In our latest podcast, “Boo…Who?”, we deconstruct the age-old act of booing. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell tells Stephen Dubner that any politician throwing the first pitch at a baseball game is asking for it:
RENDELL: Politics and sports don’t mix. In fact, sports is in some ways the antithesis of politics because winning and losing is decided on the field, not how much money you raise or things like that. And politicians should generally stay away.
Rendell shares his rules for booing, and why Philadelphia, the city he once presided over as mayor, doesn’t deserve its reputation as the city with the meanest sports fans. Philadelphians are passionate, Rendell argues, but they don’t make exceptions for poor performance, not even for Santa Claus.
Lackluster performances sure don’t get a pass in sports, but they often do in theater. This is especially true in Broadway houses, says Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout. He says when standing ovations far outnumber booing, something is wrong. Teachout explains why he thinks people don’t boo at Broadway shows:
TEACHOUT: Tickets on Broadway cost an enormous amount. So that people feel I think obliged to vest themselves in the performance in a way that they might not if the ticket cost half as much. If you’re putting out a hundred and twenty-five dollars for your seat, you want your show to be good. And I think that there may be some built-in bias there that inclines you to enjoy what you see.
Perhaps — although tickets for sporting events now cost a ton too, and that hasn’t stopped the booing there.
In any case, not all theaters are protected from the boo. We visited Amateur Night at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, where the crowd is expected to vote with its voice. The Apollo has seen many future stars perform, but among those who got booed: James Brown, Luther Vandross and a young Lauryn Hill.
That might seem disheartening, but Steve Levitt puts a happy face on it:
LEVITT: I’ve never been booed, but I think that’s a bad thing, because I think in order to get booed, people actually have to have high expectations about you.
Also in this episode: Rider University sociologist Richard Butsch talks about a lost tradition called audience sovereignty; author Robert Lipsyte (An Accidental Sportswriter) tells us how he failed to boo Luciano Pavarotti; UCLA sociologist Steve Clayman shows how to turn a boo back on the booers; and former San Francisco Giants shortstop Johnnie LeMaster recalls the soul-crushing heckling he got from his own fans, and how he turned it into a lasting boo-merang.
[SOUND EFFECT: Cash Register]
Ed RENDELL: I’m Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, former mayor of Philadelphia, former a lot of things.
Stephen J. DUBNER: And you know what we’re here to talk about today, right?
DUBNER: All right. Now, we’ve all heard, or some of us have heard at least that Philadelphia is actually the capital of sports booing, at least...
RENDELL: Philadelphia fans are incredibly passionate. They’re the best and most supportive fans in the world. But they will boo lack of effort, they will boo opposing players, they will boo bad calls by the umpires. And yes, they’ll boo Santa Claus.
DUBNER: The Santa Claus thing actually did happen, back in 1968, at a Philadelphia Eagles football game. It helped cement the belief that Philadelphia is the town that boos the most, the best, the worst.
RENDELL: It was one of the last games of the year, it was right before Christmas, it was in Franklin Field, our old stadium, the Eagles had won two games that year, so the fans were just pissed off in general, and then the regular Santa Claus they were going to use for this halftime show got sick. So, they went into the stands to find guys in Santa Claus suits and see if they’d volunteer. And the only guy they found was this scrawny-looking, dirty-suit guy. He was the worst looking Santa Claus I ever saw. And they put him up on the sled. I guess they must have paid him something, and carted him around. And everyone, myself included, threw snowballs at Santa.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. This week, Boo … Who? Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
[MONTAGE OF BOOS]
DUBNER: Yeah, well [BLEEP] you, too. Anyway, let’s get back to Philadelphia. Franklin Field. December 15, 1968. Santa Claus getting booed. The scrawny-looking Santa who got dragged down from the stands that night was named Frank Olivo. He was a native Philadelphian. You know how you could tell? Because here’s what Olivo told the Philadelphia Daily News after he got booed and pelted by snowballs. He said “I’d have done exactly the same thing if I wasn’t on the field.” Now keep in mind, Philadelphia’s not just any city … Ed Rendell knows that.
