How Laughing Gas Created America’s First Comedy Boom
Back in the 1840s, Americans were laughing like never before. This was thanks to the comedic combination of people discovering how to do whippets and people watching people do whippets. Nitrous oxide had recently been invented, with the new gas quickly becoming a massive hit with the public, who packed into “laughing gas demonstrations,” where volunteers would get bombed out of their minds as audiences whooped it up at their stoned shenanigans.
But how did these NOS-travaganzas become so popular? Well, it’s an odd tale involving acid-throwing dentists, Samuel Colt’s frog-like leaping abilities and Regency-era Britain’s wildest drug parties.
The Glorious Summer of Nitrous Oxide
In 1844, New York’s hottest play was The Drunkard, a Reefer Madness-style warning about the dangers of alcohol, in which a character gets drunk one time and instantly abandons his family and flees to the city, yelling, “Madness is my strength; my brain is liquid flame!”
But on New Year’s Eve of that year, a New York Herald reporter ducked into a Broadway theater to see an entirely different kind of show. The large and good-natured crowd wasn’t expecting any sort of plot or moral or theme. Instead, they were “there for the express purpose of laughing.” Unfortunately, they were first subjected to a lengthy organ solo, an opening act endured with “commendable patience.” Finally, the curtain rose, and a former medical student named Gardner Colton stepped out and immediately got silly with it, launching into a parody of Shakespeare’s Richard III:
Now is the winter of your pretty faces
Made glorious summer by the nitrous oxide,
And all the cares that lowered upon your eyebrow
In the deep bottom of the gas has buried.
The audience promptly went berserk (Shakespeare parodies being rather more popular in the days when New Yorkers were willing to violently riot over which actor played Macbeth better). Colton then asked volunteers to step onstage and suck nitrous oxide from a kind of silk bagpipe. The newly high 19th-century gentlemen were soon cavorting about the stage, causing the audience to roll with hysterical laughter. This only intensified when one burly volunteer became so overwhelmed by old-timey whippets that he punched Colton to the floor, prompting security to charge the stage like an episode of Jerry Springer.
That was just one of the massively popular “Laughing Gas Exhibitions” touring America in the first half of the 19th century. These were theoretically scientific lectures displaying the newly discovered nitrous oxide. But, in reality, they unleashed America’s first major comedy boom, providing eager crowds with the chance to yuck it up uncontrollably at the sight of people getting stratospherically high in front of a paying audience. Developed decades before the rise of vaudeville or superstar clowns like Dan Rice, the whippet shows were the first time Americans could pack into a theater for an evening of plot-free laughter.
Party Like It’s 1799
The recreational potential of nitrous oxide was discovered in 1799 when a young English chemist named Humphry Davy started sucking on the gas nozzle to see what happened. It was a bold move since nitrous oxide was generally assumed to be poisonous, but it paid off monumentally. The 21-year-old Davy reported feeling “sublime emotion connected with highly vivid ideas” and was soon holding popular nitrous parties, where his posh friends took massive hits of nitrous before wildly frolicking through the house. One guest claimed that the very air of Heaven “must be made up of this gas,” while another reported feeling “like the sound of a harp.”
But the biggest fan of the new laughing gas was Davy himself, who was conducting such important experiments as “What happens if I do a bunch of whippets after drinking all night?” (He carefully wrote down the results, which boiled down to “I threw up.”) Before long, Davy was sucking 12 quarts of gas from the ol’ giggle bagpipe three times a day while reporting strong urges to do more.
He eventually constructed an airtight box, locked himself inside and ordered his assistant to pump in nitrous until he passed out. This caused him to lose “all connection with external things; trains of vivid images rapidly passed through my mind,” although it’s unclear whether this was due to hotboxing whippets or the fact that he almost died from oxygen deprivation. Although that brush with death was a small price to pay for the important scientific conclusion that “nothing exists but thoughts!”
Davy eventually managed to wean himself off history’s first and most awe-inspiring NOS dependency (he went on to discover several elements and was knighted as Sir Humphry Davy), but in the meantime, his discovery had made its way across the Atlantic, where enterprising American promoters recognized its potential as a moneymaker. As early as 1814, there were several “laughing gas” demonstrators touring the country. These shows soon proved so popular that a certain Samuel Colt funded the development of his new “Colt Revolving Gun” entirely with the profits from his traveling nitrous show. Although ironically, the future firearms magnate insisted that patrons discard any “nives” or “weppins” concealed about their person before taking a hit of the gas.
This was probably a smart move on Colt’s part since the nitrous shows quickly proved surprisingly violent. For example, a show in the 1820s featured “a dozen or more large bladders with shining metal taps filled with the gas.” The first volunteer, “sitting in a chair, put the tap to his mouth, compressed his nose and inhaled the laughing gas,” but found himself so overwhelmed that he remained motionless for several minutes after the bladder was withdrawn, trying to suck nitrous from an imaginary tap. An eyewitness account noted “how this comical posture sent the audience into roars of laughter, which increased when the intoxicated man leapt smartly from his chair and made astonishing bounds all over the stage.” However, the next man to honk on the magic bladder found “the effect of the gas was so great that he beat around him like a madman and assaulted the ‘Experimentator.’”
At a show in Philadelphia in 1814, four youths inhaled the gas and “stormed around the lecture hall, assuming military postures, leaping over furniture and attacking members of the audience,” thereby establishing the popular Philly pastime of brawling with random teenagers. At another show in the same city, the entire front row fled the theater in fear after a particularly burly volunteer stepped up to suck on the chuckle faucet. Meanwhile, Colt was once forced to grab his gas bag and leap “frog-like” from the stage to escape a gigantic blacksmith charging at him in a rage. At this point, we have to stop and ponder just how bad the vibes must have been in the early 19th century to cause so many people to get mildly high and instantly try to commit on-stage murder before a cheering crowd.
Despite (or possibly because of) the tendency to devolve into hockey-style brawls, laughing gas demonstrations remained massively popular and were universally described as a hoot. The field rapidly grew so crowded that nitrous showmen were competing to offer the wildest experience, resulting in a show in the 1840s where the audience was hosed down with 40 gallons of nitrous oxide. In fact, laughing gas was so successful as a comedy gimmick that it significantly postponed realizing that it could be used as the first anesthetic.
The Acid-Throwing Inventor of Anesthesia
In 1844, 45 years after Davy’s initial experiments, a dentist named Horace Wells attended a laughing gas show hosted by Gardner Colton, where attendees were charged 25 cents a huff. As usual, things degenerated rapidly, with a local teenager inhaling like a quarter of his body weight in gas and sprinting uncontrollably into a wooden bench. While the audience whooped with laughter, Wells noticed that the youth seemed to feel no pain, despite bleeding heavily from both knees. This observation caused Wells to wonder if nitrous oxide could be used to dull pain during medical operations. (A breakthrough that may have been helped by the fact that Wells was also incredibly high at the time.)
After learning to produce nitrous oxide from Colton, Wells successfully used it as an anesthetic on several of his dental patients. Unfortunately, when he tried to demonstrate this to a panel of distinguished medical colleagues, Wells nervously took the gas bladder away too early. The patient was soon moaning and writhing in pain as a result, while Wells hacked away at his mouth with the finest tools available to 19th-century dentistry. (We’re assuming a Bowie knife and a big wooden mallet.) The observers declared the experiment a miserable failure, and laughing gas was discredited as an anesthetic, with one doctor declaring that pain relief was a ludicrous dream that “we can no longer pursue in our times.”
Wells dealt with this career setback by going completely insane, becoming addicted to sniffing chloroform and being arrested for throwing acid at a group of local sex workers. He eventually died by suicide in prison, but his work continued to interest one of his former students, a shady dentist and con artist named W.T.G. Morton, who quietly kept conducting Wells’ experiments. With nitrous discredited, Morton turned to ether, which was then a recreational drug popular with groups of teenagers known as “ether sniffers.” After huffing on an ether-soaked handkerchief, Morton became convinced that it could be used as a surgical painkiller and successfully demonstrated this at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846.
Ether was soon being used in surgeries worldwide, despite the best efforts of Morton, who was trying to keep the identity of the first anesthetic secret to profit from a patent he had fraudulently obtained on the long-discovered chemical. With ether leading the way, doctors quickly rediscovered Wells’ work and began using nitrous oxide for its pain-numbing properties. Meanwhile, the laughing gas craze began to die out as Americans discovered new and more racist forms of comedy, like minstrel shows, which were developed in the 1840s. Before long, nitrous could no longer sell out theaters and was reduced to a sideshow attraction in traveling carnivals, which charged a few cents for a huff on the laughter hose.
But for a time there, laughing gas was an integral part of American culture. And hey, we stage revivals of 19th-century plays all the time. There are even charities dedicated to preserving vanished art forms like vaudeville. So perhaps it’s time to truly celebrate our shared heritage by packing into a theater and getting turnt on poorly made NOS. You can’t tell us that’s a worse evening than Dear Evan Hansen.