Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “Boo…Who?“, tackles the act of booing. Why do we do it? When and where (if ever) is it appropriate? While we focus mostly on modern examples, audiences have been voicing their discontent for millennia.
Tracing the boo back to its origins takes you to ancient Greece, and the Festival of Dionysia, when playwrights competed to determine whose tragedy was the best. Audience participation was considered a civic duty. At the Colosseum in Rome, booing, or the lack thereof, often determined whether a gladiator lived or died.
Hard to say exactly what a boo sounded like back then. Maybe more of a shout, a jeer, or a whistle, rather than the extended, cow-like booooooo we issue today. According to linguist Ben Zimmer, the first time the word “boo” appeared as an expression of dissatisfaction was in the diary of a British schoolboy in 1833. Below, we’ve compiled a list of some noteworthy boos throughout history. It is not remotely encyclopedic, and leans very heavily on very recent events. So feel free to supplement with more examples in the comments section.
- 1840s: American stage actor Edwin Forrest loudly hisses at his British rival William Charles Macready during a performance of Hamlet. The feud between the two Shakespearean actors culminates with the Astor Place Riots in New York City on May 10th, 1849.
- Summer 1932: Movie theater audiences boo newsreels of troops dispatched by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to burn down encampments set up by out-of-work army veterans on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington D.C.
- July 25, 1965: Bob Dylan is booed for going electric at the Newport Folk Festival.
- December 15, 1968: Philadelphia Eagles fans boo Santa Claus during a football game as he ran around the field at halftime, and pelted him with snowballs.
- October 1, 1975: Muhammad Ali is booed by the local Filipino crowd while being introduced prior to his legendary fight with Joe Frazier, the “Thrilla in Manila.” Ali hung his head and pretended to cry.
- September 11, 1983. In an away game against the Baltimore Colts, Denver Broncos’ rookie quarterback John Elway is “booed unmercifully” by the Baltimore fans. Elway was drafted by the Colts that spring as the number one overall pick, but after publicly hinting that he would pursue a baseball career rather than play for the lowly Colts, Elway was traded to the Broncos.
- August 6, 1997: Steve Jobs gets booed at the MacWorld Expo announcing Apple’s partnership with Microsoft.
- May 2003: Vincent Gallo is booed at the Cannes Film Festival during and after the premiere of his movie, The Brown Bunny .
- May 19, 2004: Tony Blair is booed and hit with a condom filled with purple flour during a weekly half-hour question and answer session with British parliament.
- January 21, 2008: Hillary Clinton is booed during a primary debate with Barack Obama after she scolds him for not taking responsibility for his senate votes.
- October 11, 2008: Sarah Palin is booed when she is introduced during a Philadelphia Flyers game.
- February 28, 2009: Producer Mary Zimmerman is booed during a 2009 production of La Sonnambula at the Met. The audience was apparently displeased with Zimmerman’s choice of moving the opera’s locale from a Swiss village to a New York rehearsal hall.
- September 9, 2009: Congressman Joe Wilson shouts “ You Lie!” during President Obama’s healthcare speech, and is quickly booed by his Congressional constituents.
- September 13, 2009: Kanye West is booed at the MTV awards for interrupting Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech, declaring his preference for Beyonce‘s music video.
- April 16, 2010: Placido Domingo is booed for his first performance after undergoing surgery for colon cancer.
- December 2, 2010: LeBron James is booed during his first game against the Cleveland Cavaliers after defecting to the Miami Heat.
- March 5, 2011: Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino gets booed offstage in his roast of Donald Trump.
- April 2, 2011: Charlie Sheen is booed in Detroit after his well-publicized breakdown, and subsequent “Torpedo of Truth” tour around America.
- September 22, 2011: Openly gay soldier Steven Hill is booed at the Republican debate when he submits a question to the candidates in the form of a video that was played for the audience.