Inappropriate laughter

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On Saturday, I went to another performance of the Chekhov play that I discussed a couple of days ago. And this time, I was struck by something that was neither in the play's text nor in the performers' interpretation, but rather in the audience's reaction.

There was someone in the back of the theater with a  loud and infectious laugh,  who didn't laugh at any of the obviously funny lines, but instead laughed — maybe a hundred times — at a selection of lines that is not easy to characterize.  And laughter being the sort of thing it is, a few other audience members would erratically join in, few enough that the individual characteristics of their laughs soon became familiar.

The laugher's interventions mostly seemed to me to be points where a character changed the subject, or said something that was unexpected in the context of the previous discourse, or said or did something awkward or socially uneasy. These are traditional occasions for nervous laughter, though usually not so regular or so loud in a public setting.

But there were other theories.  One person thought that the laugher might have been a friend of a couple of the actors, who reacted whenever one of them entered the on-stage conversation. Another theory was that the laugher was reacting when the actors made certain expressive faces. These are obviously overlapping theories, and many others might be devised as well.

The actors reacted in different ways, which reflected their characters' characters, and (IMO) helped save the performance.  Natasha glared in the laugher's general direction, as if he'd left a dirty fork on her parlor table;  Irina slumped dejectedly, as if this were one more evidence of the stupidity of her provincial surroundings;  Masha seemed to be on the verge of cracking up, and (perhaps because of her attempts to suppress a fit of giggles) developed a brittle, sardonic smirk that suggested how close her character was to cracking in a different sense of the word.

Normal laughter is actually rather weird and hard to explain, but because it's familiar, we don't generally recognize how odd it is. It takes an abnormal laugher, like the one I encountered Saturday night, to bring this point out.

As an empirical sort of person, I wish that I had a recording of that performance to analyze, to see how well my memory accords with the facts. And in fact, a corpus of audience reactions to performances in smallish theaters (this one was an audience of 80-100) might shed some interesting light on the individual and social psychology of laughter.

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  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    Weird for Chekov plays maybe, but I've always noticed that there seems to be a lot of inappropriate laughter in Shakespeare performances — maybe because people know that Shakespeare used a lot of humor, but a lot of the jokes don't really work anymore, so people may assume any odd line that they don't understand must be a joke.

  2. Jens-Willem Diercks said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    @Jonathan: This may well be.

    But I guess, another factor may play a role here. What about the Chekov- (or Shakespeare-) buff who laughs at obscure things because he "knows" they are supposed to be funny thus making his status as an expert audible to the people around him?

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    I've noticed this too. I may be a miserable toad, but one of the things I intensely dislike about theatre is how easily audiences laugh at virtually nothing.

    MRS X ENTERS, KNOCKS ON DOORPOST
    MRS X: Hello, anyone at home. Audience laughs
    MR Y: Ah, there you are.
    MRS X: I thought I might be useful.
    MR Y: (EMPHATICALLY) That you could. Audience laughs

    I haven't read much around the subject, but there does seem to have been a deal written – for instance, in Susan Bennett's Theatre audiences: a theory of production and reception – about the psychology of theatre laughter: how it isn't entirely driven by normal cues for things being funny but by things like changes of expectation, arrivals and departures of characters on stage, and mildy wry phrasing/behaviour that wouldn't make people laugh otuside the theatre dynamic.

  4. Richard Bell said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    "The laugher's interventions mostly seemed to me to be points where a character changed the subject, or said something that was unexpected in the context of the previous discourse, or said or did something awkward or socially uneasy"
    Is it possible this laugher was the one person who best understood and reacted to Chekhov's special comic gift? What you have suggested is, in fact, a pretty good description of Chekhovian comedy. His characters don't really listen to each other. Someone once said there is no dialogue in Chekhov; only interrupted monologues. They change the subject because they don't know what the subject is; they have not been listening.

  5. Jeffrey Gordon said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    My wife and I went to see MacGruber last week and had an identical experience. A man near the front was laughing raucously at inappropriate times. As with your laugher, there seemed to be a pattern to his reactions, but it never became predictable.

    It was a different crowd though – mostly San Leandro teenagers, so they started yelling at him to shut up. He ignored them and kept laughing. This went on for the whole movie.

    When we left, we walked by him and the floor around him was covered in popcorn.

    He was mentally ill I think.

  6. Confused said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    But there were other theories. One person thought that the laugher might have been a friend of a couple of the actors, who reacted whenever one of them entered the on-stage conversation.

    As an addendum to this idea, I was once in a student production of Much Ado About Nothing which had an odd effect on how I enjoyed seeing a professional company perform it. Specifically, there were a few lines that were comically botched during rehearsals that became running gags between us; and when they came up in the show I was hard pressed not to giggle, even though they came at distinctly un-funny parts of the plot.

