Why do people love to laugh but hate comedy?

NYC → LA transplant Matteson Perry suggested this blog topic in an email:

One of the most interesting things about comedy is the disconnect between how much everyone loves laughing, and how little respect comedy gets on the whole. No one would ever say "I hate laughing" but plenty would say "I hate comedy". The Moth Attracts 150+ people every week in NYC, and the funniest story usually wins and yet it's a struggle to get 30 people to a great stand up show. Mysterious.

Hmm, not sure it's that mysterious. First of all, there's only a handful of storytelling shows compared to the dozens of standup shows available every night of the week in NYC. So I can see how supply/demand might favor storytelling shows.

Also, from what I understand, The Moth is huge. Hit podcast, mentions on This American Life, big name drop-ins, etc. I'm sure there are storytelling shows that struggle to get attendees too, right?

As for people who "hate" comedy, I think people hate certain things about live comedy. First of all, it forces you to pay attention. At a bad rock show, you can talk to a friend or hang in the back and tune out. Comedy demands 100% rapt attention. And that's why it's so grating when it's bad. You're trapped in a painful performance prison. (A bad play is also an awful experience. John Mulaney has a great bit about that.)

Also, I'm reminded of something a civilian friend told me about a visit to a comedy club. He went with his girlfriend and the person seating audience wanted to sit him and his gal in the front. He asked not to be seated there. He said he didn't want to have any interaction with the comics, he just wanted to watch the show. The person seating him told him not to worry, it wouldn't be a problem.

Sure enough, the first comic comes out and starts fucking with him and his gal. He hangs in for a minute, but the comic keeps it up so he gets up and walks out.

He's mentioned it a couple of times to me. It really pissed him off and he felt lied to and doesn't want to go to another comedy show. He doesn't discern between club and alt shows. He just thinks comedy shows involve that kinda assholery and he doesn't feel like dealing with it. And I understand that.

From a comedian's perspective, it's always painful to be at a show where everyone sits in the back and leaves the front rows open (I often open up in a room like that by calling it "the prevent defense" of crowd formations). But y'know what? I think those people are smart to avoid the front. I never want to sit at the front of a comedy show either. Seems like there's some sort of fundamental problem when the best seats in the house are the last place people want to sit.


Badinia said...

Great topic- I have had several people recently say, "Comedy's not really my thing-" I think they mean they don't like bad comedy, which most people think is comedy. I mean everyone likes to laugh, but not everyone wants to be asked who in the crowd is single ladies, and who's drinking? WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP

Sam Morril said...

I used to seat people at Broadway Comedy Club, and it was a PAIN to get people in the front row, and I couldn't blame them. They're paying money. Why shouldn't they get to choose their seats? It's not just club comics who do that though. Club MC's often have more of a routine about crowd work, but those who provoke audience members are generally either not doing well or just idiots. It's cool to interact in a way that brings them in and makes the show stronger, but unless they initiate the conversation or mess up your joke, why fuck with them?

You make a good point about comedy demanding more attention then a music show, for example. So many audiences/young people are self-involved and ADD, and I think that's how most interactions start between myself and audience members. They groan or in some way have to make the joke about them, and I have to address it. If they're just enjoying the show, awesome, but if they wanna throw in a tag after my joke, they're disrupting the show.

Matt Ruby said...

A good host will often chat up the crowd up top to bring the room together. I get that. Unfort that can go south quickly when done poorly. But ignoring the crowd completely can also be a bad idea. It's a fine line.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

"Seems like there's some sort of fundamental problem when the best seats in the house are the last place people want to sit."

Interesting observation.

The people who want to be seated up front are likely to be trouble-makers who want to be closer to the spotlight. It's the people who don't care where they sit who should sit up front--they're ready to be quiet and enjoy the show. People who are afraid to be talked to on any level should just stay home. They make it weird when it's not even weird. And when they're not being startled into communication they're quiet laughers who don't want to draw attention to themselves. They most likely would rather have their comedy in TV-form and then give a high five to a cardboard cut-out.

soce said...

I went to a show with a friend, and the comedian started talking to my friend during his set. I thought it was going to be super embarrassing, but my friend was actually having a blast and enjoying every moment of it.

myq said...

"It's the people who don't care where they sit who should sit up front--they're ready to be quiet and enjoy the show."

This is exactly right.

If people have no preference, give them the best seats possible.

If people prefer to not be up front, give them that.

