Slapdash: L is for “Laughter”Posted: 15 May 2013
From the inaccurately titled A to Z of Slapdash:
2. L is for “Laughter”
Slapdash is a “festival of improvised theatre and comedy”. Most improv shows prefer to advertise themselves in the “Comedy” listings, rather than under “Theatre”. This is due to the laughter that most improvised performance provokes. Maybe that’s why many improvisers judge the success or failure of a show based on a measurement of laughter. Chasing laughs, however, is both pointless and impossible.
Laughter itself is itself too varied a phenomenon to be of much use as a gauge of success. There are simply too many different kinds of laughter. Laughter can be cruel or joyful, solitary or collective, defensive or open. Sometimes we laugh when we are deeply uncomfortable. We laugh both when a story delivers its predictable payoff, and when it catches us out and subverts its premise.
When I watched the very first 50-Hour London Improvathon, I stayed awake for much of the show. During the course of that experience, I developed a new laugh that I had never laughed before. The combination of sleeplessness and extreme silliness caused a funnel in my insides that I’d kept tightly corked my whole life to blast into life, and I found myself laughing out of every orifice simultaneously.
The next time you go to a standup gig, or a sketch show, or an improv performance, listen carefully to the laughter the audience produces (if any). Is it a harsh, strident honk, a squeaky titter, or a diaphragm-deep belly hollar? Each individual has their own laugh, but collective laughter has a distinctive character too. Listen to how an audience laughs at “edgy” politically incorrect standup. It sounds completely different from the laughter that whimsical language and ridiculous situations provoke, or the laughter that you get at a joyfully chaotic show with performers tripping over and the scenery collapsing.
The laughter an improv show inspires is, I believe, a distinctive one, and one that has its origin further back in human evolution and development than other, more sophisticated, forms of comedy. It is the laughter of surprise, of spontaneous creation, of patterns and broken patterns. Some people will disagree with me, and others may regard it an academic matter of semantics, but I find it more useful to regard the goal of improvisation as “joy” rather than “comedy”. Sadly, the listings magazines do not yet have a separate section headed “Joy”, so we will have to make do with “Comedy” for now. There will be much laughter of many different flavours to be had at the Slapdash Festival. In the meantime, watch these quadruplets carefully and tell me what you learn from them about improvised theatre: