Ten people are gathered around the table in a Chicago kitchen. Most of them are Kentuckians who left the farm for the factories during World War II. They brought with them what is called in the country their "ways"—their love of simple food, their attachment to plain music, their conviction that their money, their politics, and their religion are none of anybody's business. Above all, they brought with them their idea of what is funny—not amusing, not witty, but funny.
As their children charge about or sit listening on their parents' laps, the people tell jokes, and huge bursts of collective laughter explode in the small room. When they run out of jokes, they tell stories. The jokes and stories sound very much the same, the only difference being that the jokes are someone's invention, while the stories are real. It is significant that the laughter for the truth is often louder than the laughter for the inventions.
What is happening here is more than an exercise in diversion or self-supplied entertainment. An attempt is being made to accept, if not always to understand, the nature of life. For these people the attempt is, on the whole, successful. This group is my family—my parents, my aunts and uncles—and I am one of the children waiting expectantly for the next roar.
What was so funny in that crowded kitchen? Maybe it's easier to start with what was...