If people prefer to be up front, it's a crap shoot--they could just be big fans who want good seats; they could be douchebags who want to be the center of attention (though they can disrupt things from the back of the room too, most likely).

PS Regarding the fact that bad plays are also painful like bad comedy is--what's weird is that doesn't lead people to generally say "I hate theater." Most people in that situation will recognize that that horrible experience isn't representative of all theater, but some people DO make the leap with comedy.

Many people just aren't really as familiar with the concept that there's different types of comedy shows, even though logically they understand that there are different types of comedians.

So a lot of people saying "I hate comedy" really mean one of the following:

1) I went to an open mic once and it sucked.
2) I went to a bad show once.
3) I went to a show and someone made fun of me.
4) I am afraid of that #3 will happen.
5) I saw some famous comedian and they sucked.
6) Some other stuff I haven't thought of.

What can be done to help people learn that good comedians/shows/comedy experiences are out there, after they've been spoiled by a bad one or the fear of a bad one or the story of someone else experiencing a bad one?

If these people are our friends, obviously we can point them to the good shows/comics/experiences, and remind them that just because one play sucks, doesn't mean all theater sucks. (Theater sucks because ALL plays suck. Boom. Take that, theater! You shouldn't have sat up front. PPS I like theater. Just making bad comedy jokes. Don't assume all comedy jokes are like this.)

Plus maybe other things?

Sam Zayvan said...

The reason people don't like comedy is that there is so much bad stand up in the world. The average person will tell you something like "I'll go to a comedy show if I know its somebody famous like Chris Rock, but I'm not gonna risk listening to amateurs because it will probably be awful."

I think the reason there is so much horrible stand up is because people see a comic they like and just try to imitate him or her, forgetting that comedy is funny because it is real and personal and authentic. A good comic gives you a glimpse of their mind and thought processes and you feel like you get to know them. I would rather listen to a slam poet or just somebody tell a story about their life and not laugh than hear another guy be like "don't you hate it when you're at a supermarket and the guy in front of you is slow... blah blah blah" or tell some stupid made-up story that is just nonsense. That type of shit insults the intelligence of the audience, which is way worse than a story that doesn't make them laugh or something.

Sam Zayvan said...

Also, a lot of guy sucks at doing crowd work, so instead of saying witty things they are just assholes to the audience.

Josh Homer said...

I agree with Sam. Unfortunately the current trend is absurdist humor with no authenticity to it; made up stories that ring of fiction.

myq said...


Regarding this statement:
"I'll go to a comedy show if I know its somebody famous like Chris Rock, but I'm not gonna risk listening to amateurs because it will probably be awful."

If that's the kind of thinking people hate comedy are doing, then the problem is NOT that there's too much bad standup. (Which I'm not debating. Of course there's tons of bad standup. Just as much as there's tons of shitty bands. But people don't think of "music" as this all-encompassing thing that's either good or bad, and usually only good when the band is famous enough.)

The problem IS that people don't KNOW or understand standup as much as they do other forms of art/entertainment...

We all know that there are many levels between "amateur" and "Chris Rock."

If you go to the Comedy Cellar any night of the week, sure you might see Dave Attell or Colin Quinn or another famous person you've heard of. But if you're an average human being (not a comedy afficionado), you'll also see five or six acts that you've never heard of who are incredibly talented, and you'll see a great show. That's not a risk.

It's foolish to judge an entire genre by individuals who are not representative of the whole. No one eats at McDonald's, gets sick, and is turned off to all food. (Perhaps not the best example.)

This is the whole reason the initial alternative scene began, in my understanding. People didn't like the paradigm of straight white male-dominated sexist, homophobic club comedy... so Garafalo and Griffin and Gould and Maron and whoever else started doing different things at alternative venues as a response to anyone who thought "I hate comedy."

It's weird that people are still saying it though, because these alternatives still exist, and are much more plentiful now. (Though I say that as someone who lives in NYC. If you're outside of a major metropolitan area and you only have one comedy club near you and it doesn't bring in the kind of comedy you like, then I am more accepting of your "I don't like comedy" assessment. Because you don't have any likable comedy near you. But especially in this internet age we live in, it still doesn't really make sense to rule out "comedy" overall.)

Basically, isn't what people are saying this: "I dislike bad things." And then shouldn't the answer be "hey, look at these good things!"?

So, just tell everyone who complains about comedy what shows to go to, what CDs to buy, what blogs to read, what festivals to look out for, etc. Just run their life and everyone wins.