  7. Jens-Willem Diercks said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    Three things I need to add to my previous post …

    1. I know, we're not discussing Star Trek but Russian Drama. Where's that edit-button when you need it?

    2. I know, drama buffs can be female too. I should have used a gender-neutral plural.

    3. And this happens to me all the time when I'm teaching Shakespeare in the (German) classroom – we've read, say, Hamlet and then watch one of the versions on film. Of course, I chuckle at all the jokes and puns but many students just don't get the language – except those who actually made the effort to get their heads around the text.

  8. Amy Stoller said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    Interesting theories, all. Some ring truer to me than others (which doesn't make the others any less true, of course),

    Richard Bell makes an excellent point regarding Chekhov, and Jens-Willem Diercks' point 3 resonates with me as well. Audience dynamics are an interesting thing. It's well known (at least among theatre practictioners) that a full house will generate more laughter at a comedy than will a sparse one.

    This next story does not illustrate that particular point, but it's tangentially relevant. Some years back, I attended the Broadway production of The History Boys, and found I was the only one in the audience laughing at many of the jokes. Normally I'd have been intimidated into silence, but I felt the actors deserved to know that someone appreciated their excellent delivery of many fine lines, so I made the effort to get over the group dynamic and be myself. There was, in fact, much general laughter at much of the play, and the show was successful here, but there was apparently a lot that passed over most of the audience's heads, for whatever reason – British English vocabulary, remarks and quotations in French and Latin, references to aspects of the English education system, and so forth.

    "One person thought that the laugher might have been a friend of a couple of the actors, who reacted whenever one of them entered the on-stage conversation." A highly plausible theory, and one I have encountered often, especially at invited dress rehearsals.

    "Susan Bennett's Theatre audiences: a theory of production and reception – about the psychology of theatre laughter: how it isn't entirely driven by normal cues for things being funny but by things like changes of expectation, arrivals and departures of characters on stage, and mildy wry phrasing/behaviour that wouldn't make people laugh otuside the theatre dynamic." Interesting. I would have thought changes of expectation, like other incongruities, would be a perfectly normal cue for things being funny, as would wry phrasing. But what do I know? I was the annoying fool laughing at the Latin tags in The History Boys.

  9. Steve F said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    This raises all sorts of questions about just how funny Chekhov's plays are supposed to be. When they were first produced in English, they were generally seen as extremely gloomy (you'll recall Ira Gershwin's lines about 'More clouds of grey/Than any Russian play/Could guarantee') and the fact that The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull were described as 'Comedies' on their title pages was often regarded as inexplicable, (though, admittedly, Three Sisters is described as a 'drama' and Uncle Vanya as 'Scenes from Country Life'). More recently, they are usually produced in a style that allows for considerable laughter, though seldom unmixed with considerable sadness too. One of the difficulties for Anglophone actors trying to find the right style is the fact that Russians – at least in Chekhov – tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves much more than we do. The stage directions for Three Sisters are littered with instructions like 'weeping' and 'speaking through tears' (whatever that means precisely – is it literal or metaphorical?) and I suspect that Anglo-Saxon actors and audiences would be embarrassed if these instructions were followed to the letter. I once went to see a production of Gorki's 'Summerfolk' – not by Chekhov, of course, but very Chekhovian – with a Russian friend. I thought it was a very good production, but she was extremely critical – it was not nearly 'emotional' enough for her. Not that being 'emotional' in her terms would have forbidden laughter, but there are complicated national and cultural norms that are much harder to translate than the mere words.

  10. John Cowan said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    My wife and I went to see Mademoiselle Chambon yesterday; we don't understand French, so what follows is dependent on the subtitles. Very early in the movie, there is a scene of a young boy of 8 or 9 trying to do his homework with his parents. His problem is to find the direct object in the sentence (approximately:) "The maintenance department prepared a report under the supervision of the director". It's obvious that the boy has no clue what a direct object is, and neither do his parents.

    The boy remembers that his teacher told him that the direct object answers "What?" or "Whom?", and his mother comes up with the theory that "prepared a report" is the right answer (after all, it answers "What?", doesn't it?), but the father isn't so sure. He looks up "direct object" in the book, is directed to "transitive", which has a definition something like "Verbs are divided into two classes, transitive and intransitive. Transitive verbs always have a direct object, intransitive verbs never do." Finally, with the help of a simpler example, the father and the boy pin down the correct answer to the original problem.

    Meanwhile, the two of us (and the few other grammar-minded people in the audience, admittedly more as time went on) are in stitches at this ferocious parody of bad teaching (unnecessarily technical terminology, circular definitions, semantic explanations for syntax), while the others in the audience (who probably don't know what a direct object is either) make like owls while waiting for the real movie to begin.

