Monday, November 03, 2014

I can't explain it

There is a joke in the first act of my play, A OR B? that always gets a laugh. Makes no difference the size of the audience or age range, it always gets a laugh.

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?  

There are so many factors that determine whether an audience will laugh -- How tired they are. The demographic. The temperature. The temperament. Acoustics. The size. Anticipation. Comfort. Familiarity with the subject matter. Alcohol content. Sensitivity. Hunger. Sight lines. Day of the week. Reviews. Word-of-mouth.  Bathroom need. 

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?)


MikeK.Pa. said...

Just curious - does laughter increase or decrease in relation to alcohol content? Assume laughs go up with the blood alcohol. Also, do you continue to tweak the play in its second week or is it now a done deal? Will there be a second act (another play) in the future?

Denis M said...


Every play I was ever involved with had a joke like this. Something that just struck the audience (MOST audiences) as funny, that was never intended as a laugh line. Sometimes (and I know you had this in sitcom too) an actor finds a way of delivering a line that just adds that something, Then he or she is replaced (or the understudy goes on) and even if they try and use the same inflection it just doesn't work.

There must be a barometer joke in your play as well. That laugh early on that will tell you what kind of audience you're going to have. If it's a huge belly laugh, they're there to have a good time and the cast relaxes and it's fantastic. If it's a chuckle, you might have to win them over. If it's only pockets of laughter from a few places in the audience, it could be the dreaded Saturday matinee where seniors with nothing else to do decide to see a play...longest two hours of your life...


emily said...

How did your actors react to the silence?

Matt said...

I liked Emily's question so I wanted to expand on it.

You have said before that you tell actors to hold for the laugh because you don't want them talking when nobody can hear. What do they do if there is no laugh?

David in Cincinnati said...

What do performers do when a 'surefire' joke doesn't get a laugh? One nouveau vaudeville group I'm acquainted with used to do this: if the moment didn't get the laugh they expected, they turned to each other and said, in unison, "zen joke... zen audience...."

Wendy M. Grossman said...

MikeK Pa: In the days when I was a full-time solo folksinger, one of my favorite clubs to play at was in Preston, Lancashire, a lovely little club that loved singing along and laughed at all my jokes. And then came the winter of 1979, known now as the "Winter of Discontent". All sorts of industries were on strike against pay caps imposed by then-prime minister James Callaghan: truck drivers, civil servants, garbage collectors, you name it. On the night in January 1979 that I played Preston it was beer. There was no beer. And no heat, because coal: also on strike. So in the first half I played to a small, shivering stone-cold sober crowd. In the second half, I played to a totally drunk crowd. They didn't have beer, but they *did* have hard liquor. They never got the *right amount* of buzzed.

I've also played in some bars with horrid drunks (the worst were in Denmark, surprisingly enough), and there really is a level of alcohol infusion after which nothing that happens is within your control as the performer. The ideal is a comfortable audience that's looking forward to enjoying what you do. It doesn't have to be alcohol that gets them there.


Mike said...

Two possiblities:

1) The joke is about Sarah Palin

2) The audience that one night was foreigners who didn't speak English well.

SharoneRosen said...

The night I came to see it, there were some great lines where I was the only one laughing... not only because I was trying to be a good shill, but because it was damn funny.
But, overall, the audience laughed.. a lot.

I've been in shows where the best jokes laid crickets some nights. The personality of each audience is such a curious thing.

Cory said...

Friday Question: What did you think of Chris Rock's SNL monologue? - Cory

Ken Levine said...


Since this is a question that must be answered in a timely manner (by Wednesday it will be forgotten): I LOVED his monologue. Laughed myself silly. I'd watch SNL a lot more if they did daring material like that.

Michael said...

Ken - on shows like A TO Z and SELFIE, I have found myself liking the actors (ok, the actresses) more than the writing. It got me wondering if in general it is easier to find good actors compared to good writers?

Terrence Moss said...

One of my earliest musical comedy experiences was a high school performance of "Into the Woods". There was a line about a baking accident that I as the narrator thought was simple innocuous exposition.

But every night it got a laugh. So I just kept punching up the line to get that laugh. To this day, I have no idea why they thought it was funny.

Conversely, there were some funny lines in a song Little Red Riding Hood had and bits the director had her do that I thought were very funny. But the audience didn't laugh at any of it on any night.

But that's why I love performing in front of an audience.

Anonymous said...

I thought Chris Rock did a great job as Oscars host too.

DBenson said...

Back in my community theater days, there were plenty of unexpected laughs and silences. Like Mr. Moss, we had exposition lines that killed, and bits that cracked us up in rehearsal and didn't even register as failed jokes onstage.

