Rogue Laughter in a Flippant Society

 The Boston Globe notes a new phenomenon: some people in the audience at live theater performances laugh loudly when they should be weeping, or gasping, or holding their breaths in horror. 

“Rogue laughter,” as Boston-area actress Marianna Bassham calls it, has become an occupational hazard for actors, an annoyance for audiences, and an increasingly common phenomenon on stages from Boston to Broadway and from “A Streetcar Named Desire” to last year’s New York revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Denzel Washington.

Now, there is nothing funnier than a scene that aims for tragedy and misses wildly. As Oscar Wilde said, 'One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing." Let's assume, though, that this is not what the Globe author has witnessed. Let's assume that the actors in question are actually performing well, and the "increasingly common rogue laughter" is truly inappropriate. What could be causing people in the audience to behave this way?

The author identifies several different causes for inappropriate laughter: they've had a bit to drink before the show; they are used to being entertained in the privacy of their living rooms (or the imaginary privacy that people allow themselves to enjoy whenever they have a personal screen in front of them); they are used to recorded entertainment, where there are more buffers between themselves and the performers; and finally, their imaginations are so saturated with graphic portrayals of the heaviest, goriest, most transgressive outrages against humanity that things like regular old death and betrayal just don't make much of an emotional dent.

This last, unfortunately, rings the truest. Whether you call it a defect in our understanding of tragedy, or a defect in our understanding of comedy, it amounts to the same thing, because a society that avoids tragedy is a society that does not understand comedy -- and so it has no idea when to laugh and when to cry.

C.S. Lewis, in the voice of the tempter Screwtape, identifies "flippancy" as a useful tool in guiding souls to Hell:

Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.

The flippant joke, made without understanding, is appealing because it not only gives us something to laugh about, which is fun, but it gives us something to feel superior about, which feels great. Best of all, it excuses us from making any effort to pursue understanding. If a comedian says, "So . . . Catholics and condoms!" the audience will start giggling -- and not because they've read Humanae Vitae and have poked holes in its logic. They just all already agree that religious people are inherently foolish, and so any joke about sex or about Catholics is therefore funny and makes you smarter than people who aren't laughing. 

Or think of the difference between an eleven-year-old boy laughing about sex, and a forty-year-old married man laughing about sex. The grown man has probably earned his laughter; the boy can't have done so, and is laughing partly because he wants to look more experienced than he really is. True laughter, and the best jokes, come when we have some experience with the subject matter -- when we've faced something big and have survived.

When is the last time you heard a popular joke that really has a point? Or who has recently made a comedy that does more than jeer, or giggle its way through the graveyard of our modern hearts?  Can you remember a time when the word "irreverent" was used as anything but praise? It's all flippancy -- all unearned comedy, made without understanding, made as a relacement for experience, encouraging us to feel superior over an argument that nobody took the trouble to actually make, much less to win. 

Comedy and tragedy are linked. When we never think about why we're laughing, there's never a time when it's wrong to laugh. If we never think about whether we should weep, there's never a time when it's wrong to laugh. 

It's much easier to enjoy a steady stream of "irreverence" than ever to actually revere anything -- because we cannot revere what we do not make an effort to understand.  "Dead baby jokes," for instance, have been in vogue for more years than I care to research, and the undercover Planned Parenthood videos show professional men and women chatting and laughing about full term fetal dismemberment as casually as if they're planning a company barbecue. It's more than mere passive indifference that produces this laughter; it's a deliberate hardening of hearts which protects us from the kind of world we are making. We must laugh at what we've chosen not to challenge in our world. It's so much easier than thinking about it. It's much easier than allowing ourselves to weep. 

So many things have become off-limits -- "not okay," as the darkest social sins are branded -- that we have all begun to harbor a kind of dark comedic wildness and desperation inside us. We're told that we may not laugh about the differences between men and women; we must not laugh about race; we must not laugh about disabilities; we must not laugh about illness, or injustice, or history, or cultural practices. These are things that people used to make jokes about; and they used to be funny jokes, too, as long as they were born of experience. 

We must laugh. We must expel social tension, just as surely as our bodies must expel gas, or we will explode. What's left to laugh about, then? Death, I suppose. Death, and everything else that we've told ourselves we have already learned to live with. We laugh when someone on stage is talking about death, or sin, or human suffering, because what else are we supposed to do? Think hard about why it is that we're here on earth, and what might happen after we die? NOT OKAY, shouts the modern psyche. If I take death seriously, I might have to change my life. I may have to experience something I do not want to experience; I may have to earn this emotion.

If I ran a theater, I'd counsel my actors to expect more and more rogue laughter from the audience. It's a flippant culture, a culture that simultaneously accepts death and refuses to think about it; and we sure as hell don't want to earn our laughter anymore.