When comedians say they “killed” an audience, they are usually speaking metaphorically. They mean that they made the audience laugh hard, but not so hard that anyone actually croaked.
However, it’s possible to literally die from laughter—not from the joke itself, but from the body’s reaction to it. Among the many possible medical ways that laughing too hard can kill you:
• Ruptured brain aneurysm
• Cardiac arrest
• Collapsed lung
• Strangulated hernia
• Gelastic seizures
Suddenly, laughter isn’t so funny—at least if you’re the one dying from it.
Here are ten cases—some modern and documented, others historical and therefore unverifiable—in which laughter was said to be an immediate cause of death.
1. Alex Mitchell
Mr. Mitchell was a humble British bricklayer who laughed himself to death one evening in 1975 while watching the “Kung Fu Kapers” episode of The Goodies, which was the name of a hairy, hippie-era comedy trio in the Monty Python vein. Mr. Mitchell chortled and guffawed and haw-hawed and belly-laughed for an estimated half-hour before finally giving up the death rattle. His wife Nessie subsequently wrote a letter thanking The Goodies for making his final moments on Earth so mirthful.
It was initially unknown what caused his death, but when his young granddaughter recently suffered a non-fatal heart attack due to a hereditary, rhythm-related heart condition known as Long QT Syndrome, some experts speculated that this is what also killed her grandpappy.
2. Damnoen Saen-Um
In 2003, this Thai ice-cream truck driver perished in his sleep after about two minutes of nonstop laughter. His wife witnessed the entire event and tried waking him up to no avail. After two minutes, he stopped breathing and perished either of asphyxiation or heart failure.
3. Ole Bentzen
The 1988 movie comedy A Fish Called Wanda features a scene where actor Michael Palin gets some French fries stuffed up his nose. In 1989, a Danish audiologist named Ole Bentzen found the scene so sidesplittingly funny that his heart rate rose to an estimated 250-500 beats per minute, leading to a heart attack as he laughed his way into the afterlife.
One fine day in the third century BC—which, in case you don’t know, is around three hundred years before the infant Jesus slimily plopped out of his mom’s allegedly virgin womb—this Greek Stoic philosopher decided it’d be a good idea to get his donkey absolutely shitfaced drunk on wine. As the story goes, when the plastered pet bumblingly attempted to eat some figs, Chrysippus laughed so hard that his body perished and his spirit shlepped its way into the mythological Greek underworld.
5. Mrs. Fitzherbert
She was a lonely British widow—OK, I made up the “lonely” part, but in the days before Tinder, widows typically were lonely—who in 1782 attended a performance of The Beggar’s Opera. She began laughing at the sight of a male actor onstage in drag, which seems inexcusably transphobic if you ask me. She continued laughing to the point where she excused herself from the theater. According to the inherently sexist Gentleman’s Magazine:
Not being able to banish the figure from her memory, she was thrown into hysterics, which continued without intermission until she expired on Friday morning.
6. Wesley Parsons
This Indiana farmer was yukking it up with friends one day in 1893—back when long, stinky beards were roughly as fashionable as they regrettably are now—when he launched into a bout of uncontrollable laughter that lasted an hour. His laughter then turned into unrestrained hiccupping. He died about two hours after his fatal fit of laughter had begun.
This Greek painter was apparently afflicted with the dual social diseases of sexism and lookism. In the 5th century BC—which, to remind you, was roughly 500 years before Jesus came sloshing out of the Virgin Mary’s vagina like a bloody wet cannonball—he was commissioned by an older woman to paint a portrait where she posed as the goddess Aphrodite. Zeuxis apparently rendered a cruel and unflattering depiction of the woman that he found so humorous, he laughed himself to death over it.
8. Thomas Urquhart
Señor Urquhart was a Scottish aristocrat and “polymath”—a term similar to “autodidact” in that anyone who uses it to describe themselves is automatically an asshole. In 1660, upon being informed that Charles II had assumed the throne—and why is that so funny?—he reportedly laughed himself six feet under.
9. King Martin of Aragon
I’m not sure where “Aragon” is, but I presume it’s a suburb of Cleveland. This is the second case of death by laughter that involves animals and figs. One gluttonous day in 1410, after consuming an entire goose himself, King Martin’s court jester Borra told him he had been “out of the next vineyard, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs.” King Martin found this so uncontrollably fucking funny, he perished of what is thought to be a combo of laughter and indigestion.
10. Tommy Cooper
This British comedian may not have technically been laughing himself when he died, but he was surrounded by laughter. He dropped to the floor during an onstage comedy routine in 1984 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. At first, audience members thought it was part of the act and expected him to get up. Very soon thereafter, they stopped laughing.