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Laughing Legacy

Actress and activist Marlo Thomas uses humor to keep friends and family close

Life is funny, even — or perhaps especially — when it isn't. Case in point, from the funny files of Marlo Thomas:

"A friend of mine called me the other day and told me his mother had died," says the 72-year-old actress. Thomas asked, "When is the funeral?" Her friend replied seriously, "Well, it can't be for a few days because they're really backed up." And then, Thomas recalls, "We just started to scream laughing."

Dark humor? Maybe. But the friend, Thomas notes, is the son of a comedy writer. And she, of course, is both a daughter of the comedian Danny Thomas and a comic performer in her own right since the days of her popular 1960s sitcom, That Girl. As fellow products of the gag factory, she and her pal shared the same understanding — that life is fundamentally crazy, and a traffic backup at the mortuary is fair game for a joke. "If we didn't grow up in a world of comedy, we might have seen that as tragic. It is tragic. It's terrible and tragic. But it's also so ridiculous that it's funny. And this is in a moment of grief!"

Easing life's woes with laughter has become something of a mission for Thomas lately. It's a theme of her new book, Growing Up Laughing, a memoir punctuated by interviews with comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld and Conan O'Brien. The book serves as both a coming-of-age story and an inquiry into how — and why — funny people got that way.

Sitting in the penthouse apartment, overlooking New York City's Central Park, that she shares with her husband of 30 years, former talk-show host Phil Donahue, Thomas describes her larky Beverly Hills girlhood: Entertainers from comedy's golden age — such as Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Bob Hope — were frequent guests in the Thomas home, and her dad cultivated a decidedly humor-intensive lifestyle. "I grew up with an entire tribe of comedians," she recalls. "Every night at the table, we told jokes. My father used to always say, 'You know a joke? Something funny that happened at work?' His lens was through humor."

The family's penchant for punch lines made for more than just lively dinner hours. It bonded an often-absent father to his three children, added a note of normalcy to what could easily have been a dysfunctional show-business upbringing, and bridged the ideological gulf that formed between the Thomas paterfamilias, a staunch Republican, and his outspoken elder daughter, who has long supported Democratic candidates and causes. Instead of fighting over politics, Thomas says, they joked about it. Today, when she needs a break, she heads to a comedy club. "Even if a comedian's bad, it's fun," she says.

Humor is also front and center in Thomas's new website for women. "It's a place to go to talk, to vent, and to laugh," she says. "Honest to God, I think laughter makes you live longer. Breathe better. Just get over things faster."

The science is still murky on this, though medical researchers have probed the effects of laughter on everything from immune response to brain chemistry. But joking around definitely helped Thomas and her siblings carry on when their father died suddenly in 1991 at age 79. At his funeral the punch lines kept on coming, courtesy of a star-studded roster of comedian-mourners.

And a couple of months later, 95-year-old George Burns greeted Thomas's grieving mother, Rose Marie, with an irreverent come-on: "Hey, Rosie — I hear you're single again." Observers were briefly horrified, but Danny would likely have approved — and his family did, too.

Thomas also recalls asking her father for advice before she delivered the eulogy for That Girl costar Lew Parker, who played her TV father. "My dad said, "Don't make it sad. People want to laugh and remember somebody that they love. They don't want you to make them cry. They're going to cry all by themselves. Tell funny stories.'"

Contributing editor David Dudley wrote about the lost art of conversation in the March – April issue. He is currently working on his one-liners.