Laughs are better than applause

A while back, I wrote about how applause breaks are analytical and laughter is primal. In this interview [thx JW], Norm Macdonald talks about why he prefers laughs to claps.

I was getting people to clap, but I reached a point where I never wanted to get people to clap, because it was, like you said, pandering. But there's a difference between a clap and a laugh. A laugh is involuntary, but the crowd is in complete control when they're clapping, they're saying, "we agree with what you're saying-proceed!" But when they're laughing, they're genuinely surprised. And when they're not laughing, they're really surprised. And sometimes I think, in my little head, that that's the best comedy of all.

He also talks about why he doesn't do the same set every night.

If you want to say the same thing every night of your life, if that's what you want to choose to do with your life, that seems completely insane to me. Like, I don't even know how singers do that shit. Plus is becomes so rote that unless you're the greatest actor in the world, you can't pretend like it's just coming off the top of your head. I'm probably the worst actor in the world, so I need something new all the time. I need stuff that makes me laugh, and old stuff doesn't make me laugh. And also I'm embarrassed. Like, you know when you tell a person a story that you've already told them before? That's embarrassing, right? So I would be embarrassed by it, but mostly I would be driven insane by the repetition.

I often thought comics that weave and bob onstage — alternating between crowdwork, riffing, and material — have more fun than guys who just go out and do mostly the same set every night. Comics who come to mind: Todd Barry, Todd Lynn, Patrice O'Neal, Jimmy Pardo, etc.

That approach prob sets ya back a bit when it comes to churning out albums and TV specials. But ya probably enjoy the ride along the way a lot more.


soce said...

If I ever get a TV special, then I am going to tell very short, quick jokes and wait 2 minutes after each punchline for the massive applause breaks. 4 realz though have you seen that on tv sometimes??

It's weird to watch a rapid-fire delivery comedian who you've seen in a small, 10-20 person room do a tv special when all of a sudden they are waaaaaaay slowed down, doing the applause-style repertoire.

Also I have been amazed that most comedians can repeat their sets exactly each night. That would drive me crazy.. I always switch up song order for every show. I also sometimes get frustrated when there's a comedian I really enjoy, but I don't see him perform very often because he does the same set each time--

myq said...

I don't believe Todd Barry's album or television productivity has been hindered by his style.

Albums are different from TV, as well, for the most part (I believe people have more control over the content of an album than they do sometimes over TV specials, and for that or other reasons might be more likely to have more riffing, crowdwork, or other non-planned moments on a CD than in a more choreographed, more carefully plotted TV special).

Jimmy Pardo has an album full of crowdwork.

For that matter, I believe Paula Poundstone did a TV special full of it also.
(And now she gets to do her thing on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me."

If it's people's strong suit, it works, whatever the venue.

Of course, on the subject of telling the same jokes repeatedly, that's also how jokes get better.
I believe Seinfeld said that it took him six months on average to feel comfortable that a joke was completely done (or something to that effect).
Unless you're talking one-liners, which could be judged as a success after fewer performances, I'd say story-tellers and longer-form jokers would be best served BY doing the same material night after night for a certain amount of time.
(It is unfortunate for the audience members who might see them too many of those times in close proximity, but it's necessary to improve.)

Unless you're one of those people whose stories come out perfectly the first time, and you don't have to worry about getting better. (And I don't mean this sarcastically. I believe there are people for whom this is close to being the case, if not exactly the case.)
So, certainly for those people, just keep coming up with shit. Make us all feel good to hear it and bad about ourselves for not being able to do it as good/much.

ECN said...

"Fun" is such a nebulous, subjective concept, though.

Personally, I'm a comic who does material, not only because it works, but because THAT'S what I find fun. I can find at least as much fascination and enjoyment in delivering a hundred iterations of the same joke, each one slightly different, re-timed and edited on the fly to coincide with the tenor of the audience, each one striving to get the maximum reaction, as you (or whoever) can in a set full of surprises and big endless variety. Those kinds of small details may not be of interest to everyone, but I happen to have the kind of mind that's drawn to them.

Conversely, I don't find extensive ad-libbing fun. I like to know where I am at every moment; if people are constantly throwing things at me, or I don't know my next move, that's not "fun" for me, that's nerve-wracking. And honestly, I like to go into a set with the almost certain knowledge that I won't bomb, or derail the show. The alternative would terrify me, and I on't know about you, but I tend not to enjoy terror. Certainly, a Jimmy Pardo or a Todd Barry are highly unlikely to bomb -- because they're very funny people with a lot of experience in that kind of comedy. But the risk is always there, and doubly so for someone who's not as attuned to crowd work as they are.

Which is not to say that those guys AREN'T fascinated by details, by the idea of following the same basic concept through a theoretically infinite number of trials. I don't know what they're fascinated by. And that's the great thing about stand-up comedy -- as long as the end result is the same (the audience laughing), everyone's free to go about it as they enjoy. So I would stop short of assuming that something you don't find enjoyable isn't, for some people, the entire point.

ECN said...

And one more point... that's really a weird argument, the notion that eliciting an involuntary reaction is somehow better than eliciting a considered, voluntary one. By that logic, a cheap B horror movie designed to evoke momentary shock is better than a film full of subtle, interesting characters and situations. One just manipulates a primal urge, the other appeals on a fuller level to the brain's higher functions.

I mean, that's going too far, of course. There are cheap ways to get laughs OR applause. For every comic scoring applause breaks by pandering, there's a shock comic who's going out there and shocking people (as is his wont.) And one's getting applause, one's getting laughs, but neither one of them is creating anything especially memorable.

