June 3, 2010

When the audience has a laugh leader.

Mark Liberman at Language Log complains about an "inappropriate" laugh leader in an audience at a Chekhov play:
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....

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....

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.
In the comments, Richard Bell said:
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.
Now, Liberman says the laugh leader was "loud" and goes on to describe the actors seemingly reacting negatively to the laughing. So, it seems as though the laughing was bad in some special way that makes Bell's comment an incomplete response.

But I am very interested in laugh leading. When I go to the movies or a play, I find that I myself am a laugh leader. It don't laugh loudly, but I am the first person to laugh at a lot of things, and I get other people laughing.  I'm not trying to go first. It's just that a lot of Americans — especially at high-art type movies and plays — are too polite or insecure about laughing. They'll sit there silently while all sorts of subtly funny things are happening as if they need to laugh lines and broad comedy to give them confidence. People seem to be unsure of their own perceptions or just numbed to nonobvious comedy.

A good laugh leader can lubricate the audience and intensify the pleasure of witnessing a performance with others. Of course, a bad laugh leader is a problem, especially if there are live actors on stage. But it's that fear of laughing first and laughing wrongly that holds so many people back and puts a premium on good laugh leading.

45 comments:

EDH said...

Hey, I think I know who that guy is.

El Pollo Real said...

Of course "laugh tracks" are wonderful automated cues which pretty much can do the same thing.

Some commenters here have been trying so long and so hard to accomplish this.

Fail

bagoh20 said...

"I am the first person to laugh at a lot of things"

I feel your pain, Mead.

Flexo said...

Of course, it could be that the guy was just out-loud drunk. That's often a good way to go into a laughing fit.

-------------

Meanwhile, you have folks in other settings who are constantly laughing or smiling like idiots at everything.

Most of the dimwits in Congress are like that. Every group press conference they have announcing something, they have a laugh riot, smiling and back-slapping and guffawing up a storm.

And have you ever seen CNN "Headline News" (which stopped providing headline news who knows when)? They will put their multiple guests up in split screen, each one of them with a big ear-to-ear smile no matter what is being said. And you can see that some of them simply cannot hold a fake smile that long, so they lose it, their faces relaxing for a moment, only to have them turn on the smile again, and only to lose it again after that -- on, off, on, off.

What a bunch of maroons.

Fred4Pres said...

Laughing at nothing really.

Pastafarian said...

Could there really be true laugh-out-loud moments in a Checkov play? This seems unlikely to me. More likely: This guy was an asshole who wanted to announce how clever he was because he could appreciate the very literate joke.

(I've read a little Checkov, and I don't recall anything more than smile-worthy; but I've never seen a Checkov play, so maybe I'm wrong -- maybe they're gut-bustingly raucous and rollicking adventures.)

Ah Pooh said...

I love that phrase good laugh leader - the more the merrier.

Pogo said...

Sunday afternoon plays are popular with the elderly.

They do not have laugh leaders and are not prone to applause. The absence of feedback is very tough on actors.

My wife is often embarrassed by my laughter at plays. Still, I thought Becket had some very funny parts.

Kirstin said...

James Bowman at spectator.org has been writing about "inappropriate" laughter for some time now. He had a column in November 2009 about someone laughing during Helen Mirren's performance in Racine's "Phedre."

Class factotum said...

A lot of times, people don't laugh because they don't get it.

I learned in some public speaking course to give the audience at least four seconds to catch a joke and laugh at it.

Paul said...

When I'm occasionally dragged to one of those shows like Pilobolus, which is intermittently funny but not continuously hilarious, there's always someone in the audience who starts loudly laughing early and often. Not to be a wet blanket, but I always wonder what's up with that person. Is he high? Is he extremely easily amused? Is he trying to show that he "gets it" and the rest of us better catch up?

I think they addressed this minor annoyance on the Simpsons once. I also like EDH's "Cape Fear" reference.

Paul Zrimsek said...

When I

LOL.

Paul said...

Kirstin said...James Bowman at spectator.org has been writing about "inappropriate" laughter for some time now.

One of the reasons Dave Chappelle said he quit doing his show is that while playing one of his black racial stereotypes, he heard someone in the audience laughing in such a way that Chappelle realized that he was buying into the stereotype and not laughing ironically at it.

