Cheap Applause

A few weeks ago I had dinner at the Irvine, CA “Improv” comedy club.  Though I enjoy a good laugh as much as the next guy, this was my first exposure to actually being inside a comedy club.  Being adventurous, I chose to sit in the front row (which is where you sit if you want the comedian to pick on you). 

The first thing to know before going to a comedy club is that sitting in the audience is a bit different than watching it on TV.  I suppose it’s like the difference between watching a football game on TV, versus sitting in the stands.  The experience is much more intense.  Things seem larger than life.

In retrospect, there were maybe two or three jokes that were actually funny – and by funny, I mean something that might make you laugh out loud if you were watching at home on TV.  Being there in person, it became obvious many comedians use profanity to elicit cheap laughs.  The logic goes something like this: If the joke isn’t funny – just add an expletive.  That’ll do the trick. 

Of course, some comedians (like Bill Cosby) decry this sort of comedy as mindless and debasing.  These   clean comics who refuse to work “blue” are forced to be creative and tell jokes that are actually funny.  Nevertheless, most comedians use profanity as a crutch – and it works, darn it.

Sitting in the front row of the Improv, it is easy to judge these comics as mere hacks.  But it occurred to me that a lot of politicians aren’t really that different from a lot of stand-up comedians.  Both must occasionally pander to the audience.  Both employ stagecraft, props, and various tricks to earn the audiences approval.  But instead of using profanity, politicians use “pork” as a cheap way of getting applause. 

It goes something like this: If the speech isn’t inspiring, just give away a billion dollars – and it works, darn it — even if the short-term benefit of a well-received speech isn’t worth the long-term cost to the audience.

Yes, cheap laughs and cheap applause both come at a high price to the soul and the pocketbook.  And might I suggest that in both cases, you and I pay the bill, at the end of the night.