  11. Chas Belov said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    I sometimes find my laughing out of sync with the rest of the audience, although usually here and there, not for the entire play. Sometimes I find a line funny. I also tend to laugh in surprise, even if what just happened on stage is, for me, not funny. Sometimes it is in fact something obscure that I am laughing at. Or something that makes me nervous. Once in a while it turns out from the following context that I have misheard a line. Bottom line: laughter for me is not reserved solely for funny things.

    I have found myself to be an early laugher (my browser insists that is a spelling error) in a spare audience. I once was one in an audience of three for a performance of Sam Shepard's True West, but the performance was fine and I had an uproarious time. Recently, I was in a half-full audience for his Curse of the Starving Class, a very strange play, and I wasn't going to let the rest of the audience question if it were a comedy or not; I laughed and eventually they did, too.

    If you want to see a mismatch in audience reaction, there are plays like Martin McDonaugh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I think any transgressive play such as these is going to have great contrasts in reaction between different audience members (although in these particular plays it might well be the difference between uproarious laughter and shocked silence). I'll note that my reaction to this play was uproarious laughter, often as tension release.

    I've also been grateful for early laughers. I had the misfortune of a staged reading for my play Hemlock taking place on the day of an unseasonal downpour, resulting in an audience of 8 (eventually 12). And, as playwright, I felt obligated to not laugh myself, as I was there to listen to audience reaction. I was blessed by actors putting in a fine performance without regard to the turnout, and within a few minutes the early laugher started, and within a few minutes the rest of the audience was joining in. But with so sparse an an audience, I was very aware that different audience members were laughing at different lines. On some of those lines I expected laughs; on others I didn't. So I got a pretty clear picture of different people having different things trigger laughter for them.

    I think it's totally normal for individual audience members to have different laugh patterns. Our life experiences are different and our laugh triggers are different. I'll acknowledge that it can be annoying if the person with the different laugh triggers is particularly loud, something I am occasionally guilty of, but it's a fact of life that we go to the theatre to share an experience, not to be automatons (not that I think you were suggesting we should be).

  12. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    I've also noticed laughter at what seem to me inappropriate moments, not only in theaters but in my living room, with friends watching videos. I have the impression it's often evoked by expressions of strong feeling in not-quite-familiar language–not just Elizabethan blank verse but Bette Davis' lines in "The Letter," or subtitled dialog in films whose original language none of us know, so we can't mentally check the translation against the soundtrack. I can't tell if this is embarrassment at "not knowing where to look," i.e. that the feelings the actors are expressing are too intimate or too raw, or a sense of ridiculousness that the audience asked to take a corny scene with a straight face. Some of both, I think, and I even suspect these two responses are pretty closely linked, but this is pure speculation.

  13. Chas Belov said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

    Oops, the third paragraph should read:

    If you want to see a mismatch in audience reaction, there are plays like Martin McDonaugh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I think any transgressive play such as this is going to have great contrasts in reaction between different audience members (although in this particular play it might well be the difference between uproarious laughter and shocked silence). I'll note that my reaction to this play was uproarious laughter, often as tension release.

    Murphy's law of edits strikes again.

  14. Clare K. R. Miller said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    I am reminded of the time my family (parents and younger sister) and I went to see the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Happening. My sister and I found it quite scary, even from the beginning, but we were probably baffling the rest of the audience with our constant giggling during an early scene. See, it was filmed at our high school, and we kept thinking about the teachers who actually used the classrooms shown…

  15. SilenceIsGolden said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    Maybe it would all help a lot and be less cause for confusion and discussion if those laughers that seem "out of sync" with the general audience would be so kind as to laugh just a tad softer.

    Especially the male variety tends to guffaw annoyingly loud (I know, guys, everything you do and say is extremely important and should be heard by everybody!).

  16. language hat said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    One of the difficulties for Anglophone actors trying to find the right style is the fact that Russians – at least in Chekhov – tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves much more than we do. The stage directions for Three Sisters are littered with instructions like 'weeping' and 'speaking through tears' (whatever that means precisely – is it literal or metaphorical?) and I suspect that Anglo-Saxon actors and audiences would be embarrassed if these instructions were followed to the letter. I once went to see a production of Gorki's 'Summerfolk' – not by Chekhov, of course, but very Chekhovian – with a Russian friend. I thought it was a very good production, but she was extremely critical – it was not nearly 'emotional' enough for her.

    No, it's not just in Chekhov, they really do. Russians find the movie of Doctor Zhivago hilarious because in the parting scenes people stand around stiffly and make conversation instead of throwing themselves on each other, kissing and crying and generally demonstrating how awful it is that they're going to be parted. Of course, going from either tradition to the other takes getting used to.

    As for unshared laughter, when Blazing Saddles came out, I happened to be in Batavia, New York, my girlfriend's home town, and her family and I were the only ones in the theater laughing at that hilarious movie. I think they may have been the only Jewish family in town; certainly we were the only ones in the theater who understood any Yiddish.

