Robert Provine, an Authority on Laughter, Is Dead at 76


Dr. Provine extended his study of such “nonverbal vocalizations” well beyond laughter. In 2012 he published “Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond.” He argued, for instance, that yawning not only indicated sleepiness but could also signal social empathy with others who are yawning.

“Although it is ubiquitous, and something that if you’re lucky you do every day, laughter is truly a puzzling phenomenon” said Peter McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-author of “The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.” “His book, ‘Laughter,’ is really a go-to source in this field, and one reason is that he studied laughter out in the real world, not in the lab.”

Rod Martin, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario said, by email: “Bob Provine’s main contribution to the field of research in the psychology of humor was to draw attention to laughter as a phenomenon of interest in itself. Until then, humor researchers had mainly seen laughter as an outward expression of the inner experience of humor.”

Robert Raymond Provine was born on May 11, 1943, in Tulsa, Okla., the first of two sons of Robert William Provine, a chemist for Sun Oil, and Thelma Fern (Morgan) Provine, a homemaker. His younger brother, William, died when he was a teenager.

Robert attended Thomas Edison Preparatory School in Tulsa, then entered Oklahoma State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1965. He completed a Ph.D. in the same subject in 1971, at Washington University, in St. Louis. He worked there as a research assistant until 1974, when he moved to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He spent the rest of his career there and, by all accounts, embodied the figure of a laughter researcher: a bearded, congenial, wisecracking presence whose own humor could straighten the spine at its wicked best.

Dr. Provine’s first marriage, to Helen Vona, who was known as Vivi, in 1967, ended in divorce in 1990. He married Ms. Weems in 1996. In addition to her, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, Kimberly Lourenco and Robert W. Provine; and three grandchildren.

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