Debbie Downer

I’ve been accused. This is the funniest thing in the world. “By the way, it’s official: I can’t have children.” I realize comedians consider it terribly unprofessional to laugh through your bits — “breaking” — but I love it. Especially here. This long New Yorker piece about the subject sort of kills the fun of it (yeah, shocking) but is still an interesting take.

The audience howls—howls—when the performer breaks. The more it goes on, the more hysterical the howling. Why is that? Burnett got at part of it when she talked about the childhood experience of trying not to laugh in the library or at church. Especially in cases when the actors are desperately trying to stifle the laugh—biting their lip, digging a knuckle into their cheek, nearly smacking themselves in the face—we feel their discomfort, and we laugh partly to try to make them feel a little better. But there’s a more important reason, and Burnett got at that, too: ‘They’—the audience—’were in on it.’ 

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