I mean, in the ideal situation -- and, I'd argue, MOST situations involving applause breaks -- comedians are getting laughs AND applause. Somebody says something funny, elicits laughter, then the audience thinks (consciously), "hey, that was really funny!" And then the applause follows, as a second wave. It's the combination of the two -- it works on one level, but then when you process it rationally, it really holds up. Avoiding applause breaks deliberately, to me, tends to privilege the kind of laughs that don't hold up.

(Which, when you look at Norm MacDonald's career... he's a funny guy, don't get me wrong, but you can't deny the pattern of self-sabotage that has always hindered him. Or always not hindered him, as the case may be. I'm not going to judge what he wants... I do get the impression that he's fairly happy with his lot in life, so good for him. I just wonder whether he's the guy you want to make a pattern out of.)

londoncalling said...

You yanks are crazy for the applause breaks ! You should do gigs in london , the applause breaks are very very rare and only for stuff the audience really dig so they are treasured by the comic

Matt Ruby said...

And one more point... that's really a weird argument, the notion that eliciting an involuntary reaction is somehow better than eliciting a considered, voluntary one. By that logic, a cheap B horror movie designed to evoke momentary shock is better than a film full of subtle, interesting characters and situations. One just manipulates a primal urge, the other appeals on a fuller level to the brain's higher functions.
Yeah, but we're talking about comedy, not movies. The job of a comedian is to get laughs, not applause IMO.

Dan Cartwright said...

I have to agree with Myq’s point and disagree with Norm a bit on his take of people who “Do the same thing”.

Good jokes/bits/stories take time to reach their full potential. Doing things in reputation on stage is really the only way to not only get your mind wrapped around how you’re going to say each word for maximum effectiveness but also to get a read on whether or not the ideas you have in your head are actually funny to the ultimate judge of the audience.

For me, good well thought out jokes are always better then someone just riffing and having a fun on stage. Sure the latter may be more organic and as such receive bigger laughs, but it’s the former that is really rewarding in the end.

Which is where I respectfully disagree with you Matt on your statement that “the job of a comedian is to get laughs”. For me this is only true on a base level; As a bare minimum comedians are there to get laughs (and certainly any comedian worth his salt can get laughs) but what separates the great ones is their ability to excel and go beyond.

For instances George Carlin got laughs sure, but one of the reasons I feel he became so huge was his social commentary. His take on the seven deadly words was not only funny but a well thought out criticism of censorship on television. He became a truth teller of sorts by pointing out hypocrisy in the world and shared that viewpoint with his fans. Jon Stewart does that same thing on The Daily Show. Bill Cosby was a much more story driven comedian who gave his life story in a way that many fans could related to and were touched by. One of your idols, Louis CK has become a myth buster of life, taking an honest look at marriage and children in a way that many can relate to.

I feel like your selling comedians short by just labeling them as being just there to get laughs. I can get laughs anywhere, it’s when a comedian starts to give more is when it starts getting interesting and really special.

myq said...

I agree with Dan's agreeing with me.

The only thing I'll add (unless I think of more to add besides this only thing, along the way, in some organic in-the-moment write-riffing that deserves applause) is this:
if it's a choice between getting ONLY laughs or ONLY applause, I don't think you'd be a comedian if you chose applause.
Like people have said, getting laughs is certainly the main entry-level baseline goal of being a comedian. I think Matt said something to this effect in his original laugh/clap post--that if you're getting applause but not laughs, that's great for something, but not comedy.
Laughs are good.
Laughs AND applause are also good (maybe better? certainly, if the applause is warranted, in whatever way one might measure the deserving of applause).

Thank you very much!
I hope everyone was applauding the whole way through.
But not laughing.
Until now.
Or now.

Kent said...

The problem with applause is that there are so many varieties that aren't ideal for comedians.

There's "He just listed a crazy long list of things!" applause, "That was a good impression of that guy!" applause, and "I also smoke weed!" applause, to name a few.

But there is also "Holy shit, that guy is so funny that laughing is not enough!" applause. And I am fine with that applause. Or I will be, when I get it.

myq said...

Good point, Kent.

I applaud you.*
Because of the list you made.

(And because you do a good impression of a guy that also smokes weed.)

* I believe in writing is the only place I find it acceptable to use the phrase "I applaud you." Because if you're saying it aloud and not doing it, you're lying. And if you're doing it, why do you need to say it?

Matt Ruby said...

An aloud "I applaud you" is kinda like when people say (without laughing), "That's so funny." If it's so funny, you should be laughing, silly rabbit.

myq said...

I'd say it's more like typing "LOL" when you are not L-ing at all.

Because things CAN be funny without your laughing at them.

But if you're SAYING that you're laughing or applauding when you're not, you are LYING out loud. (Or in typing form.)

soce said...

I agree with Kent about the good applause. I'll clap at a small show if someone makes a reference that I really dig or states something I deeply agree with. But it'll be fast, like 2 or 3 claps max.

The applause I like the least is the forced break when a comedian suddenly starts speaking really quickly and delivers a long, fast monologue about something. It's cool if it was really funny of course, but sometimes it's like we're just applauding him for having made a prepared speech, getting really repetitive or acting something out that's annoying, regardless of quality.

myq said...


When form is being rewarded instead of content, that's unfortunate.

Ideally, those long complicated rants that are difficult to do on one breath will be purposeful in getting some meaning across in ADDITION to being physically taxing and impressive to get out, which makes it even more impressive and worthwhile and deserving of legitimate applause.

I just typed that all on whatever the equivalent of one breath is for fingers.

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