DUBNER: Well, if you wanted to get philosophical here for a minute you could say that Philadelphia was the cradle of the political part of the Revolution at least, and if we didn’t have a bunch of dissenters we wouldn’t have a country right now to start with.
RENDELL: True, I mean, Thomas Paine was the very first boo-bird. He did it on his pamphlets and they were remarkably effective in launching us on a new nation.
[SOUND EFFECTS: CANNONS, GUNSHOTS, MUSIC]
DUBNER: Good morning
Thomas Paine IMPERSONATOR: Good morning sir.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner from New York.
IMPERSONATOR: Thomas Paine, sir. Very nice to meet you. I hope you’re being wary of the loyalists up there in New York.
DUBNER: Uh...at this time of year, the Loyalists aren’t much of a threat.
IMPERSONATOR: Oh, well that’s very good.
DUBNER: In fact, I met up with a Thomas Paine impersonator in Philadelphia...
IMPERSONATOR: I like to write in taverns actually.
DUBNER: So, just like people write in Starbucks today, you would sit down in a tavern.
IMPERSONATOR: Starbucks, I’m not familiar with that.
DUBNER: It’s a coffee chain from the future.
IMPERSONATOR: It’s a coffee house, I see.
DUBNER: In Thomas Paine’s time, there was a tradition – brought over from Europe – called “audience sovereignty.” Audiences were expected to react, to interact. Huzzahs. Boos. Hisses.
IMPERSONATOR: Well, it’s just a hiss like a snake. (Hisses) And you get a number of people doing it and it can carry quite a way.
DUBNER: This was nothing new, of course. Here’s Richard Butsch, a sociologist at Rider University.
Richard BUTSCH: From the ancient Greeks through the Elizabethan Shakespearean era, into the nineteenth century, the early nineteenth century in the U.S., what we find is that in all of those areas, as well as in non-Western areas, what you find is the audiences were actually typically fairly active.
DUBNER: But today? Booing lives on in sports – in some places, at least. But overall, there’s been a real decline in booing. C’mon, tell me the truth: don’t you sometimes have the urge – at the theater, maybe, or during a meeting with your thick-headed boss?
Robert LIPSYTE: I’m very conflicted about booing. On the one hand, I think it’s a kind of verbal vandalism and I’m always kind of annoyed when people boo around me. On the other hand, it’s kind of one of the last true expressions of democracy.
[OPERA MUSIC UP]
DUBNER: That’s Robert Lipsyte. He’s a writer who spent a lot of his career covering sports for the New York Times – especially the racial and social and political angles of sport. Unlike most of his peers, he didn’t come to this as a fan. His memoir is called “An Accidental Sportswriter.” He’s also an opera buff.
LIPSYTE: I saw the last few performances of Pavarotti a couple of years ago before he died. The voice was gone. And with the voice gone it was also really hard to now forgive the fact that he was of the school that was known as “park and bark,” you know, these kind of hefty opera singers, you know, who would just kind of stand there.
DUBNER: Not a lot of acting.
LIPSYTE: And sing. Not a lot of acting, not a lot of moving, Stephen. They would just park and bark. And he would do that. But in his final performances it was even beyond you know, the bark – the bark was gone. And the parking was almost ludicrous. In the final scene where he was to die—I remember in “ Tosca” he was to die at a firing squad you know, he was shot twenty times
LIPSYTE: And then he kind of lowered himself very slowly. He took a knee, as we say in football. And I remember thinking this is beyond feeling sorry for our hero or being pathetic, you know, this guy should not be doing this. If, you know, if there was any justice people would boo. If I had any courage I would get up and boo. But of course I didn’t.
DUBNER: So wait a second, you’re describing a scenario where according to the rules, and regulations and morals of public performance that this guy should have been booed, right? And you’re saying he wasn’t?
LIPSYTE: He wasn’t.
DUBNER: And you didn’t? You were there, you had the opportunity?
LIPSYTE: I confess.
DUBNER: Had you bought your ticket or was it a freebie?
LIPSYTE: No, we were very expensive subscribers.
DUBNER: Let me say this: I’ve known Bob Lipsyte for quite a while and I like him a lot – I think he’s a great writer – but the fact is, he’s a grump. A grouch. If he won’t boo something as bad as Pavarotti’s park-and-bark – well, who is willing to cut loose?
