Laughter’s a funny thing.
What tickles you may not amuse your neighbour, as I can attest from heated discussions about Family Guy.
We tend to laugh more in a group than when we’re alone (although Colbert could make me corpse with a raise of his eyebrow). We also laugh more easily around friends and family.
It’s defined as “a physical reaction in humans and some species of primate, consisting typically of rhythmical, often audible contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system.” Ooooo..K.
So why do we do it?
The Laughter of Surprise
Sounds like: Shrieks, barks, sustained guffaws, often associated with cheers or applause.
When improvisers and the audience make a discovery, when a character takes a left turn into crazy, or when someone on your team brings back the suggestion everyone’s forgotten and ties things up with the perfect blow line…that’s the Laughter of Surprise.
The Laughter of Recognition
Sounds like: A rat-a-tat-tat of laughs, chuckles, or sometimes a beat of silence followed by laughter and steady applause.
This type is like an “Aha!” from the audience. It comes when they hear something they can relate to: current events, pop culture, or just good ol’ human behaviour. Louis CK uses this type of comedy to great effect in his stand-up…
“People can laugh hysterically at something as mundane as ‘junk drawer.’ Use your rich life experience, and bring that to the stage.” – Susan Messing
The Laughter of Relief or Tension Broken
Sounds like: Either nervous tittering, or like a bomb just went off in the theatre.
When you’ve had a six-minute laugh-free set (intentional or not), the slightest thing can set off this kind of reaction.
It could be someone tripping on stage, slurring a word or saying it incorrectly, or any one of a million other tiny, inconsequential things. Anything that breaks the pattern that came before.
Sometimes the audience is nervous for you, in which case you’ll hear nervous laughter.
Other times, the tension can be created by drama. The scene’s not tanking, it’s just intense. The audience gets wound up, too. So the moment it tips from dramatic to deranged, it creates a laughter explosion.
All three kinds of laughs feel great. If I think back on old sets, I can still hear and feel the different reactions to scenes I’ve watched or played in. And to me, there is no sweeter sound.
“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” – Oscar Wilde