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Laughing Matters

It started, as many great things do, by accident. Our 7-year-old was telling a story at dinner. The words left her mouth before they'd been fully processed by her brain. "And then she said, 'Teally, Raylor...'" She meant, "Really, Taylor." We liked the way that sounded.

"Raylor?" I said. "That's a great name."

Taylor didn't want to be Raylor. "If you call me Raylor, I'm calling you Rama." Her father spoke up. "Rine. If roo rall her Rama, I'll rall your rister Rinnie."

"Okay, Raddy!"

By now we were on the floor. On the roor, rather. In rysterics. Reside ourselves with raughter. It was extremely runny.

I tell you about the R language because nuttiness within families is good and natural and because the R language is the smartest nutty thing we've ever done. Usually when we're nutty it doesn't bear talking about. We sit on each other's heads and pretend we think they're throw pillows. We dance with the dog. We speak in fake French accents. Once in a while Raddy impersonates a bird dog. Or a warthog.

We haven't yet had a good laugh about eating an entire meal with our fingers. But I'm not saying it couldn't happen.

It couldn't have happened five years ago, when our kids ate with their fingers as a matter of course. They wouldn't have gotten the joke. That's because humor begins with incongruity: a deviation from what we know. The dog that moos, the cow that barks. "Even toddlers have learned to categorize animals and animal sounds. If a cow goes, 'Woof,' they laugh," says Amelia Klein, an education professor at Wheelock College and an expert in children's humor. They're laughing at incongruity. But why?

Susan Stewart reviews television shows for TV Guide.

The Meaning of Mirth

In ancient times, before knock-knock jokes and sitcoms, laughter probably wasn't about entertainment; it was likely about survival. Imagine a hunter-gatherer who's come across an incongruous sight: say, a woolly cow. Once the hunter-gatherer determines this woolly cow isn't an angry woolly mammoth ready to charge, he would laugh, signaling his relief and indicating that his tribe was safe and also that burgers would be on the house that night.

Okay, that bit about burgers being on the house was a joke. Specifically, it was an anachronism, an incongruity of time. If you laughed at my little joke, you recognized and connected with my humor, which gives me a kind of social status and encourages me to tell more jokes, which I'll do as long as you keep laughing.

But maybe you didn't laugh, because humor and nuttiness are subjective. What we find funny, silly, or merely tedious depends to some extent on our intelligence level and stage of cognitive development.

For instance, a baby laughs when his mother makes a funny face—her incongruous expression momentarily alarms him, and laughter expresses his relief: That face that looked so strange is familiar after all! While a toddler may laugh at a barking cow, a more sophisticated 9-year-old may not. She, adept at observing the rules and order of school, might be more likely to crack up at slapstick, when things are comically out of control.

Learning Through Laughter

Joel Preston Smith, of Portland, OR, plays "silly sentences" with his 8-year-old son, Dylan—and is also building Dylan's vocabulary. "I learned that it's a fun way to teach him to read," says Smith.

So they put together words cut from the newspaper, creating "Imagine Dad was cat color" and "Ginger gets chicken wisdom." Those sentences, as incongruous to Dylan as a mooing dog is to a toddler, reinforce the words he already knows and help him identify those he doesn't.

Humor can also be a helpful distraction. My daughter's third-grade teacher used his pointer as a cane. He'd do a little soft-shoe, then a little long division. Mr. Swansey's students, delighted by his dancing, forgot they didn't like math. Silliness propped open their brains to let the tough stuff in.

When not talking about incongruity, humor theorists talk about superiority. The superiority theory maintains that when we laugh, we set ourselves above what we're laughing at and feel good about ourselves. Think of Harry, the mewling alien nerd on the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun. Harry is one of a long tradition of dorks who exist to show us how not to behave.

When we're being silly with our family, are we, like Harry, showing our kids how not to behave? Sometimes, says Joel Milgram, Ph.D., professor of education and human development at the University of Cincinnati. By demonstrating how not to act, you're actually reinforcing positive, acceptable behavior.

Play Together, Stay Together

When my family acts dorky, or uses the R language, it's as if we have a private code. We're never closer than when we're being ridiculous. That's partly because when we're silly, we're all acting on the same level, all sharing and appreciating the same idea. Also, our nuttiness embodies an enormous incongruity: Mom and Dad acting!

Some families even have private codes that began as jokes and evolved into something, well, funnier—at least to that particular family. A case in point is "ecapowa ewa eat eat dedeet eat de deet." "It's a mealtime chant accompanied by fork tapping," says Fred Newman, a 44-year-old father of two in New York City. "Somebody starts it, and then everybody slowly joins in, and it gets faster and louder and then it's over. Then we just continue the conversation as if nothing ever happened." Nothing except a few moments of closeness and a hearty strengthening of the family bond.

Those moments are why family goofiness is so delicious—peanuts on the sundae of life. Or, rather, reanuts on the rundae of rife.