Tony Laiolo shares about a date to a silent movie that ended…unexpectedly.

Laugh Track

In my 20s I went with an actress. This was back when I still thought drama was a good thing in a woman. She’d gone to Hollywood for a while, studied Method Acting, tried out for some parts, gave it a shot. She was good, but it didn’t happen. When I met her back in Monterey, she was doing damsel-in-distress roles, melodramas at a place called California’s  First Theater, which, you’ll be surprised to know, was California’s first theater, even though you’d never know it from the name.

We had fun. At least I think we did — I mean, she was, after all, someone trained in pretense. No, we did have fun, and her crowd — the people you meet through somebody new — was fun, too, also laced with actors. Good parties, good walls to be a fly on — a little improv, a little recitation, a little wine, a little pantomime, a little wine, a little regurgitation. Some parts were better than others.

They didn’t just have good grape products, they had a good grapevine. You’d hear about things off the beaten path, and one time we heard about a double bill that night at the local junior college. Silent films. Sounded different. Fit in with the melodramas she was doing. So we went.

It was in a small music hall, maybe 200 seats, with close to 200 rear ends packed into them. Apparently ours wasn’t the only grapevine.

There were none of the usual trappings of the movie-going experience. No popcorn, no Pepsi (in the cup or on the floor). No music either. The first movie started, and one would expect an accompanist, right? — a piano or organ. But no, none of that extravagant frippery for Monterey Peninsula College, thank you. At this minor bastion of learning, the literal truth would be served, and as these were silent films, silent would mean Silent!

Which was a little spooky. You’ve got strangers hemming you in on all sides, and in that kind of seating it was cheek by jowl, and try to keep your legs from wandering. Except maybe on the actress’ side. It kind of felt like everybody was breathing each other’s air. Usually, if you’re sitting in a big silent crowd like that, somebody’s speaking. Preacher. Teacher. Warden. Not that night. Nobody was talking.

Oh, there was some sound. Seats creak, tummies gurgle. But that didn’t so much relieve the silence as reinforce it. You knew the noises were not made gladly by their authors, were not a tonic to them, and in fact only made them even more self-conscious and uncomfortable than the rest of us.

So the movie rolled for a couple of minutes in total silence. I leaned over and whispered to my date, “This is just weird.” Given the circumstances, 23 neighbors may have heard the whisper and nodded in the darkness.

But then something happened. Someone laughed, and then someone else laughed, and — let me try to reconstruct this — that second laugh was kind of peculiar and sounded funny enough that maybe five others — let’s say two sisters in their 30s, a boys P.E. coach, a retired receptionist, somebody’s pet parrot — all laughed in their own unique and inimitable ways, and then something happened on the screen, something about half the crowd found funny and got them going, and then everybody else, the ones not already laughing, start to — because for one thing the seats are joined at the hip and almost every row has at least one person — let’s call him Jimbo — who cracks up convulsively, and who’s rocking the whole row, and they’re laughing at that — while looking for a seatbelt, or they’re laughing because everybody else is laughing and it sounds like fun and they don’t want to get left out, or they’re laughing because the lady one row back just let out a helpless snort that could not fail to amuse.

Did I mention these films were comedies?

You couldn’t help but hear the music in the room. The individual laughs — the solos — and their degrees of merriment. The ripples through the room, like waves at the beach, building on each other, bigger and bigger. The jackpot hallelujah moments of everyone exploding into laughter at once.

Now I was glad there was no piano. If you could hear it at all, it would only interfere. Laughter was all we had, and all we needed.

After a while I shut my eyes for a long time and just listened to this symphony and its various sections. You had your gigglers, your titterers, your chucklers, your chortles and guffaws, at least a couple of cackles, some whoops, some screams…..

And those categories are just a rough beginning, loosely grouped for simplicity’s sake, because now…

  • You factor in whether the one laughing is a woman, a man, a child;
  • You factor in each one’s god-given vocal equipment, its raw volume, its range, its tone, its timbre;
  • You factor in a life led for some stretch of time, things seen and done, that may affect what one finds funny;
  • And you factor in that every single one of us is a unique piece of work with a unique sense of humor, and what tickles us may not always tickle others.

Ultimately what you end up with is: No two people laugh the same.

This orchestra had 200 instruments, each one different. It was conducted by a flickering image on a screen, and had no idea what that image would do next. There’d been no rehearsal. There were no particular notes to hit, or rests to count. You just laughed when moved to do so, and you had no control over when that might happen, or if you’d be the only one laughing. It was free-form, random, sometimes chaotic.

And inescapably, unforgettably beautiful.

My actress friend and I walked out happy that night. I think everybody did.

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