Etiquette of Comedy

On the 5th of September, I attended a comedy show at Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival. During the set of the 3rd comedian on the bill, Anthony Jeselnik, I was shocked to see just how many people are willing to be incredibly rude to the performers that they expect to entertain them. The comedian’s style was a bit twisted. It is a style I have seen before, and while it is not my favorite, I understand where it comes from. The majority of the audience seemed to be in the same boat with me. A pretty considerable minority, however, couldn’t take a joke and walked out on the performer. This experience lead me to research what makes a joke funny, as well as whether or not etiquette allows for dramatic mid-show exits.

 

Philosophers as well known as Plato, Aristotle and Hobbes have theories about humor that can be summed up by saying that “a person laughs about misfortunes of others (so called schadenfreude), because these misfortunes assert the person’s superiority on the background of shortcomings of others” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theories_of_humor#Superiority_theory, accessed 6 September 2011). By taking a closer look at a joke, one can clearly see that what makes many jokes funny is that some subject is made a fool of. “For example: ‘I think the worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades. Especially if your teammates are bad guessers’” (http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/14578/, accessed 6 September 2011). This joke, presented by Demetri Martin in his article ‘The Anatomy of a Joke’, has us laughing at a situation where a person may very well die because of the stupidity of that person’s teammates. So, maybe you are thinking to yourself “That joke is okay, because the comedian could be referring to their own hypothetical death.” Well, let us look at another one then: “I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather.. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car” (http://www.onelinerz.net/top-100-funny-one-liners/, accessed 6 September 2011). Here, there is no arguing that the victim in the joke is the teller. Yet, this particular joke is rated second by visitors to OneLinerz.net. The conclusion to be drawn is that the misfortune of others, in general, is funny to most people.

 

Now, we should consider the issue of etiquette. Specifically, if you do not find a joke funny, is it acceptable to get up and walk out? West Chester University asks that theater patrons “please remain in your seat until the end. The end means the end of the curtain call. If you are ill or bored and must leave before the show is over, leave as quietly as you can and at an interval if at all possible. It is extremely discourteous to the actors to head for the door before the performance is entirely ended” (http://www.wcupa.edu/oca/venue/asplundh/etiquette.asp, accessed 6 September 2011). The website eHow’s article on theater etiquette supports the “extremely discourteous” claim, saying: “Walk calmly to the exits following the performance. Making a mad dash to the door during the curtain call is an insult to the actors” (http://www.ehow.com/how_2155170_observe-theatre-etiquette.html, accessed 6 September 2011). I searched far and wide for something more specific to a situation where a person has been offended by a comedian, but found only commentaries about heckling. Jack Kroeger of Punchline Magazine says, “Any comedian of any type would certainly tell you that audience members don’t get the right to potentially ruin everyone else’s night because they’re not having a good time or are irked at a specific moment, especially since the option to walk out is always there” (http://www.laughspin.com/2011/05/11/punchline-magazine-analysis-is-it-ever-ok-to-heckle-a-comedian/, accessed 6 September 2011). In addition, Brett of ArtofManliness.com advises, “Do Not Interrupt the Comedian: The common excuse for this is “I’m helping the comedian.” Comedians are professionals, they do not need help. That “help” just derails the show and wastes everyone’s time, same as heckling. Exception: If a comedian directly engages you in conversation, you are a-ok to respond. Some of the best comedy happens this way, and can make for a memorable experience. Be ready to let it go when the bit is over” (http://artofmanliness.com/2008/08/07/the-dos-and-donts-of-comedy-club-etiquette/).

 

From Kroeger’s analysis, we see that comedians would likely prefer walking out to heckling, but what combining these rules says to me is that it is quite rude to walk out mid-performance, more rude to interrupt, and heckling is the most rude. An important exception to the rules, though, is that if you leave at an “interval” (eg. Intermission), that would be polite enough. That said, a dramatic exit to emphasize one’s having been offended is just as offensive as whatever angered the person in the first place. A person who does this, therefor, does little to nothing to reassert the superiority that the comedian has taken from them by telling a joke that belittles that person’s lifestyle or values.