This interested me because politically incorrect humor always works on two levels. For example, Norman Lear thought the audience was supposed to laugh at Archie Bunker's unenlightened thinking, but in fact many (most?) people liked Archie Bunker because he said things they agreed with. Same with Sarah Silverman.

Lem said...

I get somewhat uneasy when I see Seinfeld laughing.. its just looks and feels insincere. Watch him on Curb.

If you are the ultimate comedian and you don't find anything funny anymore, don't laugh.

Its worst to pretend.

traditionalguy said...

To laugh or not laugh, that is the question. The preacher at our church is a laid back guy from California who is cracks jokes every Sunday, some amusing, and a few knee slappers. Invariably I will laugh out loud like I am at The Punch Line, but nobody else does. After a rebuke from my wife, I go silent too. At least we don't sleep thru the sermons. I think he likes for us to laugh at his jokes anyway. BTW, properly acted, Hamlet is an hilarious part.

Joe said...

He laughed so he wouldn't shoot himself for trying to watch a Chekhov play.

MadisonMan said...

I really can't stand Chekhov plays. Actually walked out on one at APT once. The Cherry Orchard?

So I am mystified that anyone is laughing at something written by Chekhov.

J Scott said...

If you aren't laughing with the group you are basically Hitler.

PatCA said...

In Hwood, shows hire laughers to be on set to laugh at the right times-- because it's really hard to be funny take after take when no one is responding--and also to attend and laugh at live chat shows or sitcoms.

edutcher said...

This is why there used to be the infamous laugh track. Then they made a great show of getting rid of it when shows were "recorded live". Now, according to PatCA, they need laugh leaders. The more things change...

Ann Althouse said...

I'm not trying to go first. It's just that a lot of Americans — especially at high-art type movies and plays — are too polite or insecure about laughing.

It's been my (limited) experience that a good many high art movies are more unintentionally risible than not, but good for you.

As the man says, you know what you like.

PS I agree with Pasta. There are laugh lines in Chekhov?

Trooper York said...

"But I am very interested in laugh leading. When I go to the movies or a play, I find that I myself am a laugh leader. I don't laugh loudly, but I am the first person to laugh at a lot of things, and I get other people laughing."

In the days of trail drives in the Old West they often used an old cow as the trail leader. She knew the way and would start out each day of the drive and the cowboys would herd the other cows to follow her.

Maybe you could start a new gig for the summer vacation. Just sayn'

El Pollo Real said...

Trooper: I just added "The Cowboys" to my netflix queue.

Thanks!

Trooper York said...

Great old school film but the Duke is past it unfortunately in that one. He was running on fumes.

Check out the "Big Trail" directed by Raul Walsh which is just about the first wagon train flic. It set up most of the plot for everything that follows to this very day.

The Duke was just a young punk in that one.

Kensington said...

"Could there really be true laugh-out-loud moments in a Checkov play?"

Oh my God, YES!

There is a common perception that Chekhov's plays are generally dour, depressing affairs, and that perception has been informed by many, many bad productions!

It's easy to miss if you're just reading the script, but if you've ever had the good fortune of seeing Chekhov done well, they can be very funny, with lots of laugh out loud moments!

All of Chekhov's major plays are comedies. They often come to bleak conclusions, but the characters fight like hell all the way there, often to great comic lengths. I think "Uncle Vanya," scene for scene, is often the funniest.

Vanya's lines can seem very sour and self-pitying and nihilistic on the page, but when a skilled actor with a natural sense of humor is living them, it's wonderful stuff.

Wallace Shawn does a great job of expressing this in the film "Vanya on 42nd Street."

If the production you see doesn't make you laugh a lot, I'd say it's a bad production.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KLDAVIS said...

Was the Chekhov play in question being presented at the Gumby Theater?

My brain hurts...

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Pollo Real said...

What an adorable video Fred4Pres! My wife used those same plastic bibs when our kids were that age. Must be a Euro thing.

prairie wind said...

OT, but El Pollo and Trooper started it:
Just watched John Wayne in The Shootist and was very disappointed. I thought it was supposed to be one of his best. What the heck did I miss?

When I was in college, four friends and I saw My Dinner with Andre. That made five people in the theater. No laughter. We had no idea what to make of the movie. Saw it again in a full theater and laughed through the whole movie. Maybe it was because I understood it better on a second viewing or maybe we just needed a laugh leader at the first.

edutcher said...

