I attended a taping of The Colbert Report recently and had an excellent time. There was one aspect of the experience that bothered me just a little and I felt that I needed to report about it here. You may be wondering what could have possibly gone wrong in an experience where I got completely free tickets to see one of the funniest political comedians do his show in front of an audience of maybe one hundred people, if that. It was nothing to do with the show itself but rather something that happened during the the preparation time before the show that set me off.

I arrived for the taping at five thirty and showed my photo identification along with my two guests. We got at the end of what was then a pretty short line and eventually were given tickets. The person giving out the tickets asked if we were ready to have a great time and we said that we were. A little more time passed and we went into a waiting room area after we passed through a metal detector and had our bags inspected. At a certain point a gentleman came out and announced that we were soon going to be entering and then came the announcement that I have been considering ever since.

He said that Stephen Colbert fed off the energy of the audience and therefore it was extremely important that we laughed and applauded as loudly and as hard as we could. In the past, he said, there were audiences that only did an okay job of laughing and applauding and the show suffered as a result. As a tip, a person could know that a joke had been made if there was a pause after saying something. Furthermore, he said that it didn’t matter if we found a joke to be funny or not — we were required to laugh nevertheless. Not just to laugh — again, to laugh as hard as possible, and as loudly as we could. He asked us to do a test applause, to see how well we applauded.

A warm-up comedian came out before the show itself and told jokes for awhile and at some point he too told us about the importance of laughing loudly and applauding hard. I wondered exactly what was wrong with the situation if it was necessary for we, the audience, to be told multiple times that we had to applaud and laugh when a joke was made. What kind of applause and laughter is it if it is being imposed on an audience by the overseers of the show?

The show itself was extremely funny — at least I thought it was. I couldn’t genuinely tell how the rest of the audience felt about it because I didn’t know if they were laughing and applauding because they appreciated the humor, or if they were laughing and applauding because they were told that they had to do it. That fact bothered me, even though I normally would not have even given a thought about the reaction of the rest of the audience — other than when my wife Elizabeth and I are watching a film in public and we seem to be the only people laughing at jokes.

What do you do when you are instructed to feel a way you may not necessarily feel? There’s a great scene in the film Pulp Fiction where John Travolta’s character tells Uma Thurman’s character that he would like to ask her something but only if she promises not to get offended. Her reply is perfect.

You can’t promise something like that. I have no idea what you’re gonna ask. You could ask me what you’re gonna ask me, and my natural response could be to be offended. Then, through no fault of my own, I woulda broken my promise.

Don’t make me promise to applause and laugh. My natural response to your joke could be to not be amused. If that is the case, of what value is my false applause and laughter?

9 Comments

  1. I’m glad you wrote about this, Gordon, but I think what you experienced is pretty standard — especially for sitcoms and comedy shows.

    Audiences have to be taught how to react since they’re part of the show. It’s sort of like learning how to properly applaud:

    http://unitedstage.com/2010/03/22/learning-how-to-properly-applaud/

    The old network radio shows used lighted, flashing, “APPLAUSE” signs to cue the audience reactions and that practice continued into the Golden Age of television and beyond.

    David Letterman keeps his studio especially cold to keep his audiences awake and alert and ready to laugh.

  2. People are generally polite in public situations, Gordon. Pushing them to laugh and clap gives them permission to “act out” at what is, in essence, a satirical send-up show. That splitting of intentions that Colbert does so well can confuse people — and politicians! You calm their fears of risking doing the wrong thing and being embarrassed by ordering them to behave as they wish — and then they don’t have to worry about not being validated in their urge to participate.