 

In the case of the particular performance I attended, the comedian opened with a joke on the subject of rape. It involved a young woman who had invited him home with her and then passed out drunk on her couch. The comedian then explained that because he was a gentleman, he tucked her in and left, but not before leaving a note that read “you got raped!” I did not happen to think the execution was very good on that one. I personally would have gone with something where the note tried to play a nice guy angle for not having raped her. To me, that would be funnier because the comedian would be making fun of themselves for thinking that not raping someone is chivalrous. My artistic criticism aside, the audience laughed, and I did not notice anyone getting up to leave.

 

Fairly soon after, Jeselnik did something I’ve seen many comedians do, he interacted with an audience member (let us recall the comments Brett of ArtofManiless.com). Now, at least in the comedy specials I have seen, this usually means that the performer will pick on the person they interact with. So, if you happen to be the kind of person who likes comedy enough to sit front and center at the show, you are probably at least somewhat aware that this sometimes happens. Even if you’re not a huge comedy fan, we learn this when we take a class, if you don’t want to be asked questions, hide in the back. The young woman that this comedian chose, right in front of the stage maybe two seats away from the exact middle, was somehow caught off guard. She had stayed in her seat through the opening rape joke and the next few, pretty offensive, jokes to follow, but after she had her turn to be made fun of, she took off. Perhaps you are wondering if the joke made at her expense was somehow more offensive. My answer is that no, it was not nearly as offensive, but it was more embarrassing for her, because she was the victim in the joke.

 

This woman was fine with other people being poked fun at, but not with the tables being turned. If the mumbles were any indication, many audience members sympathized with her. Here is what particularly interested me though: the primarily Seattlite audience laughed when the comedian insulted the woman’s home town of Olympia (60 miles south) and the fact that she goes to community college (Seattle is known for having a highly educated population), but not when he made a fat joke. Something I have noticed about U.S. culture in particular, and more and more cultures as media influence grows, is that everyone is concerned with their physical appearance. That one hits home for the majority of people. That audience all of the sudden could relate, and then it became “not funny.” Another aspect of this that got me thinking, is that when the woman got up to leave, she made the ordeal more memorable in people’s minds. If she was truly embarrassed about attention being called to her weight, she did herself no favors by allowing more of the audience to see her. Now, perhaps her intention was to emphasize the comedian’s rudeness, but then she failed to realize just how rude and vengeful it was for her to walk out on the performance, and how hypocritical it was given that her own pain was seemingly the only pain she could not laugh at.

 

The embarrassed woman, and the others to walk out over the course of the performance, as their personal buttons were pushed, still did not reach the level of rudeness of the people in the audience who felt the need to boo the comedian when he joked about his city’s football team (The Pittsburgh Steelers) having beaten the Seattle team (The Seahawks) in the Superbowl. The game took place in 2006. That is 5 years ago, and Seattlites, rather than being able to laugh at themselves, booed and mumbled to themselves about Pittsburgh having cheated (a claim which officials have dismissed). I have seen a boo as a funny response that really wasn’t rude, and I have to tell you, this was not one of those times. In all honesty, I personally have been involved in conversations, recently, where Seattlites have gotten all worked up about the supposed cheating. Again, 5 years later, when no one else in the country takes them seriously. Granted, I was born in Pittsburgh, so I have a stake in this one, but I really am the kind of person who can laugh at myself. Promise.

 

I am not just saying that I can laugh at myself or things that offend me. In fact, at the very same performance, even the other comedians said things that I could have reacted to badly. Hari Kondabolu made a joke about how stupid it would be for someone from New York to move to New Jersey. Now, I grew up in New Jersey, and I’m pretty proud of that fact. I don’t think that New York is superior to New Jersey, but I laughed at the joke. It was funny. I also shot a look to my boyfriend so that we could both enjoy the inside joke of knowing that I thought the comedian was 100% wrong. The same guy made jokes about white people being the devil. I’m white, and I laughed and clapped. Another example is that the 2nd comedian to perform, Kyle Kinane, had a joke about a time he made a purchase at Walmart. I think purchasing at Walmart is immoral, but I let it go, listened to his joke, and ended up thinking it was really pretty funny. Having laughed at those jokes, and others, I wondered if there is a line that simply cannot be crossed and I have some kind of problem, or if some people are just incapable of accepting humor directed at themselves. That question lead me to an article by Paul McInnes on that subject:

