from American Magazine
You Folks in the Audience
by Ellis Parker Butler
I know how an audience is supposed to look to the lecturer when he steps onto the platform and faces its five hundred faces and meets the glare of its nine hundred and ninety-nine eyes: I allow for one person in the audience having only one eye.
He is supposed to feel as he would if he stepped innocently out of a trench and saw, suddenly, five hundred angry Prussians with their rifles aimed at him: man-eating Prussians, who had just finished singing the Hymn of Hate and were hungry and wanted a plump lecturer for lunch.
I have heard lecturers say that they feel as if they had absent-mindedly forgotten to dress, and were standing there in the sort of apparel you wear in dreams -- one twelfth of a dozen ordinary shirts, and nothing more.
I am obliged to admit that when I face an audience I feel neither of these painful emotions. I feel a surge of joy; as if the audience were a well-done beefsteak or a chunk of sweet, ripe watermelon I am eager to get at. I like audiences.
When the Y. M. C. A., or the Woman's Club, gets after you to buy a season ticket for a "course," you would like to escape, but you can't. So you probably have been part of one or more audiences. You know that the audiences in your own town are not always the same. Aunt Sally Fliggis stays away from one because it is a damp day, and damp is bad for her rheumatism; but she attends the next because the day is dry and she can't get anybody to take the ticket as a gift. You could not possibly get together two audiences composed exactly of the same persons. Even if you thought you had succeeded, someone would step in front of an automobile on the way to the hall and be missing. So no two audiences are ever alike.
They differ because of local conditions: An audience that leaves home in bright April sunshine, without umbrellas, and reaches the hall just as a rain that threatens to last a week begins to descend by the bucketful, is apt to be distraught. The same audience on a clear, bright evening is in a different mood.
Then, too, the lecturer has his audiences in New Orleans, in St. Joseph, Mo., a college at Oberlin, a Jewish social club in Chicago, a woman's club in South Bend, a Y. M. C. A. course in Arizona, a church supper in a California village.
Yet I stand here with my lily-white hand in the bosom of my vest to announce that all audiences are practically one and the same. There are no "warm" audiences or "cold" audiences, no "good" audiences or "bad" audiences -- except as a lecturer makes them for himself.
The "advance information" given the lecturer when he reaches a town, or just before he steps on the platform, is often of a sort that would freeze a timid lecturer's inwards fast to his backbone. It is kindly meant; but it might not madly encourage a humorist to be told, "Don't mind if your audience does not laugh; our audiences never laugh." I have been told, "Don't mind if a great many in the audience get up and go out while you are talking; it is a habit here." It may have been a habit, but no one went out the night I spoke. I suppose they were all asleep.
I have heard lecturers say that when they step out onto the platform before an audience they see nothing but a glare of faces or a haze of eyes. I have heard a lecturer say, "I was always afraid and nervous until I learned to think of my auditors with contempt. As soon as I reached the point where I was able to feel contempt for my audiences I lost my nervousness."
I can understand the psychology of this -- you can say anything you wish to a flock of sheep without feeling nervous -- but I have never yet had an audience for which I felt contempt, and I think it is because an audience is never a mere glare of faces to me. I could get no fun for myself in talking to an audience that was merely a mass of white ovals -- like rag-doll faces without the features painted on them. When I talk I see every face in the audience, unless the hall is very large, and the rear portion badly illuminated.
How does the audience look to me? It looks like a gathering of fifty or sixty of my well-loved friends and a larger number of interesting strangers, some of whom have faces that are so striking I never afterward forget them.
Let me explain. As the audience assembles, I am usually in an anteroom. I am going to talk about humor, tell a number of stories, and read a few very short selections from my own writings. I have done this many times before and I have learned to know just what will make the women laugh, what will make the men laugh, and what will make the little boy in the front row laugh. The lecture is to fill ninety minutes, and I have enough matter to fill three times that. I know exactly what I mean to say in beginning, and with which story I mean to end.
