I don't think I've ever heard as much laughter at live theater as I heard this week in Denver at a production of the musical The Book of Mormon—except for a performance I saw of the same musical in New York City. People were absolutely cracking up.
Imagine my surprise then when I heard a man during intermission say, "I just don't get why people are laughing."
Humor is such a strange thing. Years ago, for example, I wrote a funny song for my performing group "Moonlighting Teachers," and it quickly became a standard for every show. Audiences laughed all the way through the song, except at what I thought was the funniest line of all. I just knew the line was funny, and I refused to give up on it. The performer experimented with different ways of delivering the line and finally, after a dozen or so performances, hit upon something that works. The changes are extremely subtle—a slight pause here, a bit more emphasis there—but now the line always gets a big laugh. Strange.
A character in another show I wrote delivered a line that, night after night, did get a big laugh. In this case, however, the line was not meant to be funny and, in fact, was not funny at all. At every performance, the audience would laugh and all of us involved in the show would look at each other and shake our heads, mystified. Why were people laughing? We never figured it out. The only explanation I can come up with is that the character had made people laugh so often in previous scenes that the audience members were conditioned to laugh whenever they saw her. Who knows?
Humor is a funny thing. It's personal. It's generational, at least to a certain extent. It's mystifying. It's also endlessly fascinating, at least to me.