November 16, 2008

Standing Ovation Inflation

Does anyone remember the standing ovation Johnny Carson got on his last "Tonight Show" performance? Now there’s a reason for a standing ovation. When he walked out the audience rose and sustained applause. The camera showed shots of audience members with tears streaming down their faces, and Johnny himself became unusually emotional, you could see his globus, and his eyes welled up.

On the other hand, today, members of “The View” and “Ellen” get standing ovations just by walking out on stage every day. You show up and you get a standing ovation.

When I read in the New York Times that somebody got a standing ovation for something, my automatic response to that is, So? Standing ovations have taken the place of applause, and I believe this is unfortunate.

Now don’t get me wrong, every performer likes to get standing ovations. But nowadays, it’s as if when you DON’T get one, boy you’ve really messed up.

I began to notice this in the eighties when my daughters were young and the parents in the audience immediately jumped to their feet and applauded after their dance recital. Are you kidding me? Then when they went to their all-county musical performances, boy those were REALLY good — of course THEY got a standing ovation. I’d like to ask these audiences who immediately spring to their feet, what incentive are you giving these kids to improve? It’s like science fairs. You show up, and EVERYBODY gets a ribbon. It’s grade inflation. It’s applause inflation.

My wife and I attend a local Broadway Theater League and for twenty years we’ve had season tickets in the second row aisle, and we usually enjoy these touring performances. After every single performance, the audience springs to its feet practically before the applause even begins. Being that we are so close, and that I am known by many people in my community, it’s kind of an awkward situation. In the first place, sitting there while everyone else is standing is awkward because of the direct eye contact from the performers, being that we’re so close to the stage. Second, it’s as if we didn’t like the performance, and we are glued to our seats because we didn’t like it, which may not be the case at all.

Applause is such an interesting thing. Clap between movements in classical performances and it’s gauche. DON’T clap after a jazz solo and that is gauche. Applause has different purposes. In the classical scenario it shows that the listener is astute to know that isn’t the end of the piece, even if the ensemble has stopped playing. In jazz, however, spontaneous enthusiastic clapping is far more preferable than polite clapping for recognition that the solo has ended. Different types of applause mean clearly different things to your fellow audience attendees as well.

In years passed, audiences had many ways of showing they didn’t like performances: golf clapping or booing for performances. They also had other ways for showing they loved performances, such as rhythmic clapping, finger snapping, sustained clapping, feet stomping, shouts of “Bravo!,”whistling, cheering, yelling, hooting, and in the olden days of the sixties, lighting bic lighters and holding them up (meaning they’re not clapping at all). One time in the late seventies I remember giving George Harrison a standing ovation with bic lighters and yelling. That one was deserved, and quite emotionally moving.

So if you see me sitting there NOT standing up, it’s not because I didn’t like the performance, but it’s because I’m wondering how the audience would be able to show appreciation after seeing Dave Brubeck in concert, or how they would have expressed gratitude to Johnny Carson on his last Tonight Show. Maybe they would have just stood there and clapped for the whole show?

As I said when I started, it’s a personal thing. But to my readers I say do not be afraid NOT to stand even if you think a performance was great. Because after the standing ovation, there’s no where up to go to express appreciation for a lifetime achievement. Performers do their profession, which is what they’re paid to do and we should EXPECT them to do it well.