During my stint as a radio producer, I’d perfected what my wife calls it “the producer laugh.” Before callers would get on the air, they would have to share their stories with me. They were convinced they would regale the greater Chicago area. I was the gatekeeper, and many times, I knew they were wrong.
But I didn’t want anyone to leave empty-handed. I’d manufacture a belly laugh and tell them what a great, funny story that was . . . but it’s too bad those darn commercials were eating up all our time, or the segment had just ended, or it was time to do a test of the Emergency Broadcast System (but don’t worry, it was only a test).
This kind of response felt like a proper, professional requirement. It validated their effort, and encouraged them to keep listening and call back the next time (when, hopefully, a new story would make the cut).
I haven’t been a producer in more than seven years. But I can be in a conversation with my wife, let out a guffaw, and her face will turn serious with accusation: “Producer laugh.” She’s calling B.S. on how genuine my laugh is. Sometimes, she’s right; but sometimes I’m actually laughing, which tells me I’ve got a pretty good fake laugh.
But I had ten years of producerdom to hone that fake laugh, which was a conscious effort. Most people do not care about their fake laugh, or might not even recognize that they have one. But we all do.
We all say lots of things that are only a little funny. And it’s the socially acceptable thing to get a fake laugh back. It’s probably proper payment — you weren’t really funny, so you don’t deserve a real laugh. But it can’t just sit there; that would be really awkward. So we do one of two things:
Pity laugh. The awkward noise that wants to be a laugh, but instead comes across as a sound that translates to the typed words “ha ha.”
Say, “That’s funny.” This phrase Cracks. Me. Up. If it were genuinely funny, we’d laugh! We wouldn’t be able to help it. But we all have used this honest, if emotionless, phrase. It’s downright clinical: You have presented me with something you find amusing, and I hereby acknowledge your attempt.
I say something should be done about this. I had started calling people out on their pity laughs when they are egregious. Curiously, that often leads to real laughter — partly out of embarrassment, partly out of recognition that their pity laugh is pitiful.
But it’s not the answer. It doesn’t seem right to ask everyone to work on their fake laugh. Not responding at all would be tragic.
The only solution I can come up with: We need to be genuinely funnier. It’s our only hope.