PS Marginally relevant to one point from before--I think one main reason that bad standup seems more prevalent than shitty bands is that shitty bands can be shitty in private before they become less shitty, but shitty standups have to do it in public.

Josh Homer said...

"This is the whole reason the initial alternative scene began, in my understanding. People didn't like the paradigm of straight white male-dominated sexist, homophobic club comedy..."

so now what about the alt scene, which although mostly gay friendly is not the bastion of racial blending. I hear the most racist crap at alt shows "no one wants to be Mexican" "How long does it take for a nigger to take a shit?" etc etc etc, ad nauseum. The alt scene, IMO, has become what it hated, it's a white heterosexual dominated scene.

myq said...

I agree that that kind of racist crap is horrendous.

And I agree that comedy in general is dominated by white heterosexual males, and thus they are plentiful in the alt scene as well.

However, the "alt scene" is such a gigantic umbrella term now, including shows like wherever you saw that "take a shit" joke to the Comedians of Comedy... Alternative comedy has expanded so much in both size of the scene and meaning of the term, so I completely agree that there are some shows and comedians doing what you're doing.

But there's also Reggie Watts, one of the most revered figures and possibly the most representative person of alternative comedy in the world right now, in my opinion. There's also Hannibal and Kumail and Wyatt Cenac, all of whom who are or were staples at places like Eugene Mirman's shows and all the other "cool kid" venues, and now are all over the Comedy Death-Ray schedule out in LA, which is one of the main west coast alt-comedy havens... The past few months I've seen Aparna Nancherla and Hari Kondabolu doing tons of spots at rooms all over the downtown alt zone...

The Bridgetown Comedy Festival this year featured folks like Hannibal, Hari Kondabolu, Victor Varnado, W. Kamau Bell, Rex Navarrete, Ron Funches, and Baron Vaughn (plus some famous folks like Tim Meadows, Danny Pudi, Oscar Nunez, etc.).

Yes, comedy is full of mostly white people.
Yes, some number of people are assholes.
Not arguing that.

Just saying that the alt scene does embrace a wide range of diverse acts, specifically revering as its heroes folks like Reggie, Hannibal, etc. And as for the "take a shit" jokesters? Well, I don't even know who that is specifically, so that says something also.

PS As I got to the end here, it occurred to me that these are two fairly separate issues. One, how diverse is the community (if the community can be defined at all specifically). Two, how much of the non-diverse community is saying racist shit?

I don't know the answer to the second question, and however much it is, agreed that it's shitty. But the answer to the first I think I covered at length above. Because while there may be some shit included under the umbrella, I believe the spirit of alternative comedy still perseveres as inclusive and progressive.

Matteson said...

I disagree that some people hate comedy in general because there's "too much bad stand up comedy". 1, as Myq said, there is bad everything. There are bad plays, bands, artists, movies, etc. Heck, I'd say 8 out of 10 movies released are bad, but people still go to the movies. 2, most of America isn't seeing bad comedy. In LA and NYC there are a ton of comics, a ton of new comics, and a ton of shows, and therefore a lot of bad comedy. Outside of LA or NYC there is probably only 1 or 2 comedy clubs near you and they're only booking seasoned vets and famous people, Unless they're seeking out new talent nights, when the average person goes to see comedy they're seeing a pro show. (may not be something hip that the comedy nerds approve of, but it's going to be a pro show).

I think there are two main reasons why some people are turned off by comedy completely.

1 - A lot of comedy is very agressive and negative in tone and a lot of people don't like that. Whether it's a comedian attacking an audience member directly (a very real/strong fear for a lot of people, myself included) or just being negative about life in general, it turns a lot of people off. I'm someone that does comedy and loves watching comedy and even I get tired of it sometimes. Obviously there are a lot of exceptions to this rule, but in general I think stand up is a negative and aggressive form of comedy. It's a strength of the form (it allows for ugly truths to be explored in ways not possible in other venues) but it also turns people off.

2- I think the other thing working against stand up is the venue in which most people see live comedy - a comedy club. The tickets are often expensive, the foods not very good there's the constant pressure of meeting the minimum, an the show is being interrupted by a waiter all the time. Most businesses are designed to get repeat business, while comedy clubs seem to believe they need to get the most money possible out of their customers because they won't be back anytime soon, and if they do come back it will have more to do with the talent then the club experience itself. And I don't blame the clubs for this. I don't think it's an evil plan. I just think that the market has dictated that that's how people watch comedy. For most people it's a 1-2 times per year deal, when they have a special event or a favorite comic is in town, so clubs can't survive if they only get $10/customer - they need to get the $50 that expensive tickets and drink minimums bring in. Clubs need to make money and they've learned this is how you do it. It just happens to be, in my opinions, not nearly the best way to see comedy.