Henry Ward Beecher said once that the most important thing a speaker could learn was to have the closing phrases of his talk carefully planned in advance and thoroughly memorized. If his closing words are firmly imbedded in his mind, the awful thought, "I'm going along well enough, but how am I ever going to stop," never comes to frighten him in the middle of his discourse.
I admit that when I am off stage and hear the voices of the audience as it settles in the seats I am eager to get on the stage and begin. I feel as my children feel on Christmas morning when they are lined up before the parlor door waiting for the words, "You may go in now." I am as eager to see what kind of an audience luck has brought me as they are to see what gifts Santa Claus has brought them.
I discovered, recently, that when I go on the platform I do not merely step on and sink into the nearest chair; I go all the way on! If there is a chair at the far side, I go to that chair. Sometimes, when I am speaking, I have found myself with one foot across the footlights on the tin-rimmed edge of the stage.
Evidently this means that I want to get as close to my audience as I can. I like to be one of the crowd and to have some of the fun -- if there is any fun. There is no reason why the audience should have all the fun and the lecturer do all the work. If I don't enjoy the ninety minutes, the audience is not going to enjoy it.
A lecturer is always introduced. Perhaps I have been fortunate. At any rate, I have found that these introductions are surprisingly well worded. It is while I am sitting there, listening to the introduction that I see my audience for the first time. If it is a club affair, there may be some preliminary business to be transacted. In any event my audience, during the preliminary business and the introduction, does not look at me. It looks at the chairman. This gives me a chance to look from face to face, down one row and up another, around the balcony, into the rear of the hall, everywhere.
It is surprising how many faces a man can see and differentiate in a few minutes. You have gone along the streets of a strange city and have said, "How much that man looks like Henry Higgins," and, "For a moment I thought that woman was Mrs. Emerson Jones." There is a woman in my hometown who is pretty, well-nurtured, bubbling with good spirits and laughter. I have seen her replica -- her very image -- in twenty different audiences in all parts of America.
As I look over my audience I see ten, twenty, or even fifty faces that so nearly resemble those of my friends at home that I know just how they will react to my nonsense. With twenty such in his audience the humorist is safe, for nothing is more contagious than laughter.
Then I pick out other faces. In a mixed audience there are three people I never have failed to find present: One is the young woman who is so eager to be amused that she leans forward in her seat, her smiling face seeming to come half way to meet every bit of fun. Another is the middle-aged man who comes with his wife, falls asleep instantly, and remains asleep until shaken awake at the end of the affair. The third is the man in the second row who leans back and seems to say, "I will not smile, and I dare you to make me smile!" Usually this man is elderly and has a beard. I accept this challenge; and sometimes I win -- and sometimes he wins.
Even when I do not win he is often the man who comes to me after the lecture and says he enjoyed it. He is a fine listener.
I have never worried about the young woman who sits on the edge of her seat and seems to come half way to meet the fun. She does that because she likes fun. The man who goes to sleep did worry me quite a while, until a physician told me that man had a disease that compelled him to sleep. Then I stopped worrying about him. I let him sleep, just as his wife does. I did fret a little, too, over the elderly man who would not smile until I happened to mention these three to the chairman of the entertainment committee in a certain town.
"Oh!" he said, "I know who that is; that is our minister."
Since then I have often found my unsmiling friend to be a minister of one denomination or another. He does not refuse to smile because he is a minister. He is a connoisseur of speaking; and is therefore more interested in how I do it than in what I do. Often he is a college professor or an ex-lecturer. He does not worry me now.
Sometimes there is an elderly lady who has made up her mind she will not smile. But she can be made to! It is done by telling the beginning of a story directly to her, then shifting to another part of the audience, and finally coming back to her suddenly when the point is reached. Talking directly toward her makes her a little nervous, talking away from her gives her a breath of relief, and coming back to her unexpectedly throws her off her guard -- and she laughs.
As I look over my audience I know that a lecturer has, to begin with, practically everything in his favor. Those who have no interest whatever in the lecturer would not be there -- unless we count a few husbands brought by their wives. Looking over my audience, I see by the faces that 30 per cent are eager to laugh, 60 per cent are willing to laugh if there is a reasonable excuse, and only 10 per cent, perhaps, will be very reluctant to laugh.