  17. mad said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

    I remember going to see a movie with a friend a few years ago. On a lark, I suggested we watch Inland Empire.

    I would characterize my friend as a completely normal person, who had immigrated from Ghana, and never heard of David Lynch but was open minded. I, on the other hand, was familiar with Lynch's past work, but had absent-mindedly not considered it during the decision process.

    Within a minute of the start of the film, the full realization and horror of what I was about to subject my friend to began to dawn on me. While my friend and the rest of the audience were earnestly watching the movie, I burst into laughter at the absurdity of the movie and situation.

    I stifled it, but that only made it worse. I found each bizarre scene intensely funny, because nobody else did. Their sincerity was palpable but I knew I had to remain quiet. Worst of all, I knew that I knew. I literally held my mouth to keep from making noise. A form of respite came only when my mind and body became too exhausted to laugh anymore.

    I stayed in my seat and in that state for the entire three hours.

    Afterwards, my friend bravely attempted to make sense of the film and I begged for mercy.

  18. sam said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

    my friends and i would sometimes actively react to lines/situations in a play with the opposite of the "proper" reaction. we liked seeing the dinosaurs crane their necks in disgust.

  19. George Amis said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

    I'm afraid I may have been guilty of "inappropriate laughter" at a production of Three Sisters years ago. Of course, I didn't think it was inappropriate at all. I thought, and still think, that the play is often very funny, sometimes in a rather cruel way. (The comments of Richard Bell and Steve F seems to me to be particularly illuminating.)

    A rather odder time occurred when I was attending a conference at the University of Michigan. A small group of us, including an elderly nun, decided to see a film, probably by Buñuel, which was loaded with anticlerical jokes. The nun and I were the only ones in the audience laughing, either because the others didn't get the jokes, or because they were too polite to find them funny.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 12:18 am

    @Jens-Willem Diercks:

    But I guess, another factor may play a role here. What about the Chekhov- (or Shakespeare-) buff who laughs at obscure things because he "knows" they are supposed to be funny thus making his status as an expert audible to the people around him?

    (Typo corrected, but changing "he" to "they" turned out to involve too much work.)

    This reminds me of something that may have been less deliberate showing off. When I was in college, a professor translated the artist Bernini's only surviving play, a comedy called The Impresario, and a student group gave it its first modern performance (or just the first in English?). The run was timed to coincide with a conference on Bernini, and the participants in the conference went to one of the performances. One actor in the play was a friend of mine, and he told me that that night they got laughs at points they had never dreamed were funny.

  21. Rubrick said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 3:09 am

    Ha ha!

  22. tired of blogs said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 3:43 am

    I've attended a couple dress rehearsals of two different local and one national theater groups lately, so there have been lots of other theater folks in the audience, and I've noticed that they emote from the audience like they're making a point of it (and they probably are). But then they laugh at the expected moments as well as the unexpected moments.

  23. John said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 3:45 am

    "What about the Chekhov- (or Shakespeare-) buff who laughs at obscure things because he "knows" they are supposed to be funny thus making his status as an expert audible to the people around him?"

    To be more charitable; maybe being familiar with the context, the language, and the play itself, said buff actually finds the jokes funny? Shakespeare is full of jokes that go over my head, but I don't presume that someone who's laughing at them is enjoying themselves on a less sincere level than I am.

  24. Bruce M said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 4:00 am

    Over the years I've heard plenty of inappropriate laughter in films, but have also been one of the few laughing during a Bunuel film. I can also recall one instance when a drama was so bad that the entire audience began to respond as though they were watching a comedy.

    In the mid '80s I was watching a screening of Liliana Cavani's 'The Berlin Affair'. It's a story of a love triangle involving a Nazi official, his wife, and the daughter of the Japanese ambassador. During yet another overly melodramatic scene somebody in the audience started laughing, and then the rest of us cracked. For the remaining third of the film it was as though we were all watching a very sophisticated spoof. Lots of laughter and even a bit of heckling. It was a very strange experience.

  25. outeast said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 4:08 am

    @ LanguageHat

    It seems to me that what is accepted as 'realistic' emotion in film, TV, theatre is far more a matter of both period and national taste than we generally realize (we notice the 'hamminess' of old productions, say, but I think without recognizing the equal hamminess of performances in the current mode).
    I have long detested much Czech acting – on stage especially, but also on screen – as ridiculously hammy and false; but it came as some surprise to discover that my Czech wife has much the same response to British TV acting. People rarely act in the ways that we accept on stage and screen as 'realistic' (just as scripted speech rarely reflects real-life disfluency), but we learn to accept certain conventions as realistic anyway, just as we accept highly fluent error-free speech as sounding natural even though it is anything but.
    I would assume that the Russian conventions you describe are analogous… and my guess would be that this has less to do with how Russians really express emotion than with what they have learned to accept as realistic on stage and screen.

