A Family Affair

(October 2016)

There is a story in this writer's extended family, whispered in dark corners by naughty uncles at weddings and christenings; passed down from generation to generation like an urban legend, but still unembellished after years of retelling, such is the raw power of its unadulterated form. It is a cautionary tale about the need to shield one's children from the ups and downs of marriage, the proper performance of ceremonial duties at family functions, and the catastrophic fallout that can result from poor choices relating to either or both of the above.

To cut a long story short, Peter and David (not their real names, or anything remotely like them) were two brothers from either end of a brood of four, and though they were separated by a full ten years in age, they had always enjoyed a particularly close bond. So, when Peter announced his engagement just after his 21st birthday, it was David, now 11 years old, whom he asked to be best man.

So it was that, a few months later, young David took to the podium at Peter's wedding, and to a chorus of 'awwwws' from an audience wrapped up in their brotherly love, delivered the following knockout blow:

  1. I want to congratulate my brother on his marriage. If it's anything like our parents', he can look forward to years of staring blankly at the wall of his study while she cries alone in a room upstairs.

History does not record what Peter said next, though I doubt he topped his opener. It should be noted that David and his wife remain happily married to this day and have children of their own, though none of them have been called upon for public speaking duties. .

The lesson here, in case it's not abundantly clear to all, is that while there may be a certain drole charm to David's disarmingly honest best man's speech - enough to ensure lasting anecdotal appeal - the awful reality of the fallout from such an approach should be enough to strike it from your own shortlist of wedding speech options.

That said, while you should take care to avoid lines that could conceivably be repeated at divorce proceedings further down the line, a family crowd does present a rare opportunity to rib your nearest and dearest. And a little ribbing never hurt anybody… did it?

Whether you're the best man, the father of the bride, or the groom himself, your speech can be used to raise a smile at the expense of family members. Pitch it right and you'll paint a warm, affectionate portrait of a close-knit clan that can laugh at itself. Just remember not to cross the invisible line into cruelty, and that the position of that line shifts depending on the nature of your own relationship with the crowd and your joke's target.

If you're the best man, however close your relationship with the groom may be, you're probably not an actual family member. That means you don't enjoy quite the position of privilege that flesh and blood relatives do. Avoid any jokes or stories that might genuinely embarrass or shame the subject, with the single exception of the groom himself, who you have a license to roast, within the parameters laid down by just about every other article on this site. Be cheeky, by all means, but don't be rude, and if you're at all unsure about a relative's reputation, and how that may colour the reception you get, ask someone in the know before you take the mic.

This joke, for example, could be a sweet way to raise a smile from the groom's po-faced but soft-hearted granny, but if the room knows her for systematically dismantling her children's chosen relationships, you should probably give it a miss:

  1. Everyone here seems so happy to see Paul married off at last… except Paul's Nana. Hi Nana. You know, everyone else was outside earlier hanging old shoes and empty cans off the back of the wedding car… I caught Nana trying to weld a set of dumbbells to the bumper.

As a best man, one way that you can get in on the family act is to turn the joke on yourself. By referencing your own relatives - real or semi-fictional - you can draw universal comparisons that everyone in the audience will be able to laugh at, while using the suggested dysfunction of your own crazy family to paint a rosier portrait of the ones that the bride and groom are joining. Why not celebrate the successful marriages in the room by bemoaning your own kin's track record:

  1. My sisters always cry at weddings, you know… Maybe one of these days, one of their fiances will make it to the altar. They live in hope, ladies and gentlemen… In the meamtime, you can find them on Tinder.

Or maybe:

  1. I wanted to do some research about successful marriages before I wrote my speech, so I went to the two men in my family with the greatest expertise on the subject; my mum's brothers. After all, Derek's had four marriages and Nigel's on his third. That's seven between them, so you'd think they'd have some wisdom to impart. But when I asked, the only advice I got out of them was '"use Cava in the Buck's Fizz, they'll never know".

