Saturday, April 25, 2009

Disparities of laughter

One of the most difficult things about comedy is that humor is inherently subjective. What some people find hilarious may leave others non-plussed, even repulsed.

And so any time you're watching a comedy in a big audience, some people will always be laughing, while other people will always be rolling their eyes. The really successful comedies are the ones that get most of the people on the same page. (Then again, that's also the defining characteristic of the really unsuccessful ones -- but it's the wrong page).

So I don't know if the phenomenon I experienced at I Love You, Man last weekend is actually avoidable, but that didn't make it any less annoying.

And that phenomenon was this: Where I found jokes mildly amusing, the people sitting next to me were laughing their fool heads off.

It almost derailed my ability to enjoy the film. Fortunately, we moved.

Normally, I wouldn't blame people for finding a movie funnier than I do. But in this case, I did, because it was not their only disruptive behavior. These two ladies in their 60s (what is it with eccentric ladies in their 60s?) insisted on talking at nearly regular volumes, and when I finally shushed them, one of them turned and said "Really?" in an incredulous tone of voice, as if daring me to escalate things. I felt a little rush of adrenaline, but I chose not to escalate. Instead, we moved.

And so it was that I considered their unbridled cackling to be a sign of spite and rudeness rather than an involuntary reaction to their enjoyment of the movie.

But let's say these people had not been otherwise rude. The problem would have still existed. My appreciation of the film would have still been unduly biased by their enthusiastic laughter, when I wasn't at their level yet. I would have wondered why I didn't find it funnier, and would have questioned whether it was funny enough, or funny at all. And if I didn't find it funny enough, then I'd start to see these people as idiots, and the more they laughed, the more I'd be sure that this was a movie that could only be appreciated by idiots.

The thing is, I did find it funny, just not as funny as they did -- not until the movie settled in a little more, anyway. But the discrepancy between their laughter and mine could have permanently clouded my judgment if I'd let it.

Fortunately, on the other side of the theater, I was able to extricate myself from their influence, and ended up producing small fits of my own laughter pretty soon afterward. Funny thing is, though I couldn't hear them as well, I could still hear them, and they stopped laughing as hard. I guess I'm glad I don't share the same sense of humor as two eccentric seniors.

So how is a person supposed to avoid letting a laughter disparity ruin an otherwise good movie?

Well, the best strategy is to try to pick your theaters demographically, since this experience proved that it doesn't work to pick a movie according to probable audience demographics. In our diverse society, there are probably very few theaters that are frequented exclusively by certain age groups, but there are certainly theaters that skew one way or another. For some reason, the Landmark Theater in West LA, on Pico, skews old. I guess it's not that surprising -- the neighborhood is reasonably affluent, and this theater is newly refurbished within a couple years, which resulted directly in a hike in ticket prices. We love this theater, so we like to make excuses to go, but we can usually see the same movie for two dollars cheaper and a bit closer to our house. Unfortunately, I Love You, Man was not playing at favorable times at those closer theaters, so we ended up at the Landmark, without needing to have our arms twisted very far.

But you can't just avoid going too high-end -- too low-end is also a problem. We also go to The Bridge at the Howard Hughes Center, which is perhaps the closest theater to our house (although we're dead smack at the nexus of about five equidistant theaters, none more than three miles away -- ain't LA grand?). The Bridge refurbished about five years before the Landmark, meaning the initial shine has worn off a bit, the ideas of "theater fabulousness" seem slightly out of date, and a more middle to lower middle class has become the regular patron. I enjoy most movies fine here too, but certain incidents stick out -- like the time we saw Monster House in 3-D, and people were yelling at the screen. It's a kids' movie, people.

Perhaps a bit easier to control is the time you go to the movies. If you're trying to avoid eccentric old people, that 11:55 p.m. showing will certainly do it. Whether you'll stay awake through the closing credits is another story. I'm 35, and I think my days of going to 11:55 movies are behind me. But the matinee show, although cheaper, is sure to bring in those who eat their dinners at 4:30. Our showing of I Love You, Man started at 12:20.

Maybe the only way you can get a truly pure and unfettered perception of a comedy is in your own living room. With no one else around to either laugh too hard or laugh too little, there's been no baseline set for how funny it is. You laugh at what you find funny, and you don't at what you don't.

But I'd never trade the thrill of seeing a really good comedy with a really good audience. If it works out just right, the joy you feel at the jokes on display is kicked up a notch by the mutual intoxication passing between viewers. Sometimes you'll even look around at each other quickly and share a brief moment of bonding -- you've both discovered something that creates the exquisite release of hard laughter. And after all the laughter is done, and people walk out of the theater, it's with goofy grins on their faces, just a little bit dizzy from the experience. More bonding ensues in the form of knowing glances and the residual high.

Hollywood has been in a pretty good stretch, comedy-wise, but being able to genuinely laugh at a movie is certainly not something we should take for granted. As quickly as it came upon us, it could be gone again, maybe for years.

So do your best to avoid having that experience tainted. You'll thank me for it.

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