By the time my chairman has finished the introductory remarks, I have seen nearly every face, gauged the distance to the most remote auditor, and am on really rather chummy terms with eighteen or twenty of the jolliest people present. They have caught my eye and smiled with anticipatory good humor. I know my audience now. It is the basically good-natured audience one finds everywhere in America.
It is tremendously important that the laughter should begin at the start of the lecture. Often the chairman, by a witty or humorous remark, has set it going; but this is not always the case. The immediate laugh sets the pace -- primes the laughter pump -- for the whole ninety minutes. If the humorous lecturer begins too seriously, half his audience will say, "This is going to be a serious talk; it is no laughing matter." I try to let the audience know, at the very first jump; that it is going to be ninety minutes of nonsense and foolishness. I do this by a jest that is as raw as anything that can be imagined. I say, as soon as I am on my feet:
"Ladies and gentlemen: Before I begin my lecture I want to say that, although I have been introduced hundreds of times from Maine to California and from Canada to New Orleans, the introduction I have just been given is the best I have ever heard."
Usually there is considerable applause. The chairman is always someone well liked, and perhaps local pride is touched. As soon as the applause quiets I add, in a very loud voice:
"I say this same thing every time I am introduced."
This is crude, but it works. It not only starts the laughter but does it good-naturedly by connecting it with the popular chairman and also shows instantly that the lecture is not going to be solemn and "high-brow."
I met one delightful return fire on this opening. I used it at a woman's club's men's night affair, and when it was all over the chairman arose and said:
"I am sure we have all enjoyed Mr. Butler's lecture, and to show our appreciation I am going to ask you all to rise;" then, when everybody stood up, she added demurely, "as we do after every lecture."
Mark Twain knew the value of a simple and easily understood jest as an opener. He was extremely popular and often some local church was the only auditorium large enough to hold all who wished to hear him; but in his day few ever laughed in a church. There was always a danger that no one would dare laugh. Mark Twain would peek at the assembled audience, and if it seemed subdued by its environment, he entered feigning, extreme nervousness and a perspiring brow. He mopped his face with a large handkerchief and suddenly let the audience see that the handkerchief had a huge hole in it. Half the women in the audience immediately laughed, and then everybody laughed. The ice was broken.
I use this Mark Twain handkerchief sometimes, but I give him credit. I explain why I used my "introduction" joke; then I say Mark Twain had another method, and I act Mark Twain coming on the platform and opening the torn handkerchief. Then I explain that I used this trick first in Pasadena when my wife was in the audience, and after the lecture she told me it would be all right to use the trick, but that I must not let the audience think I used it on the spur of the moment and because I had discovered my handkerchief had a hole in it.
"So now," I say, "I always carry another handkerchief to show that I have one without a hole in it."
Whereupon I open another handkerchief -- and there is a hole in that one, too, a small hole. This brings another laugh.
I called the handkerchief laugh-starter "a trick," but that is hardly fair to Mark Twain. None of these things are "tricks," they are all the legitimate arts of the laughmaker. When the audience is in a laughing mood, it will laugh at a joke even when there is no joke. I have a story of a small boy who wanted a baby sister, but this mother had poor health. "Mother might be very, very sick, William, and even die if a baby sister came. You wouldn't want that, would you?" she asks him. Presently the boy has the measles. He has to stay in bed and he feels very, very ill. He looks up at his mother and says, "Well, Mother, you might as well send for the baby sister now. I'm about as sick as I'll ever be." This is a good joke and has a point; but I can change it and have the boy say, "Well, Mother, I'm about as sick as I'll ever be; you might as well send for the doctor." This does not mean anything; it has no point; but it brings a laugh just the same.
In explaining the difference between wit and humor I sometimes explain that wit appeals to the ear of the mind while humor appeals to the eye of the mind. Any humor can be picturized and thrown on a motion picture screen; wit cannot be, unless it is put in a worded caption. "Wit," I insist, "appeals to the ear of the mind; humor appeals to the eye of the mind. Remember that. It is something you can take home to your husbands to prove you have spent a valuable afternoon. And if you get it wrong and say 'Wit appeals to the eye of the mind, but humor appeals to the ear of the mind,' it won't matter. It doesn't really mean anything, anyway."
