I paced in the lobby as a roar of laughter came from the sixty-person theater. The laughter made me worried. The laughs weren’t for my group. These laughs were for the improv group before us—their performance buoyed by the delight of a high-wire act that could fall apart at any second.
In a few minutes, the same crowd would see my group’s written, rehearsed sketch set that started with a two-character scene where one never speaks English. We would usher in a distinct tonal shift from what was currently on stage and I wasn’t sure the crowd would appreciate the key change. They were laughing now, but every act has to win the crowd over.
Living For the First Laugh
As a comedian, it’s my job to be funny. But I can only bring a spark to the fire of delight. That’s because laughter is less instinctual than we think. Sometimes it bursts out of us, but more often we run a split-second calculus: Oh, that was funny . . . or was it?
We search for a clue—for something to tell us we’re not crazy. We look around for validation in a nearby snicker or smile. Someone else’s laughter disarms us and grants permission to trust our hunch. Even if we missed the chance to giggle for this joke, we’re now eager for the next one. We’re actively looking for something to delight us.
But we also don’t want to be alone in our delight. When our inklings are met with silence, we begin to second guess our instincts. Nevermind, maybe it wasn’t funny. It’s vulnerable to laugh alone, because what if we’re wrong? In the moment, it can be easier to let the joke drown in silence than to risk drowning with it. To let the joke teller drown in silence.
For every show, a comedian needs kindling: confident laughers who are dialed in early to their sense of humor and aren’t afraid to show it. Like a sitcom laugh track, their early participation signals there’s something funny here. Everyone else begins to pay closer attention because they want to laugh, to “get it,” to see the humor. Then a small batch of giggles can work its way into a bonfire.
Laughter is magic. A single laugh flips a switch that affirms everyone who had the same instinct. Those who didn’t “get it” suddenly want to, and the one who told the joke feels the thrill of stepping off of a cliff and finding solid ground. A single laugh is the difference between a good time and “maybe next time.” It’s a grace for the joker and everyone who hears.
I closed my eyes backstage as Wade, one of the two actors in my group, delivered his first line— a few giggles at his made-up European language. A couple willing to take the risk. A few who get it. Good. The laughs grew as he talked and ignited when he started singing Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” Very good. For all of us.
Cover Image by Davide Ragusa