No two laughs are the same when it comes to late night crowds.
Live audiences can give hosts a courtesy laugh, a mild guffaw or even a smattering of applause if they recognize the gag is clever but not laugh-out-loud funny.
And then there are the laughter bursts, moments when the host hits a nerve judged by the audience’s reaction. It’s more than a garden variety response. It’s a release, and the laughter proves instructive of something larger at work.
Jimmy Fallon hit just such a nerve Wednesday night on The Tonight Show.
The host dressed up like Vladimir Putin for a sketch featuring the Russian leader and President Barack Obama. Mid-sketch, they had this exchange about Russia’s aggressive political maneuvers in recent weeks.
Obama: You’re forcing people to accept something that the majority of them don’t even want.
Putin: In Russia we have word for this … ObamaCare.
First, a big laugh. Then, the crowd starts to applaud. An audience member or two begins to howl in approval. Then some the combination of applause and laughs subsides.
Jay Leno routinely tapped the growing anger over ObamaCare to his comic advantage. Fallon is starting to do the same, but it remains to be seen if he’ll keep speaking comedy truth to power.