After the tense attention, trying to grasp the seemingly important definition, this sudden revelation that it is mere nonsense brings a wholesome and hearty laugh. The audience subconsciously grasps the meaning of the real joke -- that nine tenths of the almighty serious sayings of the innumerable lecturers they have heard are equally pure bunk.
The pause after a jest, to give the audience time to laugh, is most important. Many a willing laugh is stifled because the lecturer hastens on too soon. An audience cannot laugh at a past joke when it is obliged to listen to what is being said.
In a ninety-minute lecture I give my audience an "intermission."
"After reading the next selection," I say, "We will have an intermission of one minute, during which I will go out and eat a cough drop and you can talk."
Then I read the selection, the longest I have chosen, because the audience will bear it placidly, knowing that it is going to have a rest.
I often say something like this: "We will now have an intermission of one minute, after which there will be only a few more minutes of lecture" -- that cheers them wonderfully -- "and while I eat a cough drop you can talk about anything you wish. You can talk about my clothes, or about how tiresome the lecture is, or about your cooks -- but I'll tell you something you may like to talk about: When I was in New Orleans I saw a young girl crossing Canal Street. She was a pretty girl, but that wasn't what I saw her for. She had on a toque, a patent leather toque, with just one black crow-quill in it. But that wasn't what I noticed. She had patent leather shoes, but that wasn't what I noticed. What I noticed was her dress. It was black taffeta -- black taffeta waist up here -- but the skirt was in four or five flounces, and each flounce was bound with patent leather, not laid on flat but sort of bent around, on top and underneath, so that the flounces stood out. I think that would be a nice thing to talk about."
Women always find humor in a man's untechnical descriptions of feminine wear; but, for whatever reason, this brings a laugh and a lively burst of conversation as I disappear. I give the little intermission for two reasons: it rests the audiences and permits those who have to leave early to go out without disturbing anyone.
Just out of sight, I wait and listen. I do not give an intermission of one minute or two minutes or of any definite time. When the noise of eagerly interested voices is loudest I go back on the platform. Unconsciously the audience turns its eager interest in itself into an eager interest in what is to come next. I end with a couple of short readings, the best I have, and an illustrative humorous story that has an unexpected and laughable ending.
When a man knows exactly how he intends to close a talk, his feet are on solid ground. The amateur speaker's stage fright often comes from not knowing how -- after he has begun talking -- he is going to stop. Many salesmen lose sales already won by not stopping with a well-prepared final phrase; they maunder on and talk themselves out of a sale.
From Mark Twain I learned to begin with a laugh; from Henry Ward Beecher to have a final phrase well learned in advance; from Charles Battell Loomis I got the idea of the one minute intermission; from half a dozen "author's readings" I learned to try to keep everything short and snappy; from Sewell Ford, Irvin Cobb, Hy Mayer, and others who spoke at informal affairs, I caught some idea of the value of an informally friendly manner, if it is sincere.
In the twenty-five years I have lived in and near New York I have heard practically all the best speakers at clubs, dinners, and on the platform. The stories I have accumulated are those I enjoyed myself; and it seems to me that other people should enjoy them because I did. When any part of my lecture gets so that I do not enjoy it, I drop that part and put in something I will enjoy.
And now let me tell you exactly what you, my audience, looks like to me when I face you. My wife will tell you that one night I am blithe and gay, another night I am quiet and worried, another night care free, another night not very well, another night playful, another night critical and solemn, and so on. When I look at my audience I see myself repeated there in all my various moods. And if my eyes alight on one sour old gentleman with his mouth set in a way that means, "I'll die, but I swear I'll never let you make me smile," I am not worried in the least.
"Fine!" I say to myself, "That's the same miserable way I felt the night I went to hear Al Jolson and nearly broke a rib laughing. I wonder if I can make that man laugh. Let me at him!"