I learned to be especially careful of a new bit or ad lib that the cast/crew roars at. They know the scene backwards; they're often responding more to the disruption than the actual comedy. An audience that doesn't know every line, doesn't know they're seeing a funny detour.

Kosmo13 said...

If that happens with several jokes in a row, just have Doc and the Band start playing 'Tea for Two,' so you can tap dance until the audience starts laughing again.

Diane D. said...


You listed about 20 variables that can affect whether an audience laughs at one particular line, but I would think that most of the possibilities were pretty much the same each night. However, you didn't name something that I have occasionally experienced. The audience can be seized by a sort of collective fear that they will be the only one laughing at this joke, and they don't want to be embarrassed.

It seems to me there are usually one or two people in the audience who take the lead in laughing, and the others then feel free to join in. If those guys aren't there (or went to the bathroom), the rest of the audience is reluctant to start it no matter how funny they think it is.

If you're watching it each night, why don't you start it? You could be doing them a favor.

I once caused a whole movie theatre full of people to become almost hysterical with laughter, because I was completely out of control. To this day I do not know why this line from "Mrs Doubtfire" struck me so funny. Sally Field asked Robin Williams (as Mrs. Doubtfire) if her husband had been good in bed. Mrs Doubtfire said, "Oh no, Alfred's idea of foreplay was 'Effie, brace yourself."

I have read several wonderful reviews of your play. I hope it comes to New York or somewhere in the east so I can see it.

Dana Gabbard said...

I have been commended by strangers my laughter is infectious. Twice I also had people complain my excess laughter was disruptive. HUH?

Johnny Walker said...

This sounds like a case for Dan O'Shannon!

Canda said...

Another big problem at a sitcom taping is the audience will laugh if you change a line after they've heard it a couple times, simply because you surprised them with a new line. That laugh is almost always selected by the writers and producers, because of the reaction...and many times it's not as good as the original line, which becomes clear when seen and heard on TV at home.

The Mutt said...

When I worked in a comedy troupe at Busch Gardens, we were all dressed in safari gear. Sometimes during a show a baby would start crying. Scott would pull out his pistol and start stroking it and say."Is that baby going to cry though the whole show? It would be a shame to have o shoot another one." It would bring the house down. Peals of laughter.

One day, when Scott was not working, I tried the line. The audience turned on me like I had actually shot a baby.

Point is, there is no explaining it.

Walter said...

Jerry Seinfeld has said that when a joke has worked in other venues and then doesn't work in another that he did something to ruin the joke.

Unless you have a recording of each performance you don't have a way of judging what went wrong. An audience member could have coughed or the air-conditioner cycled on or the actors were off a beat in their timing.

Of course it could be an atypical audience like the one Mel Brooks says he encountered once. It was a house full of deaf people.

Liggie said...

I saw a matinee of "Greater Tuna", the play where two actors play about a dozen people each in a small Texas town (Tuna). One line used in the promo material, which is a well-known part of the play, was how Tuna thought the Lions Club was "too liberal". When that line was used in the play ... no reaction. When the actor realized a beat later he wasn't going to get the usual laughs, he continued the scene. Maybe matinee audiences aren't as energetic as prime-time ones are.

Jabroniville said...

I noticed this on repeat viewings of WICKED over the years- there's this weird line when Elphaba says "I wish I could be beautiful for you" and adds "you don't have to lie to me!" when Fiyero protests.

Fiyero replies "It's not lying- it's seeing things differently!" It's a bit of a cheesy line that drew BIG laughs in the first time I saw the play (like the audience couldn't BELIEVE he'd say something like that, and mean it as a COMPLIMENT). Every other time, people react as if he'd really said something romantic. It's very peculiar.

Metal Mickey said...

For an opposite instance, back in the 90's I saw "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" on Broadway with Nathan Lane (one of the best things I've ever seen on stage BTW), and one gag (sorry, can't remember it) got a massive sustained laugh, which moved Lane to come to the front of the stage and tell the audience, "Please trust me, no audience has _ever_ laughed that much at that joke!"

Maybe he did it every performance, but he seemed sincere enough...

Patrick G. said...

I'm an actor in Chicago and have experienced this personally when in a shown or when seeing a show multiple times while working backstage.
But the phenomena that is even more perplexing to me is that I've gone to see movies more than once - where the delivery and performance is always guaranteed to be EXACTLY the same - and a joke will get a huge laugh from one audience and silence from another.

Diane D. said...

Like I said, the courageous laugh-leaders are either present or absent.