"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people," the comedian Victor Borge said. It can break down social barriers, ease tension, lift your mood and make you healthier, so it is no wonder that a comedy workshop for children at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre is proving so popular. Mina Liccione has been running the Laugh Out Loud workshop for 18 months. The six-foot-tall New Yorker radiates enthusiasm and good humour as she takes the class of 11 children through exercises in one of the centre's studios.
"People say to me: 'How can you teach people to be funny?'" she says. "But it's about challenging their attitudes and being able to see the humour in life. You can encourage people to be funny." Liccione, a tap dancer and physical comedian who has appeared in Stomp, Cabaret and Cirque du Soleil, has been living in Dubai since 2008. She is an adjunct professor of improvisation and movement at the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi. She also performs her stand-up routine at Monday Night Funnies every week in Dubai.
The comedy class, for children between five and eight years old, runs once a week. Ali al Sayed, Liccione's business partner and assistant teacher, says that over the nine-week course they will teach children to improvise, play theatre games and perform classical clowning routines. At the end of the course, the children will be awarded red noses and a certificate, and perform a short show for their parents.
"We tell a lot of stories," Liccione says. "Things that are funny, things they find frustrating and their favourite things - these are three things that every kid has in common." Adnan al Baghdadi, despite being one of the youngest in the class at five years old, is eager to take part. "He's a comedian at home," says his father, Mohammed. "He enjoys being in a class where the theme is to be funny. It is confidence-building; there is group interaction. It's part improv, part acting, part comedy. I say to him: 'Whatever you are thinking, it is OK. The chances are that one of the other kids here is thinking the same.' The class is good. It tells him it is OK to be an individual, to be unique."
The individualised aspect of comedy makes the class accessible to children and makes it different from an acting class, Liccione says. "In comedy you make up your own material. It's what you want to talk about. I give them an outline, that's all. You have a lot more freedom of expression, which can also be a little bit intimidating." At the end of the hour, the children leave with their homework assignment: to bring a joke to next week's class. The sisters Reem and Hend Alafifi wear delighted smiles as they run to their mother, Sheikha Alafifi, who has been watching them. Alafifi says she thought the class would help her daughters conquer their shyness. "I heard it would give them more confidence in school to stand up in front of people and have fun," she says. "I was surprised they were doing it so easily. They are always shy. Today there was so much laughing."
Liccione encourages the children to talk about what they feel and find the humour in things that might annoy them, such as their younger siblings and, often, being stuck in traffic. "If we can appreciate the fun things in life and laugh more, we'd be a lot happier," she says. She doesn't doubt that the course helps children become more self-confident: "On the first day, everyone is very shy and, for a lot of the kids, English is their second language so they are working on communicating and, on top of that, being funny. It really helps with their communication skills."
Olga Crighton attended the class with her son, Max, aged eight, and was hopeful it could help build his self-confidence. Crighton, originally from Russia, explains she also wanted him to take part in an activity that was a little different. "It's nice for people to do something funny. At school they are so reserved: you must sit down, raise your hand to speak. It's very formal. It's good to do something like this where it is spontaneous."
Laughter can have far-reaching psychological and medical benefits too, according Dr Melanie Schlatter, a consultant health psychologist based at the Well Woman Clinic in Dubai. "According to principles of cognitive therapy, sad or worrying thoughts can create a negative mood. Laughing, because it is uninhibited, can reduce internal and external conflict, temporarily relieving that mood. "Being able to say: 'Hey, this happened but it's actually not that bad' and finding a way to laugh about it will alleviate your stress, change your mood, and even change your physiology. Many people feel physically relaxed after a good laugh. Knowing that general stress can create general health problems, if you can deal to some of it with a technique like laughter, you can really turn things around."
Schlatter thinks that courses such as Laugh Out Loud are great for children. "It teaches them not to take life - or themselves - so seriously," she says. "I don't think adults laugh enough. This is a wonderful concept. It's not competitive; it's creative, fun and spontaneous." Norman Cousins, the writer, activist and academic who edited the Saturday Review in the US, is often called the father of humour therapy. In the 1960s, Cousins was diagnosed with a life-threatening collagen disease and told to avoid stress. He prescribed himself a regimen of vitamin C and Marx brothers movies. He found that not only did laughter alleviate his pain, allowing him to sleep, but it also assisted his recovery from the disease. Cousins went on to give talks and write several books about his experiences.
Dr Kollikowski, a neurologist, psychiatrist and visiting specialist to the German Center for Neurology and Psychiatry in Dubai, explains that laughter "leads to the relaxation of the whole body". "A good belly laugh reduces the tension of the body and stress levels," Kollikowski says. "It is a physical and emotional release. Physiologically, a hearty laugh exercises the diaphragm, contracts the muscles of the belly and shoulders and leaves the muscles relaxed for a longer time afterwards. Laughter lowers the level of stress hormones such as cortisol and can lead to an increase in the number of immune cells. Thus the resistance to disease is improved.
"Laughter also leads to an increase in the blood flow to the heart, thus can help preventing cardiovascular problems." So teaching children to appreciate the humour in life when they are young can give them skills that can help them live healthy lives in the future. Not only are there direct physiological benefits to laughing, but research published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2007 revealed that laughter increases the heart rate and the energy expended by up to 20 per cent from resting values. The researchers from Vanderbilt University in the US calculated that genuine voiced laughter for 15 minutes a day will burn between 10 and 40 calories. That's nearly 15,000 calories a year just from laughing.
After the workshop, Max Crighton's shyness was obvious as he buried his head in his mother's side. Olga explained that he had already prepared his homework for the next class and had a joke. "Oh, really?" I asked, "Tell me your joke, Max." His face became animated and he said in a loud and clear voice: "Why did the chicken cross the road? To show he had guts!" It takes a lot of guts to perform in front of your peers, but as Liccione says: "Kids are funny. They find the most random things funny and can entertain themselves for hours." Knowing how good it is for us, perhaps we should all seek out our inner child - as well as those old "knock, knock" jokes.
The Laugh Out Loud kids' comedy workshop takes place on Saturdays at 10am. Visit www.ductac.org/ theatre for details.