Why are theater audiences laughing when they shouldn’t?

Today’s “let’s blame social media” item comes from Boston where a theater critic is lambasting an increasing practice in theater: audience laughter where there shouldn’t be any.

Critic Don Aucoin noticed it recently during a particularly dark moment in “A Number,” a play about cloning. A woman in the audience started laughing.

It’s happening more often, actors and actresses report.


Sherry Turkle, author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” theorizes that a generation weaned on social media is uncomfortable with “the raw emotion and human connection of a live experience.” By laughing through the performance, it’s a way to deal with their vulnerability, she said.

Aucoin piles on…

Of course, it might also represent the opposite of vulnerability: an egocentric way to literally get in on the act. The rise of the selfie has encouraged us to consider ourselves the star of every occasion. YouTube has enabled spectators to fancy themselves as performers.

These days, it can also be harder to transfix viewers with somber subject matter, thanks to changes elsewhere on the entertainment landscape. “Television and other media have gone to such dark, gruesome places that the impact of a moment that is intended to have a great serious effect may not land as effectively, because it’s all around us,’’ said Paul Daigneault, the producing artistic director for SpeakEasy Stage Company.

Especially on opening night, audiences often include friends, family members, or students of actors who teach in Boston’s universities, and they may simply get the giggles while watching him or her perform. Some theatergoers might have had a drink or two before the show, and some doubtless yuck it up because they paid through the nose for their tickets and want to convince themselves they’re having a good time.

Finally, if some audience members are uncertain about how to react, it may be because theatrical boundaries have become blurrier, with many of today’s most acclaimed plays traveling from funny to serious and back again, including comic dramas like Annie Baker’s “The Flick,’’ Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,’’ and Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park.’’

Aucoin says audience laughter, for whatever the reason, is complicating the relationship between actors and an audience that is crucial in the storytelling of live theater.