  26. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 6:27 am

    As suggested above, Chekhov is a goldmine for inappropriate or unexpected laughter. Every time I see a new production, I laugh at different moments, either because it's been directed/acted differently, or because I have a different understanding of the text than before.Uncle Vanya's a case in point – it's ostensibly the most straightforward of his plays, but I've seen it performed in countless different ways, with different characters bringing most of the humour in each one.

  27. Stan said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 6:49 am

    Slightly off point, but Language Hat's mention of Blazing Saddles reminds me: Apparently the campfire scene was redubbed for release in one country so that every fart noise was replaced by the inoffensive sound of a horse neighing or whinnying. Mel Brooks said he found it hilarious, and wished he had thought of it.

  28. Nick Lamb said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 7:18 am

    For a scripted or episodic performance it seems that there's an important unknown — How familiar is the individual audience member with the material, and with this variation in particular? Take the long running radio "panel game" I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. The general formula of the jokes is well established, and it has a loyal audience, so the (live) recordings will have laughter from people who know the formula and are thus a step ahead of what's actually been said. They're not laughing at what you're hearing, they're laughing at what they've guessed will be said next.

  29. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 8:11 am

    "They're not laughing at what you're hearing, they're laughing at what they've guessed will be said next."

    For instance, laughing as soon as Jeremy Hardy is asked to do One Song To The Tune Of Another.

  30. Ray Girvan said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 8:23 am

    thus a step ahead of what's actually been said

    Just as with Harry Hill, whose TV Burp has a regular format at the programme break of a surreal fight between people dressed as two contrasting entities (e.g. "Hmmm, I like the Great Pyramid, and I like Stonehenge. But which is better? There's only one way to find out… FIGHT!"). You start laughing the moment, as the break approaches, you see him speaking approvingly of some object/creature. which is usually the first glimmer of the feed to the fight scenario.

  31. language hat said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    my guess would be that this has less to do with how Russians really express emotion than with what they have learned to accept as realistic on stage and screen.

    Your discussion of national taste in acting conventions is apposite and well said, but I assure you that Russians really do express emotions far more openly and extravagantly than most Americans (let alone English).

  32. parclair said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    I often laugh at odd moments. I remember going to see "love story" with my (future) partner, and laughing to the point of tears at the total awfulness of the story.

    I often laugh at shakespeare's jokes; I find them wry, delightful, punny and slapstick. Once, I made a fellow play-goer laugh during King Lear, because I kept saying (unknowingly, and alas, too loudly) "Those women are snakes". It was a wonderful production.

    Once, during a viewing of the French version of "the man who loved women" I noticed that the laughter in the audience was all male– women just didn't get the jokes.

    We all come from different perspectives and cultures, and humor is different for each of us. I love going to movies for children, just to hear them laugh and giggle. It reminds me to open my mind to the great and various humor of the world.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    Nick Lamb: "They're not laughing at what you're hearing, they're laughing at what they've guessed will be said next."

    The reverse of that is, sometimes when a presenter shows a whole slide (real or software) that includes a joke near the end, the audience doesn't laugh till the presenter reads the joke out loud. I find that really strange.

  34. Jens-Willem Diercks said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    @John:

    "To be more charitable; maybe being familiar with the context, the language, and the play itself, said buff actually finds the jokes funny? Shakespeare is full of jokes that go over my head, but I don't presume that someone who's laughing at them is enjoying themselves on a less sincere level than I am."

    I do not have any doubts about the sincerity of said buff's enjoyment … it's just that some buffs (not all) want to make sure everybody else is getting "them" getting "it".

    I find myself guilty as charged in this respect because me enjoying myself during a Shakespeare play or film-adaptation is a more or less subconscious signal for the students that they could enjoy themselves just like me – if only they had read and understood the text.

  35. Steve F said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    Thanks to Language Hat for confirming my impressions about Russian expression of emotion – I had restricted it to Chekhov for fear of reinforcing national stereotypes, but I defer to his greater knowledge.

    And I certainly agree with Richard Bell's comment about 'interrupted monologues' in Chekhov's plays, and the laughter that the characters' self-preoccupation can provoke.

    More broadly on laughter and audiences – I don't know of any psychological research, but any actor can confirm anecdotally that every audience will laugh at different things, and that sometimes laughs will come in the most unpredictable places. A lot of this has to do with timing – often an audience will not laugh at the line which is actually funny because they are following the dialogue too closely and the laugh will be postponed until there is a slight pause, at which point the laugh will erupt even though the immediately preceding line is not funny at all. Then there is the simple fact that different people laugh in different ways – some of us laugh silently or just grin, and if you're in an audience of silent laughers you may well be intimidated into laughing silently yourself. Inexperienced actors often misinterpret this and wrongly estimate the audience's enjoyment solely by how much noise they make.