Terry TEACHOUT: So they come out on stage and I go BOOOOOOOOO!
DUBNER: Terry Teachout is a theater critic for the Wall Street Journal.
TEACHOUT: It was at New York City Ballet a number of years ago, not under the present regim,e when the orchestra was in a terrible state of disrepair, and they performed a very difficult score by Igor Stravinsky to a ballet by George Balanchine. And they butchered it. And I was furious. And at the end I booed. It’s the only time I’ve ever done it in my life. I think I was the only person in the theater who was doing it, and I doubt if anybody knew why I was doing it to be perfectly honest with you. But I felt a lot better for having done it.
DUBNER: It should be said that Teachout was at the ballet as a civilian that night, not a critic.
TEACHOUT: I’ve never heard a single boo on Broadway as long as I’ve been reviewing, which is going on nine years now.
DUBNER: How on earth can that be?
TEACHOUT: I often wonder myself. And the conclusion I’ve come to, other than some vague theory about how Americans are just basically nice people, which may or may not be true, is that tickets on Broadway cost an enormous amount. And so people feel, I think, obliged to vest themselves in the performance in a way that they might not if the ticket cost half as much. If you’re putting out a hundred and twenty-five dollars for your seat, you want your show to be good. And I think that there may be some built-in bias there that inclines you to enjoy what you see.
DUBNER: Right, there is a phenomena that psychologists and economists talk about, the endowment effect. When something is yours, and when you’ve attached value to it, you inflate the value of it because it is yours.
TEACHOUT: Exactly right, and when you are endowing a performance with, assuming that you’re bringing a date, three hundred dollars or more a pop, not including the incidental costs of travel, of having dinner, of all the things that go into a night at the theater, you’re talking about a fairly substantial investment.
DUBNER: Yeah, and that makes sense, but let’s entertain an alternate scenario. Let’s pretend that there was a lot of booing on Broadway. Then we might say, well, it’s because the tickets are so expensive, and when you pay that much you expect that the product will be satisfactory to you and it’s not. And yet that doesn’t happen. So maybe it’s not about the money.
TEACHOUT: Well, I can see a case for arguing that demand characteristics of the situation are shaping the way people respond on Broadway, except that people boo in opera houses in New York, and I’ve heard it. I’ve heard people absolutely tearing their hair and screaming with dislike usually over productions. I’ve never heard an individual performer booed at the Met. What they boo is a production of a standard opera that is extremely eccentric in some way that is not to their liking.
DUBNER: So, you think at root we should have more booing?
TEACHOUT: I would be encouraged if I heard it once in a while. I would not want the kind of full-scale incivility that is common in Italian opera houses. I don’t want to see people throwing tomatoes. And I actually suggested as a kind of thought experiment what I called the silent boo, which would be you would install in your lobby a pair of Plexiglas bins into which people dropped their programs as they left, one marked cheers, and the other marked jeers.
DUBNER: Yeah, now I see the merit of that idea, but on the other hand, there’s nothing remotely visceral about it. I mean, isn’t that kind of the point of the boo is it reflects the audience’s visceral reaction to and investment in the performer? And that’s a different kind of thing than checking a box on a kind of, you know, customer satisfaction survey right?
TEACHOUT: Well, now bear in mind that there’s a big difference between checking a box on a customer survey and storming into the lobby and flinging your program into the jeers bin in full view of a hundred other people. I think it’s conceivable. And if somebody were to do it, I think that people would in fact see that as an outlet for expressing their feelings about the performance and also one that would not just be cathartic, but might well supply useful information to the producers of the show. That said, I agree with you about booing. I think there’s something really natural about booing. You know, sometimes when I see a really awful show, even though I didn’t spend any money to see it…I’m furious.
DUBNER: And you’re getting paid to see it, so the dynamic is exactly the opposite, and yet it’s still frustrating.
TEACHOUT: Well, I paid with time. I paid with part of my life that I can never get back. I take people to shows because they give us two press seats, and sometimes on the way out I’ll say, “Another two hours closer to the grave.”