Trooper York said...

Great old school film but the Duke is past it unfortunately in that one. He was running on fumes.

Check out the "Big Trail" directed by Raul Walsh which is just about the first wagon train flic. It set up most of the plot for everything that follows to this very day.

The Duke was just a young punk in that one.


Wayne's first picture, and he's got problems with the dialogue. He does better after a few years at Republic.

Disagree on "The Cowboys", though. Agreed that, at the time, he was going through the motions in a lot of pictures, but his work is the kind of summing up "Shootist" was supposed to be. Roscoe Lee Browne's line, "They could be yours if you wanted", sets him up to be the example he failed to be to his own sons.

PS Anent this passage:

In the days of trail drives in the Old West they often used an old cow as the trail leader. She knew the way and would start out each day of the drive and the cowboys would herd the other cows to follow her.

Maybe you could start a new gig for the summer vacation. Just sayn'


To paraphrase the Virginian, I'd smile when I said that.

Trooper York said...

The Shootist was the Dukes last film where he was racked with cancer. It was an attempt to go back to some of his "classic" roles. Directed by Don Siegal who is best know for the Dirty Harry movies with Clint Eastwood and who was not primarily a Western Director. The plot in which an old gunman tries to redeem himself in the eyes of a young boy (an too old for the part Ronny "Opie" Howard) the film is further marred by the prescense of Lauren Bacall as the love interest.

To get a real feel for the Duke and his talent you must see the movies directed by John Ford or alternately Howard Hawks. In my estimation his best are as follows:

The Quiet Man
Red River
Rio Grande
The Searchers.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Fort Apache
Hondo
The Horse Soldiers
The Angel and the Badman
The Alamo
The Shepard of the Hills
Three Godfathers

An unusal list but my favorites all the same.

Trooper York said...

I would love to hear the opinion of Vicky from Pasedena who actually knew the Duke and his family and could tell us a lot.

Trooper York said...

An apocryphal story is often told about the filming of the great westerns by the Duke and John Ford in Monument Valley. It seems that they used native Navaho’s to play the part of the Apaches because in those days they didn’t sweat the realism all that much. Witness the fact that Richard Conte, Jeff Chandler and Sal Mimeo were always playing Indians. But the story is that when the Navaho’s had to speak in their native language they would slip in obscenities just to screw with whitey.

Talk about your inappropriate laughter.

Shawn Levasseur said...

I remember being in a movie theater when the first trailer for "Free Willy" came out. The title wasn't revealed until the close of the trailer, and the name struck everyone in the audience as a bit funny. But no one laughed initially.

One guy lightly chuckled, then it spread as graudally, as people came to feel more at ease at laughing at the risque alternate meaning of the title.

Paul Zrimsek said...

I always wondered whether Norman Lear had a few employees in the studio audience to start the knowing "oooh..." going whenever someone said something calculated to set Bea Arthur off.

Methadras said...

Hey, if I think something is funny, then you will definitely hear from me first.

Trooper York said...

"whenever someone said something calculated to set Bea Arthur off.'

What a conikidink. Rue McClanahan just passed away and Norman Lear always used her when he wanted to get Bea Arthur off.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Rest in peace Rue.

El Pollo Real said...

Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan remind me of Adrienne Barbeau.

Ride bene chi ride l'ultimo

Trooper York said...

Ah yes......Adrienne Barbeau!

El Pollo Real said...

Thanks for the palatable cleanser!

Rick Lee said...

I embarrass my wife with my laughing in movies.

Perhaps this person was a person for whom English is a second language. I saw "The Godfather" for the first time in a theater with mostly Spanish speakers and they seemed to laugh in all sorts of strange places.

Scott M said...

I've lubricated audiences before, but it had nothing to do with laughing.

El Pollo Real said...

bagoh20 at 10:05: I feel your pain, Mead.

Are you saying that Meade has been chuckolded?

Trooper York said...

"El Pollo Real said
Are you saying that Meade has been chuckolded?"

Of course he isn't saying that. Just that might be some inappropriate laughter at an inopportune time.

We all know how deflating that can be.

peter hoh said...

I've been in that position a few times. Never on purpose, of course.

Once in college, during the screening of some earnest early 70s movie, a character mouths a bullshit line that might have seemed profound in 1973, but I chortled, and got the whole crowd going.