There is no one I’d rather spend time with than a dog with bulbous eyes and a tongue that has difficulty remaining inside its mouth. In the absence of that, I also enjoy the company of comedians. Unfortunately, like tragically overbred dogs, comedians are high maintenance. It can be difficult to navigate their neediness because they are needy in such specific and unfixable ways. The audience may have laughed, but did they laugh enough? At the correct moments? Did the laughs compare favorably with the previous night’s? Or a fondly remembered night’s months ago? What about that one woman in the club who sat with her arms crossed? What was her problem? When I was a standup, there was an expression I heard too often from other comics, sometimes grumbled directly to an unresponsive audience: “That should have gotten more.”
And doesn’t anyone in search of a laugh have basically the same need, merely to a less grotesque and pathological degree? Thankfully, back in 2016, Apple was kind enough to create a democratic way for every person’s joke to get more, or at least enough: the “HA HA” Tapback. Apple’s Tapback feature allows users to smother an incoming text in iMessages with their finger until it coughs up a shortcut menu of cute little symbols, each mapped to some kind of basic emotional response. There’s a thumbs up or down, a heart, some exclamation points, a question mark — and a little “HA HA” bubble.
When the company introduced the feature, it was done with the appropriate amount of fanfare — which is to say, very little. Tapback, according to Apple, is a way to “quickly reply to messages with expressions,” but it’s often better suited for shutting down conversations altogether. Each is a variation on “Got it. