June 04, 1979 12:00 PM

Ann Shalla is a 41-year-old Californian who has made a career out of that old chestnut: “Laugh and the world laughs with you.” She is a professional laugher who charges comedians $125 to sit through their routines and unleash rollicking, belly-bouncing, infectious guffaws. They invariably set off a chain reaction in the audience.

“I’ve always been able to laugh,” says Shalla, whose unforced hilarity has rolled across the footlights of The Tonight Show, the Merv Griffin Show, The Gong Show and L.A.’s improvisational Comedy Store. “My laughter has gotten me in and out of trouble all my life.” Accosted by a molester on a Chicago street, she let out such peals of laughter that the man fled in a panic. “My laugh also opens doors,” Shalla adds, including those of Hollywood film and public relations companies which hire her to enliven movie screenings and private parties.

As a funny girl, Ann nets between $6,000 and $10,000 annually, which supplements her “straight” acting fees (she has appeared in Ford and Toyota commercials, in regional theater and on PBS). Her largest fee was $4,300 for an hour and a half of hysterics, but her client, as is often the case, demanded anonymity. The Tonight Show’s Fred de Cordova is one producer who can’t believe Shalla was hired by a performer to be in the audience. “Pay somebody to laugh?” he says. “That’s using a shill, and we’d be very distressed if we found out about it.”

Ann grew up in Champaign, Ill., the daughter of a University of Illinois psychology professor. Two of her brothers were deaf. “I think that’s why I’m so animated,” she says. “I can cry just as great as I can laugh. But people would rather share a laugh than a cry, so I do that alone.” Shalla dropped out of the university after two years, married and moved to Chicago. After rearing sons Quintin, now 21, and Kevin, 17, she ended her marriage in 1972 (“I just couldn’t handle the four walls anymore”). Deciding to become an actress, she broke into TV as a housewife in commercials.

One night in 1973 Shalla discovered her true metier while trying to help a friend in a Chicago nightclub. Comedienne Pat Benson was onstage, struggling through an ancient routine (“I just flew in from New York and, boy, are my arms tired”). Ann began laughing at the groaners and soon everybody was. Her fame spread, particularly after she moved to L.A. in 1975 and appeared on a TV show featuring Guinness Book of World Records aspirants. Sitting in a glass booth, Shalla laughed for four hours and six minutes and claims to be the international champ.

Shalla doesn’t think she could beat that mark, but there’s little chance her mirthful muse will desert her. A year and a half ago she married salesman Ed Ahl. How do they get along? “Ed sees things from an entirely strange viewpoint, which I think is marvelous,” Ann says. “He always has me in stitches.”

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