Works and Progress

Laugh Your Way Through Life

Gary Palmer

Popular teacher Gary Palmer laughs his way through lectures and life.

By Jeff Call, ’94


HOLLY A. Grondel, ’05, remembers taking a field trip with a group of fellow recreation management and youth leadership students from BYU to a retirement center in Orem. She felt somewhat uncomfortable around senior citizens and was a little nervous to interact with them. 

Then her teacher, Gary K. Palmer, ’66, a teaching professor of recreation management and youth leadership, stood before the students and the residents and started singing a silly song about peanut butter. Grondel smiled and noticed that the song had put her at ease and made everyone comfortable. 

“It made me feel like I could talk to these older people,” she recalls. “Dr. Palmer broke the ice. At first you were thinking, How embarrassing. Then you wanted to be like him.”

Apparently, there are plenty of Palmer’s students who want to be like him after having learned from his humorous approach to teaching and life. Palmer’s techniques have made an impression on countless students over the years, as evidenced by the 10 teaching awards he has received at BYU. “I found that the humor part is probably what did it,” Palmer says. “I don’t know that I’m a great teacher, but if you can lighten up a little bit, it sure helps.” 

Ramon B. Zabriskie, ’89, a BYU recreation management professor and one of Palmer’s students in the mid-1980s, was inspired by Palmer’s style. “It’s very obvious from the moment he steps into the classroom he loves what he’s doing,” Zabriskie says. “It’s something I’ve tried to emulate. He plays and learns side by side with his classes. He develops a strong relationship with all of his students.” 

Palmer explains, “I’m kind of a goofy guy to begin with, so I teach that way. It keeps me going and it seems to be helpful to other people. There are a lot of humorous stories I tell in my classes, and I think all of them are on me. That’s pretty safe because you can laugh and make fun of yourself and not offend anybody.” 

For example, Palmer doesn’t spare himself when he regales students about the time he took his misbehaving 2-year-old son, Tyler, home from sacrament meeting. After turning on cartoons for his son, Palmer fell asleep. He didn’t wake when his 5-year-old showed up to take Tyler back to Primary. Trouble was, Tyler had stripped down to moon boots and training pants and picked up his Daisy popgun on the way out the door. “Sacrament meeting is not quite out, and the bishop’s pouring out his soul,” Palmer explains. “It’s whisper quiet, when Tyler, wearing moon boots and training pants, marches up the aisle with his rifle, takes aim, and shoots the bishop. It woke up the congregation.” 

The hilarity in stories like this (which, Palmer assures, hardly seemed hilarious at the time) helps Palmer capture his students’ attention and makes class time more enjoyable and effective. “You remember things better when you laugh,” he says. “We remember funny commercials because they make us laugh. If there’s one thing that’s helped me in my teaching, it’s using humor.” 

This approach came naturally for Palmer, whose teaching emphasis is on leisure, games, and recreation. The past president of the Utah Parks and Recreation Association, Palmer has made numerous presentations across the country—with titles like “Spontaneity and How to Structure It,” “Laughter in the Classroom,” and “Feeling Great: Laughing All the Way!”

Palmer insists that laughter and humor are much more than just ways to win over classroom audiences. He says they can also help people live longer and happier lives, be more creative and productive, and have more energy and feel less physical discomfort. Go ahead and laugh (it’s good for you), but Palmer has collected serious research to back up his claim. Studies show that humor has extraordinary healing power, he says. It reduces stress, fear, intimidation, embarrassment, and anger. When a person laughs, blood pressure decreases, heart rate and respiration increase, the body releases endorphins, and depression declines. 

“After you have a hearty laugh, every major muscle group in your body is activated and you feel great,” Palmer says. “After it subsides and you relax again, that good feeling has a lasting effect, even until the next day. There aren’t many medicines that will do that.” 

Palmer’s formula for overall well-being includes leisure and exercise. Even BYU’s namesake, the stern and industrious Brigham Young, believed in relaxation on a daily basis. “Brigham Young’s motto was ‘Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, and eight hours recreation,” Palmer says. 

“The problem people have is they don’t see the humor in themselves,” Palmer says. “They need to lighten up and see the humor in their own life and be able to laugh about it.” 

The way Palmer sees it, the key lies in becoming childlike. “They say children laugh 400 times a day and adults laugh 15 times a day,” he says. “As we grow up, we just get way too serious. I try to get people to be the way they used to be. All you’ve got to do is watch children and you see that they’re spontaneous. Everything’s fun for them. It’s only when we become adults that we start to get boring.” 

Humor not only keeps people from being dull, but it is also an effective tool when dealing with stressful situations and delicate matters. Palmer recalls late BYU president Rex E. Lee’s message to the student body on the dress code several years ago. “President Lee said he wanted to show some examples of different types of dress. Up on the screen in the Marriott Center are these huge pictures of himself dressed in some of the most bizarre ways, showing them what not to wear. He took a touchy subject and presented it in a humorous way.” 

Palmer also points out Church of Jesus Christ President Gordon B. Hinckley’s ability to diffuse tension through humor. “President Hinckley has a dry wit, and that’s why he is so good with the media. It removes all kinds of barriers,” says Palmer, who attributes the longevity and vigor of President Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie, in part, to their senses of humor.” Sister Hinckley has said, ‘You’ve got to laugh your way through life.’ I believe that.” 

A man laughingThat belief, say former students like Grondel and Zabriskie, gives Palmer the ability to make potentially boring subjects interesting and to captivate classes. 

“I took two classes from him, and it was an amazing experience,” Grondel says. “He’s an incredible teacher. He was always making us laugh. He makes learning fun.” 

Jeff Call is a writer for the Deseret News and a former intern for Brigham Young Magazine, BYU Magazine‘s predecessor.

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