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Funnier with Friends

February 16th, 2003 · No Comments

Around 1820, a pair of devoted Parisian opera-goers by the names of Sauton and Porcher formed an organization of professional applauders, cheerleaders, laughers and weepers called L’Assurance de Succès Dramatiques. Within a decade, many such groups, called claques — consisting of a chef de claque and his claqueurs — had sprung up in major cities around the world. Some claqueurs even developed specialties — such as the rieur, the most expert laugher in a given claque. The core idea — proven effective by the success of such groups — was that when some people were visibly clapping or laughing or crying, the behavior would spread through the audience like an epidemic. And the people to whom it had spread really would feel the performance as having been more sublime, or funny, or tragic. The response was so automatic that it didn’t matter that it was typically pretty obvious to regular attendees who the claquers were — any more than the obvious phonyness of a laugh track today prevents major studios from using it.

I thought of all this while having a cigarette with a friend at work, when she observed that she had just seen the most recent Austin Powers movie again on DVD. In the theater, it had been hilarious. Watching it at home, alone, it fell totally flat. I recalled that another friend, a law student with an interest in neuroscience, had recently told me that the best current scientific explanation for laughter is that it serves to signal that something isn’t really happening. When primates are play-fighting, she told me, they laugh — perhaps to engage in training while showing that there’s no real danger, that the fight shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s why we laugh at the bizarre, or when someone does a slapstick pratfall (though we instantly and automatically stop, in most cases, if it seems that the person really has been hurt), or when we’re nervous. When I was about twelve, sitting in class in seventh grade, a teacher came in and told us that a classmate — a girl one year older who’d been out ill for some time — had finally succumbed to cancer. Most of us were somber, but one boy burst out laughing, uncontrollably. He was clearly horrified, clearly trying to stopâ?¦ but he kept on laughing. It was the furthest thing from funny, of course — that’s why he was laughing.

I related this to my friend, and cooked up the following impromptu explanation, which may or may not be correct. Laughter is an automatic response, a product of evolution. But it wouldn’t seem to be necessary to have such a loud and obvious behavior as a signal to yourself that something wasn’t really happening, wasnâ??t to be taken seriously. Laughter is a form of social signalling — the primates who are play-fighting laugh so that the other chimp knows not treat the play-attack as a real one. So it makes sense that things would be funnier in groups: laughing alone is just a vestigal echo of a response that’s primarily triggered in social situations, where it serves its primary function.

Only marginally connected to all this, someone I met at a party (I’ll call him Bob, since I don’t recall his real name) once told me the following story. As an undergraduate at Georgetown, he and some friends were sitting about drinking heavily, when they noticed that Kenneth Starr was delivering his now infamous report to Congress on C-SPAN, live. It was quite late — the session had dragged on for hours — and the guys figured that they could cab over and watch the end of the session in person. When Starr finished, Bob, quite drunk at this point, began to applaud vigorously. His friend were terrified that this would call unwanted attention, and that Bob would find himself being questioned by Hill police. They did the only thing they could think of: they began to applaud as well, so Bob’s applause wouldn’t seem unusual. The Republicans present, not quite sure what was going on, decided that they had to applaud as well. The Democrats sat, arms crossed, looking nonplussed. Bob was only encouraged by this, and stood up, applauding still more energetically. His friends, seeing that having gone in for a penny, they were now in for a pound, stood up as well. As did the Republicans. So if you ever hear that the hours-long presentation of the Starr Report received a standing ovationâ?¦ well, now you know why.

Update: My evolutionary speculations notwithstanding, I howled like a loon sitting solitary at my desk while reading this interview, courtesy of Radley.

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