Except… one night. All of a sudden – crickets. Not a muted laugh or a few scattered chuckles. Silence.
The next night and all subsequent nights, the joke got its hearty laugh. (No, I’m not telling you the joke. First of all, it won’t work out of context and I don’t want to spoil it for future audiences. Come see the play and I'll tell you at intermission.)
Ask anyone who’s toiled in the theater for any length of time (like a week) and they’ll tell you that jokes getting different reactions on different nights is to be fully expected.
And I know that intellectually. But it’s WEIRD. Why should 100 strangers collectively find something funny to the point where they laugh out loud and the next 100 people independently all find the same joke a yawn?
Add to that variables like the actors’ delivery, people sneezing, and the inevitable cellphone with the Dirty Diana ringtone, and you can see why reactions vary.
But that’s the beauty of live theater. Every night it is different. There is a real dynamic between the audience and the performers.
Of course that doesn't stop me from feeling I let the actors down every time a joke doesn't get a laugh, even if it got a big laugh the night before.
Television audiences for multi-camera sitcoms do not have the same dynamic. First off, there’s a warm up guy to whip them into a frenzy. TV studio audiences are told to laugh. There are microphones over their heads and often they’ll laugh hoping to hear themselves on TV. Also, unless it’s a pilot of a new show that has yet to air, the audience is already familiar with the characters and situation. In many cases they already love the cast. In fact, they’re so thrilled to see them in person they’ll laugh at anything they say. I have to admit that the last few years of CHEERS we really didn’t have to earn laughs. Straight lines were getting guffaws because the audience was seeing their beloved television friends.
I also have to admit there have been times when a sitcom episode I’ve been involved with absolutely kills in front of the studio audience. I could almost smell “Emmy.” And then I go to editing, see it on film, and say, “What the hell were they laughing at? This is awful.” Likewise, episodes that played meh to an audience just rock on film.
Meanwhile, I’m having a blast, going to the theater and watching my play every night, feeding off the audiences’ energy, and enjoying their laughter – at whatever they decide that night is funny (although, seriously, how could that one joke miss? Even once?)