    But there are so many different factors – the size of the audience, whether they have had a drink recently (audiences frequently warm up after the interval), how relaxed they feel (the slightest fluff can induce anxiety in the audience which will kill the next laugh) and many more. If the audience feels the actor is asking for laughs they will often refuse to oblige, but equally they may need to feel that the actor has given them permission to laugh before they will respond. The subtleties of playing that this involves defy analysis, but any experienced actor will know what I mean.

    As for the role of expectation, anyone who has appeared in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest will have experienced the odd phenomenon of the laugh that comes before the line – Lady Bracknells in particular will often pause and give a look before the 'handbag' line and get the laugh first – and if they're really good, afterwards as well.

    My own oddest experience was directing the British premiere of an Australian play which – though, now I think about it, was very Chekhovian in the self-absorbtion of its characters – seemed to be a rather tragic story of marital break-up, mental illness and suicide. None of the experienced cast, nor myself, found anything remotely amusing about it in rehearsal, and yet on the first night, and subsequently, audiences responded with gales of laughter. It didn't seem to matter – people found it moving and serious as well – but I believe our attention to what was serious and moving, and the sincerity with which the cast played the tragic emotions, was actually what gave the audience the confidence to also find it funny.

  36. Mary Kuhner said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    A director giving an after-play talk at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival pointed out one line from the play–I believe it was _Moliere Plays Paris_, a play about rather than by Moliere. At one point, the actor playing Moliere says "I have a dream that–" and goes on to say something about his aspirations for his company.

    The acting company thought that this was just an ordinary line, a bit of connective tissue. They continued to think so until a few weeks in, when they had an audience burst out laughing, and realized (or decided?) that it's a joke riffing off Martin Luther King's famous speech. Subsequently they pitched it as a joke, and audiences consistently laughed. Did the playwright think it was a joke? They didn't know.

  37. Bob Lieblich said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    Many years ago, Wife and I and our two early-adolescent children saw a performance of "Hannah and Her Sisters" in a theater at the very center of Waspville, NJ. Woody's character is suffering an existential crisis (for a change), and he seeks consolation in various religions. On the way home from a meeting with a Catholic priest he stops off at a grocery and emerges with a paper bag. At home he opens the bag, and out come a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of mayonnaise. The entire audience stared at us in amazement as our laughter resounded through an otherwise silent theater.

  38. Marcus Schwartz said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    What about the Chekov- (or Shakespeare-) buff who laughs at obscure things because he "knows" they are supposed to be funny thus making his status as an expert audible to the people around him?

    My 7th-8th grade school had a peculiar start to every year: The class would study 3 Shakespeare plays for the first several weeks of the school year, and then go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to see them performed. No math, no science, no anything else, just Shakespeare, all day, every day, until we got back from Oregon.

    The headmaster, who had developed this curriculum, had a reputation for being the only one in the (large, mostly adult) audiences at OSF to laugh at many points throughout the plays, sometimes with forced-sounding laughs. Being 7th-8th grade students, we quickly developed a rumor that somebody had looked into his copies of the plays, and found penciled-in notes about which lines to laugh after. The point of the rumor, I suppose, was that he was just trying to broadcast his superior understanding of the plays' jokes to everyone within earshot, and that his understanding was not actually superior (because the rest of what we assumed to be a well-informed audience didn't laugh).

    Presumably, the rumor itself was false (nobody would actually take such posturing so seriously as to script their own laughs), but one has to wonder just how funny a nearly-identical retelling of a joke that was not only heard before, but was studied in-depth, could be. That is, if understanding a joke requires prior exposure to the joke, how can it still be funny enough at the time it's redelivered to make one laugh out loud? If I were studying a joke in that way, I would only laugh out loud when I first "got it", presumably at some point during the prior exposure/study; subsequent retellings of the joke would be less and less funny.

    Was Shakespeare's humor really so superior that, unlike all humor since, it can survive meticulous analysis and still be laugh-out-loud funny whenever the analyst hears it? I doubt it; it's more likely that people sometimes try to express their academic status through forced laughter.

    I find myself guilty as charged in this respect because me enjoying myself during a Shakespeare play or film-adaptation is a more or less subconscious signal for the students that they could enjoy themselves just like me – if only they had read and understood the text.

    I don't follow the logic here. Are you trying to convince them that it's worth their time and effort to study the plays because then they'll be able to get those laughs? I'm sure they could get a much better laughs/effort ratio by trolling through Youtube videos or the like, and I'm sure that they're aware of this (if only subconsciously). Besides, if your laughter is even a little bit for their benefit, I suspect they pick up on it; students can be stunningly perceptive about those sorts of things.

