SAN DIEGO — The Wednesday night meeting at the Clairemont home of Jim and Donna Pierce had all the trappings of an Alcoholics Anonymous session.
The mood was solemn, even tense. One after the other, the 50 or so people crowded into the living room stood up, gave their first names, and unabashedly admitted their addictions.
It didn't take long, however, before there wasn't a straight face in the house. These people's common dependency, you see, wasn't booze.
It was laughter.
"My name is Mel, and I'm a founding member of this group," said an older man with a neatly trimmed white beard. 'On her 40th birthday, my wife came up to me and said, 'Honey, do I look like I'm 40?' I said, 'No, dear, you don't. But you used to.' "
"My name is Jim, and I've been a member for about four months," said a middle-aged man in a suit. "My favorite story is about the man and his wife who went to a lawyer and told him they wanted a divorce.
"The man was about 90, the woman, about 85. The lawyer asked them how long they had been married, and the man said, 'Sixty-five years.' The lawyer said, 'Why did you wait so long?' The man responded, 'We were just waiting for the children to die.' "
An hour later, the round of joke-telling was over. There had been good ones and bad ones, clean ones and dirty ones, old ones and new ones.
But humor, like all honest emotions, is infectious. No matter how stressful anyone's day had been, the spirit of joviality that is the golden rule at every monthly meeting of Laughmasters had once again turned frowns into smiles.
"Laughter is healthy," said Joe Vecchio, vice president of the 5-year-old club, which encourages members to use and appreciate humor in everyday life.
"Let's face it--everyone likes to be around people who are enjoyable, people who can make them laugh," Vecchio said. "Laughter is a great ice-breaker, a great way to start a conversation or meet someone new.
"And with the world becoming increasingly complex and serious because of such things as the nuclear threat, the huge budget deficit and national debt, and the turmoil in the Middle East, hell, if we can't laugh now, we're sure to get depressed."
The local Laughmasters group is an offshoot of Toastmasters International, a worldwide organization whose members help each other improve their public-speaking skills through workshops and peer evaluations, Vecchio said.
Formed in Santa Ana in 1942, the umbrella group has about 5,000 chapters around the world with a total membership of more than 100,000, he said.
But of the 94 Toastmasters chapters in San Diego, Vecchio added, Laughmasters is the only one in which the primary emphasis is on humor.
"We regularly provide speakers and emcees for public and charitable functions all over town, like high-school speech contests, athletic events, parades and last year's Christmas show at the County Jail," Vecchio said.
"But plain and simple, our most popular activity is to get together on the first Wednesday of every month and just have a few good laughs with each other."
Each Laughmasters meeting starts with the group's 56 members, who pay annual dues of $24, each telling a joke, Vecchio said.
After a short break, he said, a guest speaker takes the podium for an hour to present some sort of comedy workshop, such as a joke-telling contest, a lecture on the art of stand-up comedy, a course on improvisational acting, or a comedy-writing seminar.
One recent Wednesday night, the speaker was A.J. Hauber, who presented a wacky forum called "Jest 4 U: A Workshop in Play and Laughter."
Members engaged in such playful activities as popping balloons to relieve stress, pairing off and telling each other funny childhood anecdotes, and communicating through thought and touch.
"My goal is to get people to use the right side of their brains and become more creative and less serious," Hauber said. "By reverting back to childhood and playing simple games, you get rid of stress and at the same time you learn how to be comfortable among total strangers, just by laughing and having a good time."
Indeed--by the time the Laughmasters meeting was over, the fits of laughter that resounded through the crowded living room could be heard halfway down the block.
Betsy Mill, 48, has been a member of Laughmasters for one year and Toastmasters for six. She sells books for a living. For fun, she periodically runs for public office on the Libertarian ticket.
"In both cases, I spend a lot of time talking with people," Mill said. "I try to use humor whenever I can, since that way everybody will listen to you at least once.
"I recently ran for the state Senate against Bill Craven in the 38th District, which he had pretty much carved out himself. So in one of my speeches, I said senatorial districts are like sausages--you should never watch them being made."
Tom Greeves, 59, joined Laughmasters six months ago at the urging of a friend.
"I find the monthly meetings interesting and enjoyable," he said. "I don't know if they help me in any way; I just like to learn new jokes."