By Erika Webb
Helen Ferguson knows how to make a roomful of people LOL without cracking a joke. All she does is hold up one finger -- not that one -- and tells her audience to laugh. They do. Two fingers means laugh louder. Pretty soon, she said, the room is in an uproar.
Ms. Ferguson is the co-founder of the DeLand Chapter of the International Laughter Society. She and Carl Whiddon formed the organization in 1990.
They've been laughing ever since.
"I always knew that laughter is very good for you," Ms. Ferguson said. "I found out about the International Laughter Society in California and I joined. Once I became a member there I could also start a local chapter and that's what I did."
The average adult laughs 17 times a day, according to an online article by Marshall Brain at www.howstuffworks.com.
"Humans love to laugh so much that there are actually industries built around laughter. Jokes, sitcoms and comedians are all designed to get us laughing, because laughing feels good," the article stated. "For us it seems so natural, but the funny thing is that humans are one of the only species that laughs."
Laughter is actually a complex response that involves many of the same skills used in solving problems, the article reported.
That's because it creates a hopeful response in the brain and hope enables creative thinking, according to a mynextbrain.com blog.
Philosopher John Morreall, who edited the book "The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor," believes "the first human laughter may have begun as a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger," Mr. Brain reported. "And since the relaxation that results from a bout of laughter inhibits the biological fight-or-flight response, laughter may indicate trust in one's companions."
Many researchers believe the purpose of laughter is related to making and strengthening human connections.
Ms. Ferguson has found all to be true.
Her "laughter exercises" repeatedly prove it is contagious.
"I usually get up and do an audience warm up (before the program) with laughter," she said. "Sometimes I'll lead them in a dance. It could be the hokey pokey or the YMCA or the chicken dance."
The DeLand Laughter Society meets once monthly to plan programs which are held the third Thursday of each month, October through April, at Life Point Community Church.
Programs feature musical performances and stand-up comedians. Ms. Ferguson said usually there are 150 to 200 attendees.
"It's good, wholesome entertainment," she said.
Buddy Raines, one of several volunteer comedians, is dubbed "king of comedy." He's been with the organization from the start.
"He is wonderful. Everybody loves him," Ms. Ferguson said.
Mr. Raines said he used to be shy.
"If I had to get up in front of the class I'd sweat, turn red and my knees would shake," he said.
He doesn't know how it happened but he eventually came to understand that it didn't make any difference.
"Usually when people are having a bad talk, or whatever, the audience feels sorry for them. I just try to focus on one or two people ... I think I could get up in front of a million people and it wouldn't bother me," Mr. Raines said.
His southern twang lends itself to storytelling; much of his comedy comes from recycled stories and jokes.
"I spin 'em around. There aren't many new jokes, most are old ones but they get spun around," he said. "True stories are the funniest. Life is basically funny. If you look at people you can make a joke out of just about anything. We just try to make people happy."
The DeLand Laughter Society has featured professional comedians as well.
"We've had people perform that were on 'The Tonight Show,'" Mr. Raines said.
Singer Barbara Dean once was on the same program as the Four Aces and the Tommy Dorsey Band.
Mr. Raines said, at 77, it takes her a little time to get to the stage, but her age could never be revealed by her vocal chords.
She has a super, super good voice," he said.
Stan O'Neal, a retired DeLand High School history teacher, leads the Just Friends Band, Ms. Ferguson said. They performed in March.
"Everybody loved them. They do everything from Elvis Presley to you name it," she said. "They played Boot Scootin' Boogie and we did a line dance. That was lots of fun."
She was quick to add that, other than the occasional impromptu shuffle or brief chair contained warm-ups, attendees do not dance in the church.
The final performance of the DeLand Laughter Society's season was April 18.
"A lot of people are winter visitors who head north for the summer," Ms. Ferguson explained.
She and other year-round residents keep the party going.
"I enjoy doing theme parties, having people over to my house, doing things with my church," she said.
She's planning a "Howl at the Moon" party.
All of the DeLand Laughter Society's performances are free. Ms. Ferguson said donations are gratefully accepted and are used for advertising mailers as well as to pay the church for use of its facilities.