Is Switzerland game for a laugh?

Dr Roland Schutzbach is a man on a mission - to find Switzerland's funny bone and tickle it until the nation's sides split.

This content was published on August 5, 2001 minutes

This might seem a tall order for even the best stand-up comedian, but Schutzbach, who set up a "Fun and Laughter Practice" in the village of Ins outside Bern in May, believes he has found a willing patient.

"The Swiss have a lot of humour, but they don't really laugh so loudly - it is a special kind of humour. That's why I would somehow like to give them the gift of laughter," he revealed to swissinfo.

A doctor of philosophy and former Steiner school teacher, Schutzbach is no circus clown. Admittedly, he packs an outrageous over-size polka dot bow tie and has been known to slip on the odd red nose to tickle his charges' ribs, but amid all the tomfoolery and gags there is serious work going on.

Since setting up three months ago, around 20 clients have signed up for the laughter therapy sessions, which take place in the group meeting room or on a one-to-one basis in one of the "comfy chairs" in the practice room.

No contraceptive advice

Unlike most doctors' surgeries, there is a distinct absence of anything remotely medical on display -- no stethoscopes, no smell of disinfectant and no medical charts issuing advice on contraception on the walls. Instead they are papered with laughter-filled pictures and the only files on show are three A4 binders with the words "Ho! Ho! Ho!" on the spine. Open them up and you find nothing inside.

Occasionally funny pictures are passed around to get people in the mood, but on the whole Schutzbach, who is the founder of the European Laughter Society, encourages his charges to open up and search within themselves for the laughter that he says we all possess but often fail to release.

"We get people who have problems, people who don't seem to have problems, and all kinds of people who are interested in laughter and who want to lead a happier life," he told swissinfo. "I'm somehow teaching them to lead a life of joy."

"However, it's not me who makes them laugh, it is their own inner process and some people are not ready."

Schutzbach came up with the idea of setting up his "Fun and Laughter Practice" six years ago after meeting the legendary American doctor, Patch Adams, whose world was portrayed by the Hollywood actor Robin Williams. Schutzbach also claims to have been heavily influenced by Bombay's Dr Madan Kataria, who founded hundreds of laughter clubs in India.

Confronting sadness

But it is not all about laughter. Amid the guffaws and split sides, Schutzbach says he often finds himself confronted by deep-seated feelings of sadness.

"Every workshop I give is different," he told swissinfo. "I have, for instance, experienced some workshops where people suddenly get into sadness in laughter. There are maybe 30 people laughing and one is crying. This is a very moving process."

But after only three months in the job, Schutzbach is looking for bigger fish to fry and he has set his sights on Switzerland's seven million inhabitants. He says he has already been in touch with the health ministry to see if they can work together on projects. And he also has his heart set on staging a laughter exhibition at next year's national Expo.02.

"I have started a whole laughter campaign for Switzerland and we're staging a Laughter Week from August 17-26," he told swissinfo. "I want to help the Swiss people to be more joyful."

by Adam Beaumont

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