “ticklers,” and seek out the individuals who tickle them the best.

An interesting fact is that the young rats prefer the company of adult rats who laughed and enjoyed the tickling the most when they were juvenile rats. Did they have a better “sense of humor,” or is it that everyone loves the life of the party, even rats?

Do rats actually have a sense of humor, to go along with their laughter? Would they crack up if something bad happened to a cat they were observing, like in one of those “Sylvester and Tweety” cartoons? That hypothesis has not been studied yet.

The other end of the sense of humor index in prison involves not those who don’t laugh, but men who overly laugh, who laugh at anything, often inappropriately, bursting out with whooping horse laughs, gasping, tears flowing, falling over, far beyond how the average person responds to the stimulus.

I heard three men laughing uproariously in the hallway outside my cell one morning, and went to see what I was missing. The manic laughter drew the attention of several other prisoners who came out of their cells to see what was so funny.

One neighbor who had spent several years in the Florida State Mental Hospital at Chattahoochee before he was adjudicated sane and came to prison for life, dismissed the trio’s hilarity with a wave of his hand.

“That’s all you hear in the nuthouse, Charlie,” he said, turning to go back into his cell. “Day and night, they be laughing like maniacs.”

I suppose that is as good a reason as any.

Have you heard any good jokes lately?


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