Ever find yourself not getting the joke?. 20 January 2012

Ever find yourself not getting the joke? Maybe it's because you're a bit stupid and they are a bit annoying. Ha! 

Clair was not wrong: I’ve never experienced such a sea of sniffling at the theatre as during (and after) Frantic Assembly’s Lovesong.

Emotional outbursts from fellow audience members ranged from dignified silent tears and a quivering lip, to full-on gulpy sobs – and that was just in the row of us Corner Shoppers.

With the reputation of the British stiff upper lip in tatters, this got me thinking about the other slip from form which occurs in the relative anonymity of a darkened auditorium: laughter.

Quickly gathering momentum once the laughter barrier has been broken in a hushed, expectant auditorium, there’s an enjoyable camaraderie to group giggling as part of an audience. However, it’s not difficult to start tuning into the laughs of fellow audience members when nestled about as close as you’ll get (bar the rush hour squash) to other Londoners. And on a couple of occasions in recent memory, I’ve experienced a niggling irritation with my fellow audience members’ expressions of mirth.

I’m referring to those vocalisations of what for most of the audience would be a wry smile, uttered just so that the strangers around you know for sure that you fully understand the incredibly astute reference to that obscure 17th century wine-making practice that’s just been made. In other words, it comes from an impulse to signal that you’ve ‘got’ the joke. This often manifests itself as a single ‘ha’ or a very forceful exhalation – noises which aren’t nearly as infectious as your bog-standard chuckle, and which instead I find maddening. Particularly annoying are those sniggerers who wish to display their academic familiarity with the text when they pre-empt the funnies by laughing just a fraction before the actor onstage utters them.

Of course, this kind of reaction lends itself to a particular type of comedy; I’ve noticed it recently at performances of Shakespeare and Stoppard.

But really, who am I kidding? Whilst there’s pleasure to be found in sharing the joke in a theatre buzzing with guffaws, cackles and titters, the competitive streak (the very same that drew me to out-eat the entire office on one memorable occasion) in me sometimes provokes one such smug little laugh. It leaves me feeling guilty because engaging in it is almost always a conscious decision – the bit in me that I hate screaming “I completely understand the many layers of that very witty wordplay!”

But we’ve all done it, haven’t we? The thing to remember is that it’s so infinitely less satisfying than the soundless grin and the unconscious belly laugh that comes spilling out when you’re just having a bloody good time.

Charlotte Bailey

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