Inappropriate laughter — yes, there is such a thing

Interesting article recently in the Boston Globe about the seemingly growing trend of people laughing at inappropriate moments during dramatic plays. I can imagine how disconcerting that would be for actors. There they are baring their souls and some idiots are chortling.

As a comedy playwright my first thought was: A big joke I killed myself over got nothing while Blanche DuBois’s gut wrenching speech describing all the deaths in her family got monster laughs? What the fuck?

But in a sense, that’s the unpredictability of live theater – you never really know what kind of reaction you’re going to receive. It was always puzzling when I had my play last year at the Falcon Theatre that certain lines got huge laughs one night and tepid the next, while other lines that in some performances got meh suddenly got screams. But at least those were all intended laughs.

The article goes on to speculate the reason for this new trend of uncalled-for mirth, and I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a definitive answer. Is there a detachment from Millennial audiences? Is the laughter a defense against being too vulnerable? Are we desensitized because of all the digital viewing we now do? Is the material so intense we need to somehow break the tension?

Two points the article omitted, in my opinion:

People are ruder now. They just are.  You see it in movie theaters all the time. They’ll talk, they’ll text, they don’t give a shit that they’re bothering everyone around them. So you think they’re going to have respect for live actors?

And two, gotta be real – maybe at times people are laughing because the lines are so terrible or the performance is so bad. Although, if you’re yucking it up at a Tennessee Williams play it’s probably not the words.

The article does point out there are a growing number of comedy-dramas like BAD JEWS, which I saw a couple of months ago. So the audience might not recognize whether a line is meant to get a laugh or a punch in the gut.

I’ve mentioned this before (in the ten years I’ve done this I’ve now probably mentioned everything before), but in the first season of CHEERS we had an episode called “the Coach’s Daughter.” She was insecure about her looks and the Coach, in an attempt to comfort her says she looks just like her mother. His point was that he thought her mother was beautiful and so was she. But the audience exploded in laughter. It was maybe the biggest laugh of the episode. They thought we were going for a joke. We ended up removing the laugh because it hurt the integrity of the scene and undermined the story. But we had that luxury because the show was on film.

My heart goes out to actors who are understandably thrown by misplaced laughter. I don’t know how you prevent it. People come to the theater, you want them to have emotional reactions, but how do you tell them to contain any inappropriate emotions?

I would just ask theatergoers to remember that real people are performing these plays for you. It’s not like watching your flatscreens. The actors will hear you when you goof on them. Remember they have rehearsed for weeks, probably are not making much money, and are giving of their time and talent to entertain YOU. The least you could do is be respectful.

And if you find Blanch DuBois’ pain funny, you’re sick.  

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