My sons love jokes. Bad jokes, Laffy Taffy™ jokes1, knock-knock jokes, puns; usual young boy stuff. They also love comics, especially Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. The comics, however, are often read to us from the backseat or recited from memory without the [vital] accompanying pictures.

Dad, funny Far Side. Oh no Wilson! [premature laugh] Look what you sat in! [laugh]

I’m starting to understand their fascination with jokes beyond their understanding and humor level. One of my favorite bloggers, ACU psychologist Richard Beck, explains the phenomenon in Joking Matters. He notes jokes function to reinforce stereotypes and boundary markers. They are funny to those who are on the inside and share the worldview of the joke teller.

…most jokes are highly compressed which demands that the listener fill in the background assumptions, values, and beliefs that make the joke work. If the listener cannot fill in this background he doesn’t “get it” and the joke fails to produce spontaneous laughter. Curiously, if you don’t “get” a joke no amount of post-joke explaining, filling in the background you were supposed to produce on your own, makes the joke suddenly funny to you. You can’t explain a joke into being funny. You either get it, or you don’t.

Why do my boys love older jokes? Why do they laugh out loud at what they don’t understand? They want to feel included and bigger, participating in a world of knowledge and experiences they can only guess at as they gaze in wonder at the adults in their lives.

One of the best things of marriage is sharing the little inside things that I find so meaningful. I will find myself looking for examples or parallels that only Kate understands and that I know will make her laugh. I’m attracted to her quotation of an event or moment from our shared experiences. These references bind us together and reinforce our boundary markers.

Jokes mark off a shared space. A space of shared attitudes and experiences. A joke is compressed because it functions as a kind of test. Do you share my view of the world? Are you with me? Are you an insider or an outsider?

Joking is a risky venture when meeting someone for the first time. Will they accept my attempt at humor? I find myself laughing or enjoying a joke or humorous story because I’m drawn to the person telling it. I want to share in their world. Conversely when I find myself scoffing or merely enduring a joke or story, it’s because I want to distance myself from that person.

It seems to me a key to marriage is to want to reinforce those boundaries with your spouse. Purposefully create a shared space only the two of you inhabit. Find things you can joke about and cherish. Enjoy that space; relish it. Consistently pass the test of the joke.

In short, when someone likes our jokes we’ve found a kindred spirit, someone who sees the world like we do. This is the joy of laughter and humor.

But there is a dark side here as well. This very feature of jokes makes them potentially harmful and forms of exclusion.

Marriage and jokes, in the best form, are both community building experiences. When this works, it’s beautiful: couples who visibly delight in the share space and comfort of their spouse are inspiring. When it doesn’t, couples use (ironically insider) jokes to ridicule or demean. You’ve seen it.

Listen and participate in the marriage like you would a [good] joke. Decides to form and inhabit that space. Make the most of it. Do not allow it to be toxic.

And laugh.

  1. Does anyone aspire to be a Laffy Taffy joke writer?