Radio in Progress: Boo!

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A few months ago we asked readers a basic question: “Do you boo?” Judging by the number (and nature) of comments the post solicited, the answer is yes. The question was asked as part of an upcoming Freakonomics Radio episode that’s all about booing. To borrow the words of one of our guests, writer Robert Lipsyte, we ask: Is booing verbal vandalism, or is it one of the last true expressions of democracy?

For the audience at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, it’s the latter. We recently visited for its talent showcase, Amateur Night. There, booing—and cheering—is a way of voting, to decide who advances to the next round of competition.

One might think booing is a visceral act, but for a group of friends sitting next to us, it’s a choice that comes after a bit of discussion. However, one contestant made this group’s verdict very easy. When the vocalist stepped on stage to perform a gospel song, the friends all groaned and one made this observation:

“He’s cheating. Singing gospel is cheating. No one wants to boo it.”

For this “cop-out,” the singer got a fusillade of boos. We caught up with the friends after the show when one of them told us, “I’m not scared to boo in the name of Jesus.”

Also on our boo panel for this episode is former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who explains why Philadelphia has the best sports fans in the world; and The Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, who thinks there ought to be more booing in Broadway houses. Stay tuned.

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  1. Caitlin says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  2. Cañada Kid says:

    I beg to differ: San Francisco has the best sports fans in the world!

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  3. shineon says:

    Not quite a boo. We Yankee fans used to have something else for booing–a Bronx Cheer. I guess you have to be of a certain age to know what that is since there is a bus shelter sign in Manhattan that says something about a giving a Bronx cheer–as though it was a real cheer.

    Well for all you youn’ uns. A Bronx Cheer is a razz–you stick out your tongue and blow. Alas, that custom is long gone.

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  4. Class & Culture says:

    The etiquette of booing seems tied to class and culture.

    Ignoring the modern day movie images we have of Roman coliseum crowds, we know that at least as far back as the Globe Theatre, the hoi-polloi in the pit were entertained on a different level than the upper classes in the box seats. And there are plenty of examples where the cheap seats or the back row of an assembly are apt to voice more vociferously their critical laughter and approval or booing and approbation at what happens on stage. This commentary can be in the form of genuine appreciation or disgust, but frequently is a running meta-commentary on the presentation itself—the stuffiness, slowness, stumbling silliness, or whatever weirdness is picked up on. This is while the orchestra seats seem required to behave with decorum, all prim and proper, not drawing attention to whatever deficiencies might be apparent or to themselves. Note too, that drink frequently helps to loosen the tongues of the riff-raff.

    However, in other situations booing is expected cultural behavior. In Punch and Judy, don’t the children learn to boo when Punch comes on stage? Sometimes the audiences are encouraged to boo the villain of the piece as part of the fun of audience participation. Audience participation is sometimes part of the entertainment, whether it’s groaning at bad jokes told in jest in vaudeville, or yelling to “Take it off! Take it all off!” during a striptease. And most definitely at sporting events, crowds are expected to chant and to cheer and to groan and to boo. So while it may be inappropriate behavior during an educational lecture or a concert recital, there are culturally acceptable and expected times and places for it. And if you don’t, you’re not participating with the right spirit, you’re obviously not having fun, and why are you there?

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