Seriously, this is funny?
May 9, 2012 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Are people significantly more likely to laugh at people who have a reputation as being funny?

Are there any studies on this? It's something I've been thinking about recently. I've noticed it hanging around friends who have a reputation as comedians. It seems that they get obligatory laughs just spitting out anything that comes to mind. Obviously could be different tastes in humor, etc.

But I've noticed this mostly with celebrities and professional comedians. For example, Louie C.K.'s drunk tweets from a plane.

I love Louie, he's one of my favorite comedians. But this just struck me as pathetic drunk babble, like a 14 year old getting into his parent's liquor cabinet for the first time. And people eat it up! Not to mention all of the fake celebrity twitter accounts that people create, recycle old jokes, and get a million hits on sites like reddit.

Do I just have a chip on my shoulder or is this actually a real phenomenon? This is basically the point of laugh tracks isn't it?
posted by WhitenoisE to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I remember reading some Dorothy Parker interview where she complained about this. She said that there were times at the Algonquin Round Table where she'd just open her mouth and people would start laughing before she even spoke, and that it pissed her off.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:28 AM on May 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think there's some truth to what you're saying. My only impression of those tweets is from the resulting controversy for calling Sarah Palin the c-word, I didn't see many people commenting on how hilarious they were, but I certainly have no problem believing people did. Rob Delaney comes to mind, a guy who has a reputation for being basically the funniest person on twitter, basically everything he says is retweeted as being utterly hilarious but most of the time I don't find that stuff more than mildly amusing...yet his writing and podcast appearances I find consistently hilarious. I guess I'm rambling a little, but yeah, I think funny people say a lot of unfunny things that by virtue of their body of work is somehow taken as funnier than it "actually is." The drunken Louis CK tweets are a good example, because they are moderately funny if you hear the voice of drunken Louis CK saying them. My memory of his delivery is almost enough to elevate them to being comedic.
posted by Lorin at 11:33 AM on May 9, 2012

I think this is a real thing. Anecdata: The Chicago play / institution "Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind" which does 30 plays in 60 minutes (plays, not sketches, they insist!) usually has humorous plays, though its quite common for several of the plays each week to be serious (and autobiographical).

One week there was a play in which one of the performers sat down at a table, methodically made herself a martini, and then announced "My husband ... left." The first time I saw this play I, along with the entire audience, laughed heartily. I'd say it was the juxtaposition between the seemingly celebratory martini and the announcement, as well as the release of the tension of "what in the world is she doing?". But really after reflection and also seeing the play again a few weeks later and watching her presentation I realized she wasn't playing it for laughs. We laughed anyway (though I didn't much the second time) because we expected the play to be funny and interpreted it in the most comical way.

I think its pretty natural for most people to be receptive to the humor in something that they expect to be humorous.
posted by Reverend John at 11:38 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Somewhere in there a parallel could be drawn with the idea that impressions are hacky, because the voice does all the work of getting laughs.
posted by Lorin at 11:39 AM on May 9, 2012

I think this is probably true, and I also think you have a chip on your shoulder. People do have to get a reputation somehow, they're not born with it
posted by Patbon at 11:43 AM on May 9, 2012

This question reminds me of the time when David Letterman announced on his show that he had had an affair, someone attempted to blackmail him over it, and that person had been arrested. When he began to make this very serious announcement, people in the audience laughed, because, well, everything David Letterman says is funny, right? Once the gravity of the announcement sank in, the audience stopped laughing, but the initial reaction for a lot of people was "David Letterman! He's funny!"
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:43 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

A lot of twitter is about people hoping for famous people to notice them. They get a little thrill out of interacting with a famous person on more-or-less equal footing. And, yes, a lot of professional comedy people on twitter try way way too hard. Semi-celebrity Kelly Oxford is another example of someone with an extremely tired, repetitive, rarely funny schtick. But she got written up in some magazines as a "funny person on twitter."

I don't know of any famous person who actually makes me laugh consistently, except maybe Steve Martin.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:44 AM on May 9, 2012

And of course the opposite can happen: I'm judging professional comedians at a standard where I expect them to be really funny every single tweet, which is almost impossible and a standard I would never hold "regular" folks to.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:46 AM on May 9, 2012

When given the same joke, people think it's funnier if they think it's by a man vs a woman. Not directly to your point but a data point about humor being social.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:01 PM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's absolutely social. Bosses always get laughter for the jokes they tell, and it isn't ingenuous. An attractive date (that is, one that is attracting you) is going to be funnier than one that you view as a one-time, let's-get-through-this date.

Anyone can be funny, of course, but laughing with someone involves an implicit compliment to them, and we instinctively pass these up the social ladder.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:19 PM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

A few specific examples of this happening.

I heard during some interview (I think on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast) that one time Rodney Dangerfield was at a casino and a crowd of people gathered around him. He was saying some pretty innocuous things but the crowd would laugh whenever he spoke. Eventually he stood up and said something like "thanks for ruining my fucking evening" and left.

