Innappropriate Laughing Responses

Written and performed by john Malpede

Directed by Jeff Preiser

Inappropriate Laughing Responses

The set is a recliner chair with a small end table next to it. On the end table are a tape recorder, a bottle of cognac, a brandy snifter, and an ashtray.

A fifty-ish PROFESSOR enters in a silk robe, smoking a pipe. He is intent upon 3 cassette tapes, which he holds in his hand. He considers each tape and decides upon an ordering of them. He moves to the chair, sits down, places one tape in the recorder and lays the other two along side it. He relaxes, loosening the belt of his robe. He takes a long draw on his pipe, savors it, exhales and places the pipe in the ashtray. He pours himself a cognac, holds the cork of the bottle to his nose, savoring the bouquet. He turns on the tape and relines in his chair with the snifter of cognac.

The tape comes on playing the reggae-new wave song. “Too Much Pressure.” He listens intently to the music and takes a few thoughtful notes. After 30 seconds he stops the tape and replaces it with another. The 2nd tape is a laugh track. He listens to it briefly, nods his head in recognition of something he has heard on the tape, turns it off, puts down his brandy, and gets up. He stands behind the chair thinking, shakes his head in disgust, walks in front of the chair, paces back and forth several times, pensively, then he turns to the audience and speaks.


I was crossing the street earlier today, up on 34th Street, by Macy’s and Korvette’s and Herald Square, where Broadway crosses 6th Avenue, and during the day there are always a mass, a ganglia of shoppers crowding the streets. That’s got to be the worst intersection in New York, bar none. Of course it cost me $2 in cab fare just to get across Canal and Broadway in coming here tonight and 23rd Street where 5th Avenue is crossed again by Broadway – that’s impossible – but…(interrupts himself). So I was crossing the street, up on 34th, and I was “Getting the big picture,” paying just enough attention to everyone coming toward me to be able to get across Broadway and 6th without being hit. And all of a sudden, this derelict, this bum, who I hadn’t particularly noticed, came up to me and said:

(PROFESSOR imitates enraged DERELICT who screams: )

“Hey, what you doin’ lookin’ at me like that?” (PROFESSOR reacts with stunned look, then speaks : ) And it took me a few seconds to figure out what was going on with this guy. And then I did look at him, (He looks down at BUM and sternly shakes his finger at him) – I looked at him with a very, very serious “Don’t-you-give-me-any-trouble” sort of look. And he just hauled off and hit me right in the face -- right here, catching the corner of my glasses. (Dazedly he indicates where he was hit. He turns still touching his glasses and resumes pacing.) Of course, the truth was that he was small and out of it, so that the impact of his blow was negligible. But, by reflex I recoiled and made a fist. (Does so.) And I was ready to defend myself, when I realized – this is totally ridiculous. (Embarrassed he drops fist.) I mean, it happened so totally out of the blue that emotionally I wasn’t there. The guy had upset me and gotten my adrenalin flowing. But, I wasn’t really angry with this bum; I couldn’t sustain anger toward him. I didn’t think he was even angry with me. I figured his anger was just a totally dislocated response that he brought to the situation and to every situation. So, I walked away. But, I was still really upset, so as I was walking away, I looked back at him and I shook my head and said:

(PROFESSOR walks back to side of chair, turns, points, and yells: )

“You know, you’re crazy. You’re really crazy.” And I didn’t feel particularly good about that because I didn’t feel it did any good to say to someone who was obviously crazy, that they were crazy. But, I needed to get rid of the “animal upset” that he had caused me to feel. You know what I mean.

(The PROFESSOR sits down, composes himself, sips his cognac, and resumes his discourse.)

But, that sort of displacement of emotion is different than a hebephrenic response. Now the word “hebephrenic” is not to be confused with, and this is a common confusion, “hebra-phobia” or fear of Jews. Hebephrenia is a form of schizophrenia, which most commonly manifests itself in behavior as in-appropriate laughter. Say if that guy on 34th Street had come up and laughed in my face -- uncontrollably. That would have been clearly hebephrenic behavior and I would have simply walked away from it.

But, hebephrenic responses aren’t limited to people who are gone like that. There are degrees. Let me demonstrate:

(PROFESSOR gets up, removes his robe, picks up his pad and paper and assumes the character of a YOUNG, UNEMPLOYED ACTOR-TYPE WAITER. Looking down to his left he addresses a seated customer.)


“Good evening, our specials tonight are lasagna, homemade, veal picatta, and ham in blueberry chutney sauce. Would you care for a cocktail before dinner?”

(The PROFESSOR takes one step to his right, now becoming the SEATED DINER. He looks up blankly at the WAITER, his look changes to one of incredulity. He covers his mouth in an effort to suppress laughter, but fails in this and starts laughing uncontrollably.)

(The PROFESSOR steps to his left and again becomes the WAITER. Addressing the CUSTOMER, he says: )


(The WAITER then blankly (in deadpan disbelief) looks at the audience.)

(Quickly the PROFESSOR becomes himself again and addresses the audience.)

Here’s another situation:

(Again (as in all subsequent dialogues) the PROFESSOR acts out the dialogue by playing both characters. Here the characters are TWO ADULTS, MALE BLUE-COLLAR ACQUAINTANCES.)

“Hey Jim, haven’t seen you in a while. How’s it goin’?



(PROFESSOR, to audience.)

It just cracks Jim up, that this guy would care how he is. Or:

(The characters, which the PROFESSOR assumes in his dialogue, are that of a MOTHER and 4-YEAR-OLD CHILD.)


“You love Mommy, don’t you?”



(PROFESSOR addresses audience.)

What I’ve noticed is that the more familiar, or emotionally involved the people are with one another in these situations, the less likely we are to regard these responses as crazy. So that if the waiter says “May I help you?” and the customer laughs, that person is seen to be pretty far out there. But in the case of “You love Mommy, don’t you?”, the child’s laugh, though still a displaced response, isn’t crazy – it’s O.K. It’s acceptable because of the child’s relationship to the mother.

(Pauses, lights pipe.)

My father used to tell me a story. It’s a father-son story. The story is, the father says to the son:


“Son. Come on over here, I’ve got something that I was to talk to you about.”


“Aw, come on. I was just on my way over to Mickey’s to…”


“Never mind that. Come over here, I’ve got something that I want to show you.”


“Oh, all right.”


“I’m going to teach you a very important lesson and I want you to pay very close attention.”




“Son, I want you to climb up on this ladder, and jump off into my arms and I’ll catch you.”



(PROFESSOR abruptly stops his portrayal of laughing Son and turns to audience.)

No, wait, wait a minute. That would be an inappropriate response that would be displaced response. It might very well be a hebephrenic response. But, that’s not really what the son did in the story. That’s not the way the story goes. So, let’s try it again. Let’s take it from where the father says:

(PROFESSOR resumes characterization.)


“Son, I want you to climb up on that ladder and when I say jump, you jump into my arms and I’ll catch you.”


“What? Are you kidding? No way. Uh-uh. I’m going over to Mickey’s.”


“Look, I want you to get up on top of that ladder, and to jump when I say so. And I’ll catch you.”


“No. I’m not gonna do it. What are you – crazy?”


“I’m serious! And when I says something, I expect you to do it.”




“Because I said so.”


“Come on, Dad. Leave me alone. I don’t want to do it. Leave me alone.”


“You get up on that ladder and jump into my arms right now, or I’ll smack you.”


“I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna. Leave me alone.”


(FATHER turn and slaps SON.) “WHAP!”

(PROFESSOR, worked up form enacting story, returns to recliner chair, sits down and turns on tape recorder. He is intent upon recomposing himself. The song on the tape is “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen.

After 20 seconds of song he turns off recorder, pours himself another cognac and calmly savors it. He resumes his lecture to the audience.)

Now, the hebephrenic sees as ludicrous and ridiculous, the possibility of communication in any situation. Like here for example. Let me start this whole thing again as a hebephrenic might do it.

(PROFESSOR rises from chair and circles it as at beginning of piece.)

(PROFESSOR as hebephrenic looks at audience, suppresses laughter, cracks up, flaunts laughing contempt at audience and runs off. Behind chair. The laughter continues but becomes that of the PROFESSOR, amused at his own cleverness. He sits on the arm of the chair, and while still working at regaining his composure begins to speak.)


So, not only are all situations ludicrous to the hebephrenic, but the real “Boy-am-I-smart” genius of the position is that he can prove it just by laughing. He perceives the situation to be absurd and he can prove the situation is absurd, by making it absurd, by laughing. He’s justified the whole situation both to himself and to anyone perceiving him. He knows he’s right.

(He slides over arm into seat of chair.)

Really, you know what it’s like? It’s like Descartes, like Descartes’ cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore, I am.” Descartes was wracking his brain for something ‘indubitable,’ (He uses French pronunciation.) something that couldn’t be doubted. And, finally, he realized the only thing he could come up with for certain was that there was doubting, a form of thinking going on. The hebephrenic has the same sort of experiential proof that communication is impossible: And while I don’t have the Latin on this, in translation it would be – “I laugh, therefore, it’s absurd.”

(PROFESSOR gets up quickly, excited by his thoughts. He paces as he talks.)


But remember what I said, as the people involved get closer, the displaced laughter becomes less absurd. In fact, it’s not regarded as crazy at all. Nevertheless, these responses in normal people are provoked by the same basic feeling, as that of the hebephrenic:

(PROFESSOR removes glasses, pauses, and facing front delivers lines with much seriousness directly to audience.)

Fear of dealing with the reality of the situation.

(He resumes pacing.)

He, and we in our own way, must make it absurd to protect ourselves, when there’s no perceived response that allows for our personal, emotional safety in the situation.

(He turns, goes back to the table and picks up his pipe, lights it and casually looks at and speaks to the audience.)

I never finished the father-son joke. I never told the original version. The version that my father did tell me. The father says to the son:

(He again enacts the following dialogue alternately playing the FATHER and the SON.)


“Son, I want you to climb up on that ladder, and when I say ‘Jump!’, you jump. I’ll be donw below and I’ll catch you in my arms.”


“Gee, Dad, I don’t know. I’m afraid.”


“Son, don’t be afraid. I’m your father and I’m going to catch you.”


So, reluctantly, most reluctantly, the son goes up the ladder.

(PROFESSOR assumes FATHER’s position looking up at the ladder with arms held out in readiness.)


The son jumps into his arms. The father steps out of the way. Splat. The kid falls flat on his face.

(PROFESSOR bends over, opens arms out wide to illustrate the CHILD’s fall to the ground. Still bent over he becomes crying CHILD. The crying could be mistaken for laughing.)


“…(crying)….uug, auh…Dad, why’d you do that to me?…ugggh…why didn’t you catch me?….(crying throughout)…you said you were going to catch me….you said you were going to catch me…(more crying).”


(PROFESSOR rises and becomes the FATHER.)

“Son! Son, listen to me! In this world you can’t trust what anybody says – not even your own father.”

(PROFESSOR returns to chair, starts tape recorder, reclines in his chair holding pipe and brandy. The song “Too Much Pressure” comes on.)