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 not funny. Puns and wordplay were not funny, although there was present an instinctual feel for the rhythms of language, the effect of a well-timed pause, the impact of a well-chosen phrase. Humor that was too big—flashy, urgent, aggressive—was not funny; but humor that was too small, too whimsical or mellow, was even less funny. In other words, Andy Rooney would have lost a funny contest to Joan Rivers, but the outcome wouldn’t have mattered. (The neurotic, self-revealing humor of Woody Allen would have been considered simply unfathomable and creepy.) The abstract and the fantastical were not funny. I heard hundreds of jokes in my house when I was growing up, and not one of them began, “This gorilla walks into a bar . . . “

That leaves reality, as it was seen by my family. What was funny was the predictable unpredictability of reality, the known capacity of human beings to take the wholly improbable and turn it into fact. What was funny were the ways in which people could be, in my father’s words, “just plain goofy.” Goofiness was determined by stupidity, not ignorance. You could be without knowledge, but if you were without sense, you became a story to be told around the kitchen table.

While there was an edge to the laughter, there was no meanness. The general feeling was, This could be me, maybe, but by God it isn’t, so far. And because the humor was not self-focused, there was little of the performer’s vanity. The premium was never on being funny. The point was to recognize what was funny and to reveal it, layer by layer, until it was there, unbelievable and undeniable, for all to see.

Here is funny: Faye, an acquaintance of my parents, is given to long narrations containing too many detours and too little point. Nevertheless, Faye is thought-provoking, in her fashion. One night she begins one of her verbal rambles by putting a finger to her chin and reflecting, “It was on Thanksgiving . . . I believe it was a Thursday. . . . “

Here is flat-out funny: A man named Dwight, a sort of relative by marriage of my family, is the backseat passenger in a big green automobile. Dwight wants to get rid of his chewing gum. So he decides the best way to get rid of his chewing gum is to throw it out the door. Since the car is a 1951 Lincoln with reverse-mounted back doors—handles toward the front of the car, hinges toward the rear—and since this particular Lincoln is traveling 70 miles an hour, the laws of physics take over. The door blows off. And, since the owner and driver of the car is my father’s brother, this story is even more hilarious to my father and no less funny to my uncle. The additional knowledge that everyone was bound for a visitor’s day at the Indiana State Penitentiary is the crowning perfection.

To those inclined to ask questions—like why Dwight didn’t simply roll down the window, or swallow his gum, or put it behind his ear, or forget the whole thing—this story will already have fallen short on the laugh meter. If you want to get analytical, it was a case of double goofy mixed with a twist of fate. Dwight opened the door of a speeding car (goofy) when other alternatives were available (inexplicably goofy), a car fate had determined to be uniquely ill-designed for double goofiness. But why did Dwight do it? Who knows? Why did God create Lincolns with reverse-mounted back doors? For that matter, why did God create chewing gum?

Scholars and folklorists who have studied Kentucky culture and the storytelling heritage that pervades it describe traditional Kentucky humor as fatalistic, Calvinistic, reflective of the influences of Celtic clannishness and hardscrabble living—essentially tragic. I suppose they’re right, but this seems awfully heavy baggage to hang on that good-time group in my childhood kitchen, people who looked at the truth and could not help laughing. What they saw before they laughed was that life is crazy and sometimes the craziness can have a go at your Lincoln and if it’s going to happen it may as well happen on a ride to the state pen. Now, if you don’t find that funny, there’s always the one about the gorilla who walks into a bar.