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Powdering Faces with Sunshine: Dr. Prem Sharma, Founder of The Forest at Duke Laughter Crafters

A group photograph of the Laughter Crafters committee.

Born in Mandalay, Burma, Forest resident Dr. Prem Sharma was a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and has always advocated for religious, cultural, and racial harmony. He is an accomplished writer, having penned three novels (Mandalay’s Child, Karma’s Embrace, and Escape from Burma), with a fourth novel currently in the works.

Drs. Anita and Prem Sharma
Drs. Anita and Prem Sharma

Furthermore, he has delivered more than 3,000 talks across the United States, from motivational speaking engagements to keynote addresses at convocation ceremonies. He’s also a talented ballroom dancer, and, with his wife, Anita Sharma, MD, by his side, has taught this beautiful art to others for over 40 years.

From motivational speaking to ballroom dancing (which carries its own set of impactful benefits), it should come as no surprise that Dr. Sharma enjoys encouraging, uplifting, and otherwise enhancing others’ lives. When he and Anita moved to The Forest at Duke in April 2018, Dr. Sharma knew he wanted to spread the joy of laughter on campus. He had already done so in several of his previous cities of residence and was eager to continue the tradition.

Inspired by laughter

Prior to living at The Forest, Dr. Sharma led a distinguished career in professional education. Early on, he served as the head of the Pediatric Dentistry department at the Marquette University School of Dentistry, and spent the bulk of his career as the school’s Associate Dean for Academic and Alumni Affairs. It was during his tenure as an educator that he discovered Norman Cousins’ article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Anatomy of an illness as perceived by the patient.”

In this piece, Cousins celebrates the potential health benefits of laughter and humor, even sharing how watching old Candid Camera episodes temporarily relieved him of pain from ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis primarily affecting the spine. Cousins’ story and its implications were eye-opening for Dr. Sharma; this information could help his students use laughter to work with anxious or otherwise challenging patients – especially children.

The founder of The Forest at Duke's laughter club smiles for his head shot.
Dr. Prem Sharma

Because of Cousins’ work, as well as related thoughts and writings by musicians, dignitaries, and other figures (like Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Robert Burton), Dr. Sharma began studying and promoting the benefits of laughter on the human mind and health.

He learned that the Bible references humor more than forty times, and countless philosophers and scholars have written about laughter’s positive effects on the body and mind. Furthermore, many physicians and scientists have researched laughter and documented their findings, concluding that laughter may lead to significant health benefits, like stress relief, boosted immunity, and improved cardiovascular function.

Grand clubs and grandchildren

About three years after Dr. Sharma retired in 1994, he and his wife moved to Fort Myers, Florida, and bought a home to live during the winter months. They also purchased a residence in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they planned to spend their summers.

Shortly after joining the Heritage Palms Golf & Country Club in Florida, Dr. Sharma founded the Laughter Club of Heritage Palms. He made a comparable impact in Raleigh, forming the Laughter Club of Brier Creek. Having begun a similar group in his former home of Milwaukee before heading south, Dr. Sharma seemed to leave a trail of smile and laughter in his wake. At each of the laughter clubs he created, he invited a number of stand-up comedians to perform and entertain.

He also regularly wrote about the health benefits of laughter. In Fort Myers, he penned a monthly article called “From the Mouths of Grandchildren.” Through this feature, which appeared in Heritage Palms Golf & Country Club’s newsletter, Between the Palms, Dr. Sharma invited readers to submit stories about their grandchildren and their humorous interactions with them.

The formation of Laughter Crafters

Dr. Sharma formed the Laughter Crafters committee very shortly after moving into his home at The Forest. Right away, he saw a great response: 16 residents joined the group to help spread smiles and laughter across campus.

Audience members enjoy an event with the Laughter Crafters laughter club.
A well attended Laughter Crafters event in the auditorium, where the front row is reserved for Laughter Crafters members. (Photo by TFAD Department of Resident Life)

As the group found its footing, Dr. Sharma invited a couple of well-known comedians to perform for residents. These same two comics – Jimmy Keys and Keith Barany – previously performed for Dr. Sharma’s other laughter clubs in Fort Myers and Raleigh. Jimmy Keys, originally from England, offered a high energy, musical comedy act. Keith Barany, a witty comic who wrote for the acclaimed TV sitcom series Seinfeld, wowed the crowd with his lightning fast ad-libs.

Spreading sunshine at open mic events

The Laughter Crafters soon began hosting open mic events in the Community Center auditorium. At these fun gatherings, members shared funny YouTube videos, jokes, and humorous anecdotes with the audience. The group hosted similar events in the Ritz Theatre, bringing laughter and entertainment to residents in the Health Center.

Now, at the end of every open mic event, the Laughter Crafters members and audience join in a chorus of the Laughter Crafters theme song, “Powder Your Face with Sunshine.” The song encourages, “Powder your face with sunshine, put on a great big smile; make up your eyes with laughter, folks will be laughing with you in a little while.”

Show me the funny!

At the group’s open mic event on August 7th, members of the Laughter Crafters committee turn to face the audience, revealing their red clown noses. (Photo by TFAD Department of Resident Life)

Beyond hosting open mic events and inviting comedians to perform at The Forest, the Laughter Crafters also enjoy sharing funny movies with the community once a month. The selections, including Some Like It Hot and Tootsie, are chosen from the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest American Movies of All Time.

Laughter Crafters events at The Forest are well attended and well received by residents. On Wednesday, August 21st, the committee will sponsor a viewing of the film Mrs. Doubtfire, a beloved title pulled from the aforementioned American Film Institute list. In October, the members will welcome comic Keith Barany back to campus for another entertaining visit.

Thanks to Dr. Sharma’s vision and the members’ enthusiasm, the group plans to keep laughing together for years and years to come. Though there are 16 members currently on the committee, there’s always room for more! Dr. Sharma and the rest of the Laughter Crafters warmly welcome anyone who wishes to smile, laugh, tell a joke, enjoy funny videos, and not take life quite so seriously.

Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

Header image: Members of the Laughter Crafters don red clown noses at the committee's
Wednesday, August 21st presentation of Mrs. Doubtfire. (Dr. Sharma is pictured on
the far right.)
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