This week’s entry: Death from laughter
What it’s about: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. But a select few have managed to combine the two, as throughout history, people have actually died laughing.
Strangest fact: The ancient Greeks had a strange sense of humor. A 5th century BC painter named Zeuxis reportedly died laughing at his own painting of Aphrodite based on an elderly patron who insisted on posing herself. Two hundred years later, the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus saw a donkey eating figs. He suggested giving the animal some wine to wash it down and then laughed so hard at his own joke that he died. Guess you had to be there.
Biggest controversy: If you think this year’s election cycle is laughable, talk to Thomas Urquhart. The 17th-century Scottish writer was a royalist who was declared a traitor during Britain’s Protectorate era, had his property seized, and was held in the Tower Of London. He was freed, fled to mainland Europe, and faded more or less into obscurity. But a few years later, when Charles II restored the monarchy, Urquhart reportedly laughed so hard at the news that it killed him.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The modern era isn’t funny enough to kill anyone. The only name on the list from the 20th century is Alex Mitchell, an Englishman who died while watching an episode of The Goodies in which a Scottish bagpiper practices martial arts armed with a black pudding. Mitchell laughed for 25 minutes until his heart stopped (he may have had an existing heart condition). Far from being upset, his widow thanked the show’s producers for making her husband’s last moments happy ones.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Death by laughter is often itself played for laughs, from the Seinfeld episode where Jerry kills a hospital-bound friend with his A material, to Mary Poppins, in which a bank manager laughs himself to death, to the Monty Python sketch in which a weapons-grade joke is translated into German and ends up winning WWII. In every instance, death by laughter is considered hilarious, instead of a terrifying reminder that literally anything can kill you.
Also noteworthy: Most of the people on the list died because something struck them as incredibly, lethally, funny. But Kuru, a form of spongiform encephalopathy native to Papua New Guinea, causes uncontrollable laughter, alongside loss of speech and motor control. The infected person continues to deteriorate until death, and bursts of laughter often punctuate deep depression. Some people are naturally immune, but the disease is otherwise incurable.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Little Shop Of Horrors notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that anyone’s been killed by laughing gas. But nitrous oxide does more than make one pleasantly light-headed. It also powers most aerosol spray canisters, replaces the air in potato chip bags to stop bacterial growth, and gives car and airplane engines a burst of oxygen that allows them to burn more fuel faster. As a result, nitrous is the rare substance that’s equally at home in a drag race, dentist’s office, or Phish concert.
Further down the wormhole: Nitrous oxide is also a greenhouse gas, but 70 percent of emissions are naturally occurring, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While environmentalism is seen as a liberal cause, the EPA was created by Richard Nixon. While best-known as a paranoid, scheming president, Nixon first appeared on the national stage as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Also on the list of vice presidents is the illustrious Chester A. Arthur, who ascended to a singularly mediocre term in office following the assassination of James Garfield. Next week we’ll look at the shooting, the president’s long, failed convalescence, and Garfield’s particularly unhappy Monday when he died.