Feature Culture


Why we laugh at things that aren't funny. by Mark Peters

June 21, 2014

In Mike Sacks’ wonderful new book Poking a Dead Frog: Interviews with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, the author asks longtime Saturday Night Live head writer James Downey for a comedy pet peeve. Downey responds, “What has bothered me most for the last few years is that kind of lazy, political comedy, very safe but always pretending to be brave, that usually gets what my colleague Seth Meyers calls ‘clapter.’ Clapter is that earnest applause, with a few ‘whoops’ thrown in, that lets you know the audience agrees with you, but what you just said wasn’t funny enough to actually make them laugh.”

Downey cites Bill Maher as a frequent seeker of clapter, describing Maher’s humor as “the ass-kissiest kind of comedy going, reassuring his status-anxious audience that there are some people they’re smarter than.” Clapter plays it safe and isn’t funny or original. According to Downey, anyway. Tina Fey has also dismissively mentioned clapter.

I can understand why a professional comedy writer might look down on clapter. When you’ve written hundreds (or thousands) of sketches and jokes, you’re bound to be a bit jaded and picky about reactions. But laughter has many purposes. We don’t just laugh when we hear a brilliantly constructed joke: we laugh to commiserate and show appreciation. Sometimes we laugh to belittle someone. Most of all, we laugh when something is true. Truth is the sweet spot in the Venn diagram between the “pure” humor Downey prefers and the “ass-kissy” comedy he dislikes. 

Just telling the truth can often register as funny when either 1) few people are saying it or 2) there are higher than usual levels of malarkey surrounding the topic. So I wouldn’t write off clapter as the refuge of comedians preaching to the choir. After all, the choir needs to laugh, or just feel like someone is speaking their language, too.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

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Clapter Why we laugh at things that aren't funny.