I think the two best ways to see comedy are in a theater (only available to really popular comics) or at a cheap alternative show with young talented comics in NYC or LA (not available to people outside of those cities) so most people aren't going to experience either of those. Any friend I've ever taken to a good "alt" show in NYC has been impressed by the quality and really enjoyed themselves.

Anyway, there's my 2 cents (actually, that's probably a lot more than 2 cents).

myq said...

I agree with Matteson, and not just because he agrees with me, and would add only this one thing--

Another good place to see comedy besides a good, cheap alt show or a theater: a good, reasonable comedy club.

If you live in a town with only one club, it is unfortunate that you are at the mercy of that club, if they follow the model Matteson laid out. But there are some good ones out there, where the owners do actually understand that putting on a good show AND treating the audience with respect (price-wise, service-wise, and otherwise) is good for repeat business.

Regarding the point about much of comedy being an aggressive/negative art form, I would say that that seems to be feeding into a stereotype that certainly doesn't fit all comics. Some of the most famous (Bill Cosby, Seinfeld, Steven Wright) I would consider neither aggressive nor negative. Are they exceptional?

Looking at the Itunes top comedy album charts right now, the top 25 include Doug Benson, Aziz Ansari, Hedberg, Gaffigan, Nick Swardson, Gabriel Iglesias... all people who also don't fit the aggressive/negative mold. (Lewis Black is there too, so of course I'm not saying that that paradigm doesn't exist, but just that if this is part of what people don't like about comedy, it's more their IMPRESSION that so much comedy is like that, rather than the FACT that so much comedy is like that, that makes them feel that way.)

Matteson said...

@Myq - regarding clubs, of course your right - there are well run clubs that treat their customers well (I think most TRY to treat their customers well actually. There's just an inherent need to charge quite a bit of money because most people just don't go to see comedy as much as they would, say, go to the movies).

I think the people you mention broke through precisely because they're not negative or aggressive. I think they were embraced by the general public because they don't do a negative form of comedy (and b/c they're very talented of course).

But is their "positivity" an theexception? My general, unscientific, gut feeling is that stand up comedy in general is often aggressive/negative. Right or wrong, that's the impression I got, and I'm not someone that has been to one show and had a bad experience. Maybe I have that feeling because I've been to a lot of open mics, which often are filled with misery.

What percentage of comics are in general negative and/or aggressive? I don't know It might be less than 50%. It may even be closer to 25%. Not totally sure. But what I am sure of is that if you go to a comedy show there's almost a 100% chance that at least one of the comics will be negative and/or aggressive. And this one negative/aggressive comic could taint the whole show for someone that doesn't like that kind of thing (even if the comic is very funny).

ECN said...

Ultimately, it's all about quality control.

There are plenty of comics at all levels of experience, doing all styles of comedy, who can consistently put on a good show, and are driven to do so.

But there are a lot of shows -- especially smaller shows, and especially in big cities -- where the bookers don't have the sense to just book acts who can kill. Or they book people who have the talent to kill consistently but lack motivation, and then don't hold them to standards.

There are a lot of reasons for this, from apathy to nepotism to some misplaced belief in "fairness". ("We need to let that guy bomb occasionally, just to make sure he hasn't stopped being awful!")

I mean, ultimately, the problem is that a lot of these shows (not all, but a lot) are run by people who are either too new or too mediocre to be running a show, so they're beholden to the acts they book -- open micers who have to book their open micer friends, open micers who book veteran comics but don't have the power to do anything if those veterans go up unprepared. It's a bad idea to book from a position of weakness.

And don't get me started on hosting.

Anonymous said...

people are confused here- the initial premise "people love to laugh" is not necessarily true. MANY people dont like to laugh because they think it shows a weakness on their part. the fact is we live in a society where coolness trumps joy.

think about it- if laughing was really the penultimate human release, there wouldnt be words like cheesy, or corny or goofy.

Some Bloke said...

The truth is, while few will admit it, people who say they hate comedy actually do hate laughing. Why do they hate to laugh? Who knows? Some people enjoy being angry. Most of them also refuse to admit that. However, I have a good friend that openly admits to disliking laughter, including hating to laugh himself. You're over thinking it.

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