    BTW, I just re-read this comment, and it looks like it could be read as an attack on Jens-Willem Diercks, because of the placement of the block quotes ("people sometimes…guilty as charged" in particular). Please understand that it isn't; the quotes are where they are because they're relevant, not as a way of implying that their author is guilty of what I described.

  39. George Amis said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

    Re: Laughing at Shakespeare

    There's a different way the laughter can be at least encouraged.

    I used to act as text coach for Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Almost all of the actors were professional, or semi-professional. The summer I worked on As You Like It, I made a special point of making sure that the actors knew where the jokes were, and what they meant. As a result, they played the jokes in ways that often don't happen, at least in American productions (in particular, they made it clear that the apparently impenetrable lines were funny). A distinguished senior Shakespearean remarked to the artistic director that the actors were "acting jokes most scholars don't get." I was, of course, much gratified.

    My impression is that a considerably higher proportion of the audience laughed at the funny parts than is usual, but many in the Shakespeare Santa Cruz audience seem to have seen going to Shakespeare as a solemn duty rather than as entertainment, and certainly not something to be taken lightly and frivolously. They also seem to have expected to find large swathes of the plays incomprehensible and were quite content with that, rather like worshipers at a service conducted in an alien language, like Latin or Old Church Slavonic.

  40. nonpoptheorist said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    At a performance of Samuel Beckett's:Krupp's Last Tape, first we had a bloke get the case of the giggles and eventually excuse himself loudly and leave the theatre. Then near the end we had a woman call from the furthest point from the exit, of which I initially took to be part of the show, but repeated calls led to calling an ambulance for an oldish guy overcome by heat. The audience roared its approval at the end of the show, not so much for the writing, the direction or stagehands, but for the single actor being able to put up with all those interruptions!

    Prior to this, in the same small theatre watching Waiting for Godot, I noticed that the literary experience of the audience wasn't up to speed with the script. The actors were emphasising certain jokes, but they were leaving other, to me, more meaningful ones unstressed. I commented to my parents about this and they said when they went to watch the play as a young married couple, they only understood half the play, and that going back a generation my grandparents had also gone and came back utterly bewildered, saying they understood so very little. Different education levels, different cultural periods? I guess they have an influence on how a play is directed and how the audience takes it. We cannot expect everyone to be well read, experienced in the environment or compos mentis. Laugh if you dare!

  41. Joyce Melton said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 4:43 am

    During a run of Thurber's "The Male Animal" in local theater, we noticed at one performance that all the laughs were one or two lines late. The director went out into the audience to find out what was going on. The Phillipine-American club was in attendance and half of the audience was translating for the other half.

    At another performance of that same play, a scheduling screw-up allowed the entire audience of Kiwanis to get plastered waiting for the show to start. They laughed at everything, to the point of actually rolling in the aisles, something I don't think any of us performers had ever actually seen.

  42. Jason B. said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    This post seems to presuppose that whatever the person with the infectious laugh was laughing at could not be perceived as funny by a rational person. I understand it is likely that the cause for laughter was not intended to be humorous (or that many people would find it funny). But some people just have off-beat senses of humor. It would be helpful to know what exactly this person was laughing at or to ask them personally. This is probably outside the scope of the article though. :) As someone who sometimes finds himself laughing when others are not and unamused when others are in stitches, I feel a need to defend what could be justifiable laughter.

    [(myl) On the contrary. In the body of the post, I observed that

    The laugher's interventions mostly seemed to me to be points where a character changed the subject, or said something that was unexpected in the context of the previous discourse, or said or did something awkward or socially uneasy. These are traditional occasions for nervous laughter, though usually not so regular or so loud in a public setting.

    The observation was not that this very distinctive laugher was irrational, but that he was alone. In a small-group context, this would probably not have been true, or at least it would not have mattered. According to Robert Provine, "Laughter, Tickling, and the Evolution of Speech and Self", Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(6):215-218, 2004:

    In the spirit of Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees in the forest, three undergraduate students and I examined the social context of laughter by surreptitiously observing 1,200 instance of spontaneous laughter of humans in their natural settings, ranging from suburban shopping malls to a university student union. [...] These simple methods provided surprising results. Whereas we often think of laughter as an audience reaction to a humorous comment by a speaker, the scenario of stand-up comedy, the speakers in this study laughed an average of 46% more than their audience, and only 10 to 15% of the prelaugh comments were remotely humorous. [...] Most prelaugh dialogue is like that of an interminable television situation comedy scripted by an extremely ungifted writer.

    The problem, perhaps, is that our inappropriate laugher was operating according to the norms of small-group interaction rather than the norms for reactions in a hundred-person audience. (And in any case, it seem wrong to apply the term "irrational" to laughter.)]

