Laugh track

Nora Ephron, 1972. Jack Manning/New York Times. Click for source.

I read Nora Ephron’s Crazy Salad over the last couple of weeks, in part because I knew I’d like it, and in part because I knew that it was great research for the period in which my novel is set. Dorothy Parker comes up in at least one of the Ephron essays – they were actually acquainted, with Parker having attended dinner parties hosted by Ephron’s parents, but their paths crossed in Ephron’s adulthood as well.

Some time ago, I picked up The Portable Dorothy Parker, but damned if I can get into it, much. Her verse isn’t my thing, so there’s that. Insofar as her criticism is concerned, it seems that perhaps I am not able to appreciate it because I have no point of reference for the source material. Which is interesting, because that’s not the case for the Ephron criticism collected in Crazy Salad, though to be fair, her criticism is generally tucked into a more broadly topical essay and not the essay’s sole focus. I’m not finished trying with Parker, though, for many reasons. Her Paris Review interview is engaging. In its intro, the author observes:

Readers of this interview, however, will find that Mrs. Parker had only contempt for the eager reception accorded her wit. “Why, it got so bad,” she had said bitterly, “that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth.”

This surprised me because earlier today, I read the AV Club interview with John Oliver in which the interviewer makes a similar observation to which Oliver responds:

You always have to have an internal barometer of quality control. Where you can have all these laughs just because they like The Daily Show, or they’re happy to see you there, or they like the sound of your voice. And you always have to have an internal gauge of, “That is not nearly as funny as they just thought it was.” Just because that got a laugh does not mean that that joke is finished or okay in any way….You can feel if something is taking shape or if it just seems like it’s meaningless or half-baked. It’s more just a personal thing you develop of whether something is worthy of the laughter it’s getting or not.

It’s interesting how expectations prime us to respond to performances of one kind or another. I’d bet that even those who are primed to laugh and force out the kind of tepid response that Oliver describes walk away feeling curiously let down.

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