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When the giggle bug bites, even cured meat is hilarious

We have them during job interviews, dressing downs and in the case of a Swiss politician, during televised speeches about cured meats. Giggle fits have hit us all.

In case you missed it, the Swiss finance minister Hans-Rudolf Merz has become an Internet hit after laughing uncontrollably while making a speech to parliament about spiced meat imports. Over 1 million people have watched him crack up over “Bündnerfleisch” on YouTube.

Sure, air-dried meats are just plain funny. But funerals – not so much.

Still, Stephanie Auteri, a 30-year-old writer from Clifton, N.J., says she burst out laughing at the wake for her friend’s father. Over a decade later, she still cringes at the memory.

“I went with another friend of mine and I was twisted up inside with anxiety. As I approached the front of the room and my grieving friend, the anxiety burbled up inside of me, forcing its way out as laughter,” she says.

According to Robert Provine, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation,” cracking up – even at a funeral or formal state event – isn’t all that unusual.

“Laughter is not under much conscience control,” he says. “We don’t decide to laugh, it just happens. It’s like crying in that respect. Most laughter is for no reason; it’s not a response to a joke. It’s a response to other people.”

Spontaneous laughter is very much a social function, he says, something that usually doesn’t happen if we’re alone. Laughter also breeds more laughter (poor Hans-Rudolf tries to stop tittering a number of different times but can’t) and is contagious, causing other people to laugh, which in turn stimulates additional laughter from the first person.

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“Once it’s in gear, it’s hard to disengage,” he says. “And once a group starts doing it, it reinforces itself.”

Provine, who’s studied laughter for 20 years, says the giggle effect happens to everyone – from newscasters delivering the news to Shakespearean actors in the middle of a performance. The giggle bug has also bitten Drew Carey, who started tittering after encountering a contestant named Dr. Bummer on “The Price Is Right,” and the usually steadfast BBC Radio announcer Charlotte Green, who dissolved into uncontrollable laughter while reading an on-air obituary for Abby Mann, the screenwriter who penned “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Uncontrollable laughter isn’t always funny, of course. An ill-timed outburst can sometimes be a symptom of multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, or a rare form of an epileptic episode known as a galastic seizure.

Usually, though, it’s just something spontaneous that happens when we’re around other people, says Provine, who says the best way to stop a laughing fit is to go off by yourself.

As for what exactly was cracking up the Swiss finance minister, that remains a mystery. Although Provine has a theory: “Maybe he knows something about Swiss meats that we don’t know.”

Have you come down with an epic case of the giggles at some inappropriate moment? Do tell!

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