 

Here we go again. Another comic wades into territory marked “taboo”, comes out having offended somebody and a tumult ensues. This week’s comic is Frankie Boyle, who has taken an online pasting from Sharon Smith, a Hampshire woman who says she endured an extended series of observations on children with Down’s Syndrome, their fashion styles and haircuts, during Boyle’s gig at the Reading Hexagon. Smith has a five-year-old with Down’s and didn’t appreciate the humour. In fact, she found it embarrassing and offensive[…] If someone makes themselves the butt of a joke as a result of making a choice, then they’re a legitimate target. If they haven’t made that choice, not so much. In that sense, I don’t think it’s legitimate to mock somebody’s skin colour or accent. Their habits, however, are a different matter. (I appreciate that when it comes to choice, fat people are in something of a grey area.)

 

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/apr/09/offensive-comedy-frankie-boyle)

 

It seems to me that Sharon Smith is another example of someone who does not think a joke is funny if it is about something important to them personally. I don not know if the comedians jokes were very funny, perhaps they were not, but I do not think the topic should be entirely ruled out just because this woman was offended. I also find that I do not wholly agree with McInnes. Specifically on the topic of accents. I know I have a U.S. American White accent when I speak Spanish, and I think the very same accent is hilarious. It is funny to me when someone’s accent can change the meaning of the words that they are trying to say. Now, it is not funny simply that a person has an accent, but told correctly, a joke about someone’s inability to express themselves well can be quite humorous. Mistranslations have also been known to have me rolling on the floor. It really depends on the set-up for me. That said, I do think that some subjects just do not work as jokes, at least not yet. I cannot think of a joke that depends on the xenophobia of the audience that I have ever thought of as amusing, though just a very thin line away, jokes that poke fun at stereotypes usually are funny. Also, I have yet to hear anyone but Eddie Izzard make a joke about a mass murdering dictator funny, and even his are directed at the evil doer, rather than the victims. One of Eddie Izzard’s jokes involves a very brief, somewhat out of place, mention of Adolf Hitler, for instance. The joke is funny because the audience is surprised at the name coming up in that context.

 

Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves, authors of ‘How To Be Funny’, say that “surprise is the fundamental joke mechanism. Most punchlines rely on an element of surprise – that’s why they’re not funny the third time you hear them” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3656260/How-to-be-funny.html). This would be my main criticism of Jeselnik’s fat joke. I don’t think making fun of the woman’s weight was necessarily worse than any of the other things he went after, or any of the things the other comedians said, but I do think his joke tanked. The woman had shared that she wanted to be a journalist, he asked what kind, she said she didn’t know. He had already done a bit on how highly he thought of himself, it would have been much funnier to go with some kind of angle where an interview with him could jumpstart her carrier, because obviously he’s the most famous person in the world. Or, perhaps he could have asked her if she was there to cover the story of the best comedy act ever in the history of Seattle. No, because she was fat, he asked her if she wanted to be a food critic. There was no surprise there. It landed flat. He clearly blanked and went for the most obvious joke that anyone could have come up with. It was a lame joke, but not a walk out in disgust kind of joke. So, while the author may have meant it a little differently, I think ArtofManliness’s Brett was absolutely right in saying “be ready to let it go when the bit is over.”

 

When it comes down to it, other people’s misfortune is funny. As a society, we need to allow our own misfortune to be funny, too. It is not at all fair to laugh at the jokes made at the expense of others and not those made at ours. As human beings, we need to be able to laugh, it is pretty good stress relief. So, let us laugh at ourselves and leave our egos at home. Let us sit politely and allow the performer to perform. If the performance sucks, go home and write a bad review, or tell all your friends how awful the experience was so that they will not give any more money to that person. If you absolutely must leave, do so in a quiet way at a point in the show when it will not disrupt the enjoyment of others; and if you do not want a comedian to single you out, do not sit in the middle of the front row!

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