Is Overenthusiasm Worse Than Heckling?

It’s going on five years since I’ve regularly watched late night comedy. In my living room, the Conans, the Colberts, and the Lettermen have long been relegated to the occasional Hulu clip or momentary lapse in channel flipping. It’s not that I’ve grown weary of the predictable jokes or well-tread formats, nor have I tired of the stilted banter between host and project-shilling celebrity.

It’s the audience. The wooing, shrieking, deafening audience.

Over the last two decades, live comedy crowds have devolved into a wailing, boorish lot — reacting to every one-liner as if Morton Downey, Jr. just choke-slammed a Greenpeace activist. For the performers, that could either mean a constant struggle to get a word in edgewise or, in many cases, a toxic complacency toward effortless approval. Between the disruptive hooting and the countless laurel-resting careers, why isn’t overenthusiasm placed in the same league as heckling?

Now, I’ve always been very aware of both studio audiences and canned laugh tracks — obsessively so. I can tell you which moments in I Love Lucy reuse a clip of a woman — purportedly Lucille Ball’s mother — saying “Uh-oh!” amidst the chuckles. In the “Puffy Shirt” episode of Seinfeld, I know that the sight of homeless men in the billowy garb spurs a woman to say “Oh, my God!” And when Zack Morris tells off Stacey Carosi in the Malibu Sands Beach Club for being so stuck up, I revel in the moment some punk kid hisses, “Bust-ihd!”

But aside from the novelty of those examples, the volume of comedy audiences is extremely problematic for me. No matter how hard I try, I can’t ignore their behavior or prevent it from affecting how I feel about the performance. And more often than not, a rowdy, overzealous crowd will discourage me from coming back.

Although featuring some stellar material, Patton Oswalt’s 222 and the Marijuana-Logues’ self-titled album contain exceptionally wasted crowds who manage to drown out both recordings. Upon subsequent plays, I found it almost impossible to focus on the jokes and ignore the incoherent shouts — until the point came when I regrettably couldn’t listen to either.

Drunken revelry even got the better of George Carlin during his 1996 HBO special Back in Town when he had to incorporate three bellowing frat guys in the front row into his “Free-Floating Hostility” chunk. Fed up with their interruptions, he decried “white guys over ten years of age who wear their baseball hats backwards” in his list of despicable things. Despite flowing into an amazing ad-lib and culminating into a beautiful comeuppance, it just doesn’t erase the previous 50 minutes of annoying distraction.

I realize a boisterous crowd bothers me more than most comedy fans. And it pains me that one woman’s shrill laugh sucks much of the fun out of Bill Hicks’ masterful Arizona Bay. But when an entire Daily Show audience starts doing backflips at the mere mention of a bleepable word, I know I can’t be alone.

In fact, I know I’m not. Here’s an excerpt from an AV Club interview with Conan O’Brien from 2001:

There’s this phenomenon now in America of just, “Yeah, woo!” People go “Woo!” If you ever watch Total Request Live, everybody does that. It’s a phenomenon that depresses me. I think it’s partly daytime talk shows like Jerry Springer and stuff. It’s encouraged on so many shows. “Woo!” It’s encouraged, so all they know is that when they want to be part of the show and they’re having a good time, they want to “Woo” in the correct spot. They’re not really listening. So they wait until after I’m done with a joke, and then they go, “Woo! Oh, yeah!” It’s kind of not why I got into comedy. If I wanted that, I’d have become a jai-alai player or something.

I agree with Conan. It’s an entirely non-conducive response to comedy and it does seem like a recent development. If you remember episodes of Saturday Night Live in the late-’80s/early-’90s — when Conan was a staff writer with Bob Odenkirk and Robert Smigel — sketches would die. I mean, they would fucking die. Crickets chirped, coughs echoed. Nowadays, I’d be surprised if a “10-to-1” sketch doesn’t receive a healthy dose of spirited laughter.

So, has the writing for SNL steadily improved? Or have studio audiences grown more enthusiastic and, in turn, forgiving?

Well, if people like Wendy Williams are getting standing ovations prior to every show, “forgiving” might be the operative word.

Think about that for a second. Wendy Williams, George Lopez, and the women from The View are getting standing ovations. Regularly. Do performers even need to try once they reach a certain level of fame? What good is earning your keep if never need to maintain it? When did the highest honor for an entertainer become as frivolous as the wave? How concerned is a headlining comic with topic choice and joke construction when everything they say garners gut-busting cackles and throat-straining cheers?

And most importantly, how is any of this better than heckling?

Both heckling and overenthusiasm are aggressively intrusive, disrupt the comedian’s flow, and are the product of audience members who “want to be part of the show.” But only the former is vilified in the comedy community and will provoke the performer to retaliate. Even though heckling is condemned by just about every comedian, they admit it hones their craft, trains them to think on their feet, and helps them gain confidence on stage.

Granted, that shouldn’t warrant Last Comic Standing to feature it in the competition, thereby encouraging viewers to yell insults during sets. But they’re not doing any favors by instigating crowds to shout “Woo!” at every joke.

Overenthusiam breeds laziness. It keeps a performer from progressing and perfecting their craft. It inflates egos and can turn bigger names into self-centered pricks. It warps the public image of comedians and misrepresents those who are worthy of approval. It’s the gesticulation of Dane Cook’s limbs. The look of faux-shock on Carlos Mencia’s face. The healing touch of Jay Leno’s high fives.

And it’s incredibly addictive.

Conan said the wooing depressed him and it’s not why he got into comedy. But considering he didn’t ever shy away from the weed humor or funny dances which he knew would generate that type of reaction, it’s pretty apparent that most performers would gladly forgo years of being heckled in clubs and struggling with their craft if it meant a guaranteed standing ovation.

Mike Schuster has somehow molded a lifelong proclivity of crackin’ wise into a steady paycheck. He is a staff writer for Minyanville.com and a survivor of chronic petulance.

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