There are studies (when are there not?) that suggest that nothing that connects human beings quite as sincerely and intensely than laughter. And people are 30% more likely to laugh in a social setting. That is, you’re more likely to find a standup show funny when you’re out watching it with friends, than if you were curled up in bed by yourself Netflix-and-Chilling.
From giggles to guffaws, chortles to cackles, we laugh for many reasons, some obvious, others seemingly out of nowhere. Here’s an assortment of the sounds you’re most likely to hear when you’re at a standup show.
1. Courtesy Laugh
Comes from: basic manners.
The kind you otherwise reserve for your boss at work or teacher at school. When a comic takes the stage, the audience gives her/him anywhere between 10 seconds and a whole minute to settle in. This is when they will laugh at anything that comes out of the comic’s mouth, even if it’s just “Uhhh…”. It’s also the most generous they’re going to be for the duration of the show, so don’t get too comfortable.
2. Cringe Laugh
Comes from: generosity of spirit.
The comic’s messed up the bit but they’re committed to it. The audience is still rooting for them, but only barely, because everyone knows they’re struggling to power through. Now the audience is silently willing them to drop the joke and TRY THE NEXT ONE INSTEAD. With the same urgency of someone watching the protagonist of a horror film walk into a dark room and shouting SWITCH ON THE LIGHT, YOU FUCKING IDIOT at the screen.
3. Clueless Laugh
Comes from: mild confusion
There’s a comedian on stage, they’re saying many things, some people are laughing… there must be something funny going on, right? You don’t want to be the only guy in the audience who didn’t get it, so you laugh, taking your cue from everyone else. Even though you have no idea why. It’s why laughter yoga and canned laugh tracks work—simulate long enough, and it magically becomes real. Because laughter, like yawning and chickenpox, is contagious. Write that down.
4. Nervous Laughter
Comes from: the dark side of your moon.
We often laugh when we’re anxious or starting to get stressed out, as a coping mechanism. The more stressed out you are, the more likely you are to find something funny (which explains why you’ll always find at least one person in a giggling fit at a funeral, for instance). Hannah Gadsby addresses it in Nanette, when she talks of comedians creating tension, then releasing it with a punchline, leaving the audience grateful for lifting the weight they were temporarily made to carry.
This is when comedians go “dark” in their sets, tackling serious or morbid issues like death with the lightness of punchlines. The subject on its own isn’t something you would ever laugh at, especially in a social setting, but the comic creates a temporary safe space to make you think twice about something while allowing you to laugh about it.
5. ‘OMG, It Me!’ Laugh
Comes from: recognition and relatability
The joke may or may not be objectively/universally funny, but it’s an all too familiar situation, one you’ve found yourself in a bunch of times. You laugh because you’re relieved you’re not alone, that this happens to enough other people because look, that entire third row is laughing too. Phewlolololol.
6. Dumb Laughter
Comes from: the part of your brain you like to pretend doesn’t exist
The comic on stage just made a potty joke, or a really really really bad pun, and much to your shock and horror, you’re laughing, uncontrollably. Your brain is telling your muscles to band together long enough to slap you but they’re too busy clutching your sides and the arm/back of whoever’s sitting next to you. This is one of those “it’s so bad it’s good” situations, but you’re judging yourself the whole time. You thought you were better than this? Surprise! You’re not.
7. Mild Hysteria
Comes from: deep inside the belly.
This is the AAAHAHAHAHAHA laughter that comes from a crowd that’s right up there with the comic, hanging onto their every word; they’ve bought their story, and truly let go. There may even be some tears, snorting, and table/thigh slapping involved. Drinks may shoot out of noses, food might cause choking. If you’re the guy on stage, congratulations, this is a home run.
BONUS (Surprise Act)
8. The Odd One Out
Comes from: an invisible corner of the room
There’s always at least ONE person in every room who’s got it bad. They’ve not just got a weird laugh, but also gone into an uncontrollable fit, and nothin’s gonna stop them now. It’s the one lone laugh that comes last (or is still going), long after the rest of the room has gone quiet. Could sound like anything, really: an asthma attack, a choir boy whose voice just cracked mid-note, a bear being roundhoused in the teeth, a donkey on MDMA… This person is a comedian’s saving grace because even when the joke fails, this laugh will still keep the crowd going! It’s contagious as all hell.