The motto in our family is, crack jokes, not heads," says Angela Barbeisch. As a wife, mother of two daughters, and a Web-site humorist, she says her family is a buffet of endless humor.
In home environments reeling from a staggering divorce rate, family humor may seem elusive. But even as multiple TVs, the Internet, and drugs threaten to sever family bonds, many families find humor to be the tie that binds.
As a result, humorists and behaviorists insist that any healing strategy for troubled families has to include welcoming humor into daily life. Many families, across all ethnic lines, have nurtured several generations of closeness because of fond memories rooted in humor.
Some sociologists say, in the end - or should it be the beginning? - humor may be the safest, most inexpensive glue in the world to help hold families together. Some medical studies have also concluded that laughter is therapeutic.
"I've been working with some parents in another state," says Glenn Latham, a behavior analyst in Logan, Utah, and author of many books on families, "and their 17-year-old daughter was hardly talking with them. So we helped them lighten up, infuse a little humor in the relationship.
"The parents contacted me recently and said, 'We'll be sitting in the living room, and she will come in and sit with us now.' When teens feel safe, they want to be with you."
Telling stories on one's family
Significantly, the stories that families cherish about themselves, and tell again and again, often hinge on a funny Uncle Bob or a Grandma Jones story: Remember how they said this and did that?
"Such stories are a way of bonding," says Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington, "a way to establish family style and say, 'We think this is funny and has meaning.' "
On a humor Web site, a contributor from California recently wrote, "I had a Great Uncle Orville, but everyone called him Uncle Awful, and we did, too. He loved the nickname [and] was great entertainment to all of us kids. ... The memory of him telling silly stories and poems will always be with me."
Mrs. Barbeisch, from Greene, N.Y., loves to tell the story of her Uncle Toto, fresh from Italy and hoping America would be his adopted country. In his first week in New York he decided to ride the subway.
"Uncle Toto couldn't speak a word of English," says Barbeisch. When a woman wearing five-inch spike heels entered the same subway car as Uncle Toto, she promptly stepped on his foot and broke it.
"The horrified woman kept saying, 'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry,' " says Barbeisch, noting that Uncle Toto was less hurt than bewildered by the New World.
"It wasn't for him," she says. "He returned to Italy to be a fisherman, and when his friends asked him how America was, he laughed and said over and over, "I'ma so sorry, I'ma so sorry."
Bill Tilton, a management consultant in Rockville, Md., says his mother had 10 fun-loving brothers who rode the humor pony all the time. "It was a family trait to meet tension with a twinkle in your eye, and turn it into a joke if possible, " he says.
One of his uncles was always told by his wife that he would one day regret leaning back in chairs. "He was a high official in the Department of Agriculture, and one day he was seated and waiting to give a speech," says Mr. Tilton. "He leaned back and the chair collapsed, but he came up laughing. He was always so full of jokes and fun that this is my strongest memory of him."
This same uncle was late to his own funeral. "He died in Africa," says Tilton, "and the family planned a big funeral on a certain date, but Customs held the casket so long that he didn't make it on time."
For Natalie Keng, associate director of the Boston branch of the National Conference for Community and Justice, growing up in the only Chinese family in Smyrna, Ga., presented unusual ethnic challenges.
"We grew up speaking Chinese and English," she says, "and called it Chinglish. And in some cases English into Chinese is not translatable. One time my sister was shopping in the mall with Grandma, who spoke little English. My sister bought a pair of pants and told Grandma the pants were on hold. In Chinese it meant, 'They are holding my pants.' Grandma took it literally and always laughs when she tells the story."
Another time Ms. Keng's two older sisters, then teenagers, were driving in a car in stop-and-go traffic. "The sister who was driving became a little distracted and looked away," says Keng, "and was sliding forward. The other sister suddenly said, 'Go!' which in Chinese means 'enough.' The other sister heard it in English, put her foot on the accelerator and plowed into the car in front. We can laugh at it now."
Natural ability or cultivated talent?
There is plenty of disagreement over the origins of humor. Some insist it is a natural ability. You have it or you don't, just as other talents are individual.
Regardless, families usually define the mechanics and style of humor in their own way. Some go for specific jokes shared at the dinner table, premeditated practical jokes, or a level of banter and teasing that avoids mockery or disparagement. Or all of the above.
Barbeisch thinks humor springs from hardship and that "you can't really be funny unless you have felt the exact opposite of funny."
Latham, who grew up in poverty with an alcoholic father, thinks humor is learned behavior and can therefore be taught in a family. During a phone interview, he refers to his six children, 19 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. "In fact, before this conversation is over," he says, laughing, "there may be four grandchildren."
"To me a sense of humor is a trait," says Bob Schwartz, a freelance humor writer and part-time lawyer in Huntington Woods, Mich. He and his wife have two boys and a girl. "Before I became a parent," he says, "I thought you could mold and shape your child's personality to a great degree. Obviously you can instill values, but now I believe some kids are born with wit and humor, and for them, it just is."
What helped convince him was his impish daughter. "She was born with a very good sense of humor," he says, "and thinks it is her job now to amuse her brothers and make them laugh sitting at the dinner table." Recently, when she was told she was talking too loudly, she mouthed words silently as if to say, "Is that better?"
Humor can easily spill out of families into neighborhoods.
"My wife and a neighbor play practical jokes on each other," says Tilton. "We stuck two of the gaudiest pink flamingos on their lawn one night, and over the years those flamingos have been sent back and forth. We had a meeting at our house for a dog club that does rescue work. We didn't know it, but our neighbors put the flamingos up on the front lawn with a sign saying, 'Flamingo Rescue.' "
Stonington, Maine, is home to a comic battle of epic proportions. Each summer, three to four families bond over intense water fights - a legacy of drenching that has spread over 10 wet years.
"Planning is part of the fun," says Nancy McMillan from Westport, Conn. She and her husband, Charlie, usually see Duncan Martin and his family, from Arizona, as the protagonists.
"There are spies and double agents," she says as the groups gather. Water guns with back-mounted tanks or pump action are stockpiled, swiped, and hidden. Negotiations and intrigue lead up to the finale, a laugh-filled, action-packed dowsing of everyone.
The Martins' marriage a few years ago was marked by a surprise water attack at the reception. "Nancy was the instigator," says Mr. Martin, who was the victim along with his new wife.
Ms. McMillan is silent on the subject except to say, "Duncan would have been disappointed if we didn't do something."
Last summer, water was dumped on fully clothed people from roofs. "It's fun because everybody is equal," says McMillan, "and nobody gets hurt, and, of course, you want to get wet."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society