I also saw an episode of Inside the Actors Studio with Dave Chappelle. At one point he gets out a cigarette and lights it up and starts smoking and the audience laughed at it. I thought he looked annoyed about it.

So I think this is definitely a thing.
posted by Green With You at 12:47 PM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it's the expectation that the person is about to say or do something [intentionally] funny. Like with Dave Chappelle smoking up above. I can just imagine myself giddily anticipating the joke that he's about to come out with after lighting the cigarette. But then it turns out that he's just lighting a cigarette.

I remember in high school there were a couple of guys who were absolutely hilarious. Amazing timing and delivery. But people, including myself, would often laugh when they'd say something completely innocuous. Or when they did nothing, just stood up or sat down. Just because, I guess, we assumed it was a joke, maybe a joke we didn't get, or get yet, or the set up to a joke. And then we felt stupid after.
posted by thebazilist at 1:28 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was at a performance once where Robin Williams complained (and riffed) about how the audience members were morons because he could do anything on stage and get laughs. And even when he was insulting their behavior, people laughed. Seemed like he felt it messed up the experience of the standup comic, where you have to actually BE FUNNY to get laughs.

FWIW, I seem to remember one of the Beatles complaining about this phenomenon too and citing it as one of the reasons that they stopped touring and doing live shows. If everyone loves and goes crazy for whatever you do, there's no need for musicianship.
posted by jasper411 at 1:29 PM on May 9, 2012

Part of it might be the good mood created by having recently been funny; the difference between a cold studio audience and one that's been warmed up by an opening act can really affect a performance. In general, person X is funny, in fact, I'm happy they just posted something on twitter, because the last thing X posted was hilarious, so I feel great just being about to get the latest blurb from them.

Part of it might be hypersensitivity. If I'm ready for Person X to say or do something funny at any moment, and he fumbles his lighter while getting a cigarette, it's going to look like slapstick and I'll laugh. If it was my ex-alcoholic cousin, fumbling a lighter isn't funny, and it would be perfectly reasonable for him to be offended.

Part of it might be driven by the fear of not getting the joke. In general, person X is funny. Person X just said something, maybe I'll laugh while I figure out what he just said.

Part of it might be getting out of an experience what you expect it to be. If someone hands me a bottle and says "OMG Coke with sugar is so much better than with HFCS!" I will taste the soda expecting to detect something unusual, with a predisposition to find it pleasant, more so than if they'd said "Here, have a Coke" or "I don't see what the big deal is" or "it tastes weird, give me HFCS any day".

In any case, yes, people are significantly more likely to laugh at something that they expect to be funny.
posted by aimedwander at 1:44 PM on May 9, 2012

I heard Steve Martin say something about this once. I can't find the quote, and I don't remember it verbatim, but it was something along the lines of, "...At some point, I realized that if people thought you were funny, you no longer had to be, and people would still laugh. In other words, once people accepted that you were funny you could say anything, really, and they'd laugh, because they expected humor from you."

I think this was from a Terry Gross interview on NPR, but I really can't recall.
posted by Pecinpah at 2:26 PM on May 9, 2012

People are also probably more inclined to laugh at someone's jokes if only to subconsciously fit in with the crowd, and to show they get the jokes too, haha!

I think it's similar to what happens on sites like Facebook, where someone popular (celebrity or otherwise) says the most mundane thing, but gets a ton of likes and remarks that they wouldn't otherwise. "I love grilled cheese sandwiches too! LOL" I may just have a chip on my shoulder too...
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:36 PM on May 9, 2012

More anecdata agreeing with social phenomenon: When listening to the latest This American Life podcast, I felt a lot of the audience's laughter to be out of place during the David Sedaris piece. (I´ve never seen him, so for all I know he has hilarious body expression and was doing tons of funny faces, but the audience bothered me -- a lot).

So TLDR I also have a chip on my shoulder.
posted by fjom at 4:03 PM on May 9, 2012

I have seen a whopping two Twitter accounts that I actually found funny. Two. One of them (by an amateur comedian) was deleted, the other is YourAuntDiane (obviously a joke one), which is over-the-top hippie insanity and I enjoy that sort of thing. But all of the famous celebrities that I normally find funny everywhere else? Not even laughing once. Not even terribly interested in reading them. For all the reputation of OMG SO FUNNY ON TWITTER, so far I don't think anybody actually is. Sure, the occasional person gets off a nice one-liner dissing Chris Brown and I am in favor of those moments, but in general? I think the reputation is definitely selling it more than the actual goods they're giving out in short sentences.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:38 PM on May 9, 2012

Johnny Carson, almost incapable of speech, sputtered out to Jonathon Winters, "You're so funny! I bet anything you say is funny. Say anything! Just say something!"

Jonathon Winters, with a perplexed look on his face: "A buck twenty-five."

I nearly spewed. Johnny could barely breathe.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:28 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I saw Dave Allen on stage way back when...He bounced on to tremendous applause and laughter. Stopped dead and said "What the fuck are you all cheering for, I haven't said anything yet."
posted by nicktf at 11:20 AM on May 10, 2012

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