Or you could try this for size:

  1. Paul and Linda have a wonderful honeymoon lined up. They spent hours choosing it together. My auntie and uncle had terrible trouble agreeing on their honeymoon plans… He wanted to spend a fortnight sipping champagne in a five star resort and making love on golden sands… and she wanted to go with him.

Unlike the best man, the father of the bride is deep inside the family's circle of trust. But that's not to say there aren't still rules. A certain sense of propriety will be expected from the bride' dad, for whom this is traditionally a solemn symbolic occasion. But nuts to that right? This is the 21st century! You're not the starched-shirt-wearing Victorian your own father was, so if you're from a clan that can take it, let rip! Here are three variations on a theme running from traditional family friendly territory to woah, did he really say that? Number three you can cut short wherever your nerve fails:

1.
  1. This isn't actually the first time that I've given someone away at a wedding. I stood up in the middle of my sister's and yelled SHE'S PARKED IN A DISABLED SPOT!

2.
  1. I'll never forget when my Dad gave auntie Doreen away at her wedding. He wasn't the one who walked her down the aisle; it was the other kind of 'gave away'. When the vicar asked if there were any objections, he shouted out SHE MADE STAG FILMS IN THE 70S!

3.
  1. I've never given away my daughter before, as she'll testify. In 25 years I've not told ONE of her boyfriends that she was born with a tail... Only joking… It was a penis... Only joking… it WAS a tail.

Of course, every one of those joke may be well outside your comfort zone - no judgement here - so for those dads who still operate in polite society, pick a target that you know can take the joke, and play upon your own sense of correctness to get a laugh:

  1. So many people have made so much effort for today. Not least my sons, Gareth and Andy, who both made the effort to change out of last week's pants, take a shower and shave! Wonders will never cease.

Alternatively, here's a pair of whimsical gags that can be made to work for any family:

  1. Good health. That's the secret to a healthy marriage, or so my Aunt Jemima always believed. The day after she married my uncle, she gave up smoking, gave up drinking, and vowed to walk at least five miles a day. That was thirty seven years ago… God knows where she's got to by now!

  1. Linda's always been one for tradition and she was quite determined to get married in her Grandmother's dress. Doesn't she look lovely in it? Gran's in the car park, freezing to death… Another twenty minutes and she'll be the "something blue".

For the groom, there's really only one rule to observe when it comes to cracking jokes about family members at your wedding. Save it for blood relations! Get a couple of Christmases, a christening or two ,and maybe an anniversary party under your belt, and you'll have earned the right to roast your new wife's nearest and dearest ruthlessly, should the situation arise. But for now, you're an unknown quantity to many people in the room, and for all the good will that the occasion affords, you can bet your life that somewhere in the room, there'll be a dear old aunt or uncle whose sense of humour comes a poor second to their ability to simmer with resentment for years on end. Don't give them the ammunition. Play it safe this time:

  1. It's a bit of a posh venue this, eh Dad? Listen, I know you've had a bit to drink, but be careful not to put the spoons into someone else's pocket when you leave.

  1. There are guests from far and wide here today, and I must thank you all for making the effort. My brother-in-law John had a particularly arduous journey, for which he deserves the utmost respect… He only came round the corner, but if you'd ever spent five minutes in a car with my sister, you'd understand.

  1. Before I start, I should let you know that I made a bet with my Uncle Harry earlier. He's running a book on how long my speech will go on, but he didn't really think things through. I got 500-1 on a tenner that I'd go for at least an hour. So top up your glasses, and make yourselves comfortable. You're in for a long haul. Oh, and let me know if Harry tries to slip out the back.

  1. I've got a toast or two to make, ladies and gentlemen, so I want to see your glasses like my Grandad's pacemaker; fully charged. Don't drink too much too quickly, though, or you're likely to end up… well… like Grandad's pacemaker again; confused by mobile phones and automatic doors.