DUBNER: Coming up: Where “audience sovereignty” – and the boo – are still alive and well.
APOLLO: He had keys missing on his little keyboard thing. And he was singing Stevie Wonder. That’s just something you don’t do. I said, “Boo, man.”
DUBNER: And: what do you do when you get the boo?
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO.
Steve LEVITT: I’ve never been booed, but I think that’s a bad thing, because I think in order to get booed, people actually have to have high expectations about you.
DUBNER: That’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author.
LEVITT: And I don’t think anyone has ever had high-enough expectations about me to bother to want to boo at me. Like if you think about baseball, it’s never the number nine hitter, the shortstop who bats .220, who gets booed. I mean, everyone knows he’s terrible. It’s the guy like Reggie Jackson or David Ortiz, Barry Bonds -- the guy who’s supposed to be good and then disappoints you who ends up getting booed.
DUBNER: I get what Levitt’s saying. If you’ve made the big time – if you’re a professional – well then boos kind of come with the territory. If you aren’t getting booed – well, you probably haven’t gotten where you want to go. Nobody boos a bad clown at a kids’ birthday party, do they? They don’t boo amateurs…do they? We visited the legendary Apolo Theatre in Harlem for Amateur Night. Brace yourself.
HOST: Ladies and Gentlemen, are you ready for Amateur Night?
DUBNER: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, the Jackson Five, they all played Amateur Night here. The place can be pretty unforgiving. Among the future stars who got booed: James Brown, Luther Vandross and a 13-year-old Lauryn Hill. On Amateur Night, the emcee encourages the audience members to vote with their voices.
HOST: Now, this is the only place where you get to show that you don’t appreciate what you saw. So if you don’t like them, what you gonna do?
HOST: Then we’ll bring out the Executioner, C.P. Lacey!
DUBNER: Tonight, C.P. Lacey is wearing red. Red suit. Red tie. Red hat. He’s worked here for nearly 25 years.
C.P. LACEY: I’ve been here for a minute.
DUBNER: He’s the executioner, the guy that performers do not want to see.
C.P. LACEY: It is my job to rid the stage of any unwanted acts. In other words, well, ok, you’re singing your song--- ya da ya da ya da da da da da---booooo-- (makes siren sound).
[AUDIENCE BOOING, SIREN]
CP LACEY: The band starts playing a totally different song than the one you’re singing, and I come out tapping and I’m telling them to get off the stage, and they don’t even know what’s happening because so much is going on; they’re still singing their song. And then they kinda get the idea and it’s like, “I’m getting booed!”
DUBNER: Backstage, dancers are running through their acts. Singers are warming up. Here’s Ellis Gage.
Ellis GAGE: I am 12 years old. I’ll be singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
INTERCOM: Places, places, places. Places, places, places.
DUBNER: Ellis didn’t get booed -- in part because he was really, really good. But even if he weren’t, he would have been spared -- at the Apollo, you’re not supposed to boo a kid. But this next guy, he wasn’t a kid …
HOST: I need more energy for Mr. Josh M. Winter!
You can’t sing gospel
You can’t boo gospel.
Oh man, I have no sympathy for gospel.
Give him a chance, give him 30 more seconds.
All right, 15.
What are you doing?
He’s cheating. This is cheating. Singing gospel is cheating. Nobody wants to boo it.
Gospel is a cop-out. Gospel is a cop-out.
And I’m not scared to boo in the name of Jesus.
We don’t’ hold back. Boo! Boo! Boo! Boo! Boo!
DUBNER: All right, so let’s see -- you shouldn’t boo kids … but … it’s OK to boo in the name of Jesus. Those are some of the rules of booing at the Apollo. Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, he’s done a lot of thinking about the do’s and don’ts of booing. He once wrote a newspaper column with the headline “Rendell’s Rules for Booing.”
DUBNER: I wonder if we could walk through them quickly, you maybe give me an example of each one?
DUBNER: You write that, “Good-natured booing is always allowed.” Explain.
