ComedyCures: Laugh It Off
One woman’s inspiring journey of survival and laughter led her to begin a national campaign to bring laughter to those who need it most. Find out how you can help.
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By Riva Froymovich
March 13, 2005
Saranne Rothberg has a comical voice. It is high, emphatic, but mostly—despite breast cancer, surgery, divorce, single motherhood, and losing a parent—optimistic.
When Rothberg was diagnosed with breast cancer, she went to the nearby video rental.
She had recalled an articled she read about Norman Cousins, the leading force on therapeutic humor, who self-treated an illness by watching funny films. Rothberg thought, “If that guy could do it in his late 70s, then I can surround myself with positive thinking.” After tucking her five-year-old daughter in bed, she popped a tape into the VCR and collapsed on the floor crying. Rothberg sobbed so loudly she couldn't hear Eddy Murphy's jokes, but she forced herself to listen until she caught a punch line. Then came a Jackie Mason video, and by the time she reached Jerry Seinfeld, Rothberg was able to laugh.
“You can't control the things that happen, but you can decide how you're going to respond to them and every minute you have a choice. And, when you're diagnosed with a disease, you feel like you have no power, you have no choice…But, it's an opportunity to make a choice,” she realized.
The next morning, she and her daughter made a list of everything that brought them joy, and made a promise to each other to make an appointment to laugh every day, twice a day.
Rothberg threw herself a chemotherapy party. She invited friends and family, served sparkling cider and food, to celebrate life while she sat in a chemo chair. Rothberg saw that she could create her own reality, one of joy and laughter.
It was in that chair that Rothberg recognized her future. The very next morning, she started on that path.
Rothberg, 41 and considered an early stage four cancer patient with no visible sign of disease, is the founder of Comedy Cures, a national non-profit organization dedicated to lifting the spirits of ill, depressed, traumatized, or disabled children and adults for the last five years through therapeutic humor—“good old yucks, not at the expense of anybody,” she explained.
The group hopes to educate and entertain through activities like family-friendly live comedy events. The Laugh-A-Thon can be a motivational talk or a humor act for 200 to thousands of people, like “A Funday Sunday,” an interactive musical comedy extravaganza in New York City planned for May 22 in Town Hall for 3,100 children who lost a caregiver in the September 11th attacks.
The organization offers a toll-free LaughLine (1-888-HA-HA-HA: “Heard about that goldfish that went bankrupt? He's a bronze fish now.”) that receives 4,000 calls each month without advertising, and the Wellness Joke Program, which includes patients' artwork and humor for the benefit of others in their same position. ComedyCures Humor Ambassadors present at hospital bedsides and lead support groups of 12 to 20 people.
“The key is you got to rig your deck,” Rothberg learned. Studies show that the way one spends the first few minutes of a day determines how that day will unfold, the difference between glee and gloom, she said. ComedyCures sessions aim to give patients strategies for living life happily, from morning to night. For example, set a comedy tape the night before, adjust the alarm clock radio to a comedy station, or keep a joke book at bedside.
“If you practice thinking in a joy-filled funny way, you become very good at living a joyful funny life,” Rothberg believes. In fact, various studies from Duke University, Loma Linda University, and UCLA have shown that laughing relaxes tense muscles, reduces the production of stress hormones, strengthens the immune system, aids in pain management, lowers blood pressure, and is considered an aerobic workout, reports Dr. Larry Axmaker on Wellsource, Inc.
Rothberg takes this information to heart. “Our goal is to help you unleash the entertainer in you, so that you can create you own joy-filled life,” she explained.
Last year, ComedyCures was involved in 54 live events and impacted 34,000 people through those programs, which have spanned across the United States—from New York to Indiana, Michigan to California—and featured comics from numerous comedy clubs, MTV and Comedy Central, improvisational groups, as well as James Gandolfini, Miss USA, and Rothberg herself. The non-profit has collaborated with the Red Cross, United Way, Ronald McDonald Houses, New York Presbyterian Hospital and others, plus plans to launch a national tour after their Town Hall show.
The major humor therapy program available in the country when ComedyCures began, according to Rothberg, was Clowning, which was primarily focused on pediatrics. “But we're not clowns,” she said of her comedians. They're real people, experiencing similar problems.
“I'm just a woman who got cancer, who learned how to harness my own comedic perspective to redefine my reality,” Rothberg said.
Rothberg has seen that reality become possible for the impossible.
“People with brain injury, who medically shouldn't be able to laugh again, and just through repeating the exercises and repeating the motions, somewhere it happens and something starts to flow. And it happens in every single show. My brother was killed…My child died and I haven't laughed since,” she recalled the stories. Yet, at each show, the crowd erupts in laughter. “No one is forced to do anything. Participation is completely voluntary,” she noted. “But laughter is contagious.”
Individuals can help the cause by making a donation, creating a wellness joke book for a patient or referring them to the LaughLine, or becoming someone's “humor buddy.” The group is looking for volunteers to help with the New York City children's event, as well as in their Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey office, and corporate sponsors that would join the ranks of Neiman Marcus and Nortel Networks among others.
“We find that our best ambassadors are people who just wear the pin,” Rothberg noted. Pins range from $15 for metal to $40 for sterling silver, and they remind people to “Live Love Laugh.”
To learn more about how you can get involved with the laughter, go to www.comedycures.com.