My stepson lost his father when he was ten. It’s a long story, and a traumatic one involving suicide. And he’s been coping with it okay, I guess. But the thing is, he makes a joke out of everything, it’s hard to get him to take anything serious.
And the other thing is, I don’t know if I should encourage him to keep acting funny or not. I know he’s hurting inside. I want him to feel like he can talk to me if he needs to, but I can’t get through to him when everything is a big joke.
CONFUSED IN NASHVILLE
I was twelve the first time someone said I was funny. My father had taken his life only a few months before someone told me that.
I’ll never forget the day someone used those words. I was telling one of my all-time best stories to a group of friends—a tale about wetting my pants in the third grade. It’s a real crowd pleaser.
After my story, Lynn—a girl who the seventh-grade boys considered to be hotter than an oven mitt—told me I was “SO funny.” I almost passed out.
Her words stuck with me for a long time. In fact, you could say they’re still with me.
As it happens, my father had been a funny man before he died. He had a horrible childhood. To cope with this, he became a class clown, a prankster, and a joke-teller.
He was lightning with a joke. He memorized thousands. He could tell stories that made people laugh until they dehydrated. He was the life of parties, jovial, giddy, wild, irreverent, and funny.
But he was none of those things in private.
At home, often he was quiet and sad. Sometimes, he would curl into a ball and cry like a ten-year-old.
Once, I found him in the corner of the garage, seated on the floor, cross-legged. He was staring at nothing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He only looked at me. He said no words, he only wore that awful look.
I crawled into his lap.
He finally broke the silence by telling a joke. It was a joke about a priest, the Pope, and a Labrador. It seemed like the wrong time to tell a joke. Still, I forced out a phony laugh for his benefit.
He wore a smile. He said, “I like to hear you laugh.”
He told another joke, about Mister Mushroom, who tries to get into a nightclub.
The mushroom knocks on the door and the bouncer says, “Sorry, no boring mushrooms allowed.”
The mushroom says, “Hey, I’m not boring! Look at me, I’m a fungi!”
I pretended to laugh again.
His jokes kept coming. And even though we were together, my father seemed a million miles away. He could be three different people all at once. Sometimes he was Daddy; other times he was someone I’ve never met.
My laughing eventually got to him. He began to chuckle. Then our laughter was out of control. His face turned so red, it looked like he couldn’t breathe. Tears formed in his eyes. He cried openly. And I’ve never seen a man hurt like he hurt, nor laugh like he laughed.
When he died, it was like someone had cut off our family’s face. That same year, I suppose I learned how to be funny.
I memorized a million jokes. I told funny stories to my friends. And I learned something my father had known long before I came along—laughter makes a sad person forget ugly things for a few minutes.
And to this day, when I hear other people laugh it does something to me. It gives me permission to laugh. And I need to laugh. It’s medicine to me.
Then again, you’re talking to a fool who makes his meager living standing on a stage, telling funny stories, or writing things intended to make people laugh. Some of my stories are funnier than others. Some flat-out suck. A few come to mind.
But I’m lucky. Because I’m not sad anymore, and in my line of work—if you can call it “work”—this means I get to meet people like you.
So I’m sorry I don’t have any advice. I wish I did, but you can probably sense by now that I don’t know much. Even so, if I DID have advice, I would tell you this:
Learn as many good jokes as you can. Tell them often. Then learn a few more.
Make that sweet child laugh until his gut hurts.
He needs it.