RENDELL: Yeah, I say good-natured booing like, say, booing a popular politician. I remember once I got reelected as mayor with eighty-one percent of the vote, and then the next night I went to a 76ers game, they made the mistake of introducing me and I got booed. But it was good-natured. I would say probably ninety percent of the people in the stands voted for me. But that was good-natured booing.
DUBNER: Alright, so you write booing a politician is always acceptable, obviously…
RENDELL: Oh, always acceptable, any politician who ventures out on a field…
DUBNER: You’ve had that experience a few times. You’ve thrown out your share of first balls, and it doesn’t go well, does it?
RENDELL: It never goes well. I threw out the first ball at the opening of Harrisburg’s new stadium. And I gave, the state through me gave half of the money, and I still got booed.
DUBNER: Now, that doesn’t seem fair, does it? Rendell gets booed at a stadium that he helped fund. But if you’re a politician, you’ve got to learn to live with the boo… you’ve got to know what to do with the boo…
Steve CLAYMAN: I’m Steve Clayman, and I’m a professor of sociology at UCLA.
DUBNER: Clayman once wrote a paper about booing and applause in political speeches. He analyzed more than forty hours of material, including some presidential debates.
[George H. BUSH: Is Iran talking to Iraq about peace? You judge on the record. Are the Soviets coming out of Afghanistan? How does it look in a program he called phony or some one of these marvelous Boston adjectives up there and-about Angola (boos) Now, we have a chance - several Bostonians don't like it, but the rest of the country will understand.]
DUBNER: That was George Bush the elder in a Michael Dukakis debate in 1988. We don’t actually hear Dukakis there. Talk to me about this one now.
CLAYMAN: I thought it was an excellent example of the way a speaker can respond to a booing response when it happens. Bush had a comeback for the booing that turned out to be quite effective. So he’s talking about foreign policy, and in the course of his remarks, in an embedded, indirect way, he makes a derisive remark about Bostonians. And that gets people in the audience to begin to boo. He says, “Several Bostonians don’t like it, but the rest of the country will understand.” This is a way, a method if you will for dealing with booing when it occurs. And the method he’s using is to marginalize the booers, that is to characterize the people in the room who are doing the booing as not representing the majority, but rather a narrow, self-interested slice. So, he managed to turn an episode of booing into a supportive episode of applause.
DUBNER: Right, he turns the boos back on -- it was a boo-merang I guess is what it was, right?
CLAYMAN: That’s right.
DUBNER: In our attempt to understand the boo, we’ve got one more story to tell you. And if you ask me, this one is the story of the ultimate boo-merang.
Johnnie LEMASTER: My name is Johnnie LeMaster. I am a sporting goods store owner at this time. I own my own business and coach a little bit of baseball. And that’s basically what I do.
DUBNER: Johnnie LeMaster is being a little bit humble. He left out the part about playing Major League Baseball for twelve seasons, mostly for the San Francisco Giants. Now, he was hardly the best ballplayer that ever lived – in fact, he was a shortstop with a career batting average of about .220 – the very kind of player that Steve Levitt talked about who usually isn’t targeted for booing.
LEMASTER: I’m just an ordinary person, but I’ve lived an extraordinary life. And that’s all because of baseball.
DUBNER: During this long career of yours with the Giants, there comes a time I believe in 1979 when the Giants fans there in San Francisco are in I guess a sour mood, the team is not doing as much winning as they’d like, and they got particularly unhappy with you. And that led to a situation. Can you walk me through that?
LEMASTER: Sure. As you say, the team wasn’t playing real well -- I wasn’t playing real well. And the booing started. I guess I became the whipping post, per se, if you want to call it that. And it escalated and started getting worse each game, even when I just popped my head out of the dugout it would be a boo or something of that nature.
DUBNER: And what’s it feel like from the athlete’s perspective, to be booed like that? I assume that you’re trying hard, right? I think that everybody knows that there’s a difference between booing for when someone doesn’t put out effort and when they make a mistake. There’s big difference in those two things. So…
LEMASTER: Yeah, they could have never booed me for lack of effort or a lack of hustle. But an athlete wants to please his home crowd more than anything in the world. And it’s a crushing, it’s a thing that hurts so bad when your own fans boo you. But I want my fans to be pleased with what I’m doing, because they’re the ones that pay my salary, they’re the ones that come in and cheer us on, they’re the ones that care about us the most, because we had some die-hard Giant fans, and I’m still a Giant fan at heart, and I always will be.
