Laugh Tract

If you’ve written a comedy, you want my father in the audience.

My dad has one of the hardest laughs I’ve ever heard. It’s a convulsion that so clearly takes over his body that one can’t help but join him. Growing up, my family of seven almost always went to movies as a group. As an adult, I’ve encountered people who found this behavior odd, but it was really fun. Part of the fun was seeing which moments hit the other members of your family just right.

Recently, I saw that the Steve Martin version of Father of the Bride was on TV. I settled in to watch some of it, because I remembered that it was hilarious. But this time, I didn’t find it funny. Ten minutes in, I remembered that not only had I seen the movie with my family, but that I’d been sitting right next to dad.

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Comedies are better when other people are laughing along with you. But when it comes to theatre comedies, there’s a dark corollary:

A false laugh is worse than no laugh.

The other night, I dragged Todd to see a play at a half-full, fifty five seat theatre in the corner of strip mall. The play was awful, but it was actually the audience that was intolerable. In such a small theatre, every body is aware of every other body, and the people in the audience become performers in their own right. The percentage of people in the audience who are friends of cast members is likely to be high, and if the play is a comedy that can be problematic. Five people in the front row roared with laughter every time an actor did something meant to be amusing.

We left at intermission.

Laughter is difficult to fake. False laughter originates from a different part of the brain than does real laughter. Even the timing is not quite right: forced laughter has a tiny telling lag, the equivalent of the micropause that allows you to hang up on a robocall.

If you have been the person laughing too hard at your loved one’s comedy, then you have been a jackass. Don’t do it again.

It’s a sin born of goodwill and so easily forgiven. But the thing is, you’re not helping your friends. You’re hurting them by alienating an audience that’s trying to meditate its way through this unfunny play. TV laugh tracks work because they’re essentially subliminal. But human-generated artificial laughter grates on the other audience members and (I promise) embarrasses the actor you’re trying to help.

It’s OK—required actually—to beam love to your friend who’s performing. A warm smile communicates everything. It says: “Congratulations on getting this part, on bravely going onstage night after night even though this play, like most plays, is a misfire.”

The smile, combined with your presence, tells your friend that you care about her and that someday, after a year or five years have passed, you’ll both be able to laugh about this.

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