  43. TB said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    It is peculiarly uncomfortable when the rest of the audience responds in a different way than you, laughter-wise. When I went to see a Harry Potter film in Tokyo, it was obvious that the subtitlers had failed to capture the humor, because I laughed all alone, though the theater was completely full. Physical humor worked just fine. On the other hand, films shown at the college near my house in New England are invariably treated as comedies by the student audience. It was just as uncomfortable to be surrounded by laughter during the last scenes of Let the Right One In.

  44. LP said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    Someone mentioned laughing inappropriately at seeing scenes in a movie filmed in a familiar place. I had a very similar experience in a theatre here.

    The 1994 version of "Little Women" was filmed here, in Victoria, BC. There is a scene where Jo arrives in New York, and her voiceover says something about the Big City. A line that should be positive, and expectant, but not funny.

    At this line, the entire theatre erupted into laughter. Downtown Victoria (especially the parts of downtown used in the film – easily recognisable to us) doesn't really fit anyone's idea of 'Big City.' The incongruity of the line and visuals of Humbolt street was hilarious.

  45. Clare said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    Alas another anecdote:

    One of the best films I ever saw was a German documentary/Cinéma Vérité effort called "Freak Show 3000", a kind of reality show based on the Pop Idol spin-offs based in a home for mentally disabled people. The content was so sensitive, so outrageously controversial/beyond the pale the humour so black, that throughout this film *everyone* in the cinema was laughing at different points. (I should add that the there was a genuine element of sensitivity and compassion in the film as well. But whether it was sufficient, and where the laughing with/laughing at line was drawn — that was a matter of judgement.) The parts that I (and others) thought were side-splittingly funny left others in silence. And others were laughing — laughing!!! — were I was stone-faced, tearful or frankly appalled. They were laughing at the disabled! But my laughter had surely the same effect on them. Our laughter wasn't just inappropriate to each other, it was downright offensive. And it was firing in all directions for two hours.

    It really brought out the very different values film-goers have with respect to the disabled and humour, and it was heard in the constant ripple of diverse, stereophonic laughter throughout the entire film — quite the opposite of manipulative Hollywood flicks where the laughter in the cinema almost sounds canned. One of the more memorable cinematic experiences I've had.

  46. LHC said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    I saw the movie Midnight Run in Hong Kong in 1988 or 1989 with a cute Swedish girl I had met on the train. She had lived in the States for a number of years, and had a good handle on American idioms and usage.
    There is that great scene in which Charles Grodin and Robert Dinero are driving along the highway, and Charles Grodin's character starts singing 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. My date and I were the only people in the theater who laughed, but I more than made up for the silence of the Chinese by laughing extra hard.

  47. Aaron Davies said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: i've always been puzzled/amused by the same thing with regards to subtitled media. whenever i'm watching subtitled anime with a group, very few of whom generally have any grasp of japanese beyond the trivial "i've watched a lot of anime" sort, most people react to most of the laugh lines only after their delivery is complete, despite the fact that their translation, whence the audience actually derived their comedic meaning, has been on screen for multiple seconds, i.e. far longer than they could take to read.

  48. John D said,

    June 2, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

    I am among that crowd that laughs at obscure (i.e. dirty) lines in Shakespeare. I don't spend my hours thinking of the various dirty lines in Shakespeare, so when I encounter one in a staging of a play, I laugh because I get it.

    I haven't seen the Chekov play in question (though it is unidentified, I don't think it matches the one Chekov play I have seen).

    It brings to mind a performance I attended of Ibsen's The Father, which has exactly one joke in the entire play. At the end of the second act, the protagonist grabs a gun and attempts to commit suicide. The gun clicks and does nothing. He throws it aside and growls at the maid: "You took the bullets."

    "We did tidy up a bit sir." The whole audience laughed.

    I also remember being the only one who laughed in an audience. I went to see Spaceballs with some friends and sat in aghast silence at this awful movie (oddly enough, Rotten Tomatoes tells me the critics like it). Everybody else laughed at Mel Brook's creaky, misfired jokes. Then, near the end, there's a exterior shot of the ship with a voiceover:

    "Lt. Kafka, initiate metamorphosis sequence."

    Well, I thought it was funny.

  49. Amy Stoller said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    I saw a Russian production (surtitled) of Three Sisters at the Brooklyn Academy of Music some years back, and it was most definitely full of wildly explicit expression of emotion. It was very funny, and none the less moving for that.

    The first play I ever coached was Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. I attended one performance where everybody on one side of the aisle was laughing at the political satire, and everyone on the other side was engrossed in the romance. I'll never forget it.

  50. Jason B. said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    I suppose I misunderstood "inappropriate laughter" (and thus the emphasis of the entire post) to mean laughter at something that could not be reasonably seen as funny. I see now that the point was that the laughter seemed out-of-context in terms of group setting.

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