DUBNER: Now, why was it you? Why were you the guy that they started to boo?
LEMASTER: People are, I don’t know how to say, fickle. Once something like that gets started it just kind of snowballs. And that month I guess I made a few errors at the wrong time and said a few things in the newspapers that I probably shouldn’t have said at the time being a young idiot kid.
DUBNER: What kind of things had you said in the newspaper, Johnnie?
LEMASTER: Well, I’d rather probably just keep that to myself.
DUBNER: Was it about baseball, or was it kind of off topic?
LEMASTER: It was off topic, more about some political things that were going on in San Francisco.
DUBNER: Oh, that never works well, does it?
LEMASTER: No, it’s a…I’m a very conservative person, and that’s more of the most liberal places that there is in the world. And some of the things...I didn’t say them to hurt anybody, but I said them to try to make people think.
DUBNER: This is San Francisco, this wasn’t about homosexuality maybe, was it?
LEMASTER: It was.
DUBNER: Oh yeah, well right. OK so you’re in San Francisco and you say something that could be interpreted as a conservative view on homosexuality, that’s not going to go over very well.
LEMASTER: Believe me, it didn’t.
DUBNER: The boos escalated. This went on for weeks. LeMaster was pretty unhappy about it. And finally, one night, lying in bed with his wife, she had an idea for how he ought to handle the boos.
LEMASTER: The next day, I went in an talked to our equipment manager and I said make me a jersey up with my number on it, and put instead of my name, LeMaster, I said put Boo on the back of it. And it hung in my locker for a couple of weeks, and then I finally got enough nerve to put it on and wear it in a game. But I only got to wear it for the top half of the first inning. After the game, there was a letter laying on my chair in front of my locker. My general manager had fined my $500 for being out of uniform. But here’s the whole thing about it; the fans loved it, and the media loved it. It got the fans off my back and it got the media off my back.
DUBNER: When you decided to wear the jersey, or I guess when you decided to make the jersey, what were you trying to say? Were you just trying to make fun of yourself, were you trying to acknowledge that you heard the boos, were you trying to boo the fans back? What was the kind of message, you think?
LEMASTER: I was trying to give the fans a way instead of booing Johnnie LeMaster that whenever say, they were going to boo, they were actually cheering me because that was now my new name. But I had a good time with it too, don’t get me wrong. And you know, here we are still talking about it thirty years later.
LEMASTER: But here’s I guess what brings it all back to reality, the last year I played I was with the Oakland A’s. And I’m sure you’ve heard of Reggie Jackson.
DUBNER: Sure have.
LEMASTER: Reggie was on that team. It was the last year he played, also. But we were up in Seattle, and I went down early for breakfast one morning. And I was there by myself. And about the time I got ready to order, Reggie walked in. He says, “Anybody sitting with you?” I said, “No Reggie, come on sit down man, we’ll eat breakfast together.” And he came over and sat down. We were chit chatting a little bit. And then he looked over at me and he said, “I hear you get booed every once in a while.” I said, “Reggie, I did”. And he looked at me across that table, just eyeball-to-eyeball, and he said, “Let me tell you something.” He said, “People don’t boo nobodies.” Now, why he told me that I don’t know. But he made me feel like a million bucks.
DUBNER: So what’s it all add up to? I’m not sure. We never uncovered any grand unified theory of booing. We found no treasure trove of booing data. We just found stories – of boo-ers, of boo-ees, of boo-merangs. I liked the stories; hope you did too.
ANNOUNCER: FREAKONOMICS RADIO is produced by WNYC, APM: American Public Media and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Diana Huynh. Our staff includes Suzie Lechtenberg, Katherine Wells, Bourree Lam, Collin Campbell and Chris Bannon. Our intern is Ian Chant. David Herman is our engineer. Special thanks to Josh Barnett, Historic Philadelphia Incorporated and Elliott Forrest at WQXR. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or go to Freakonomics.com where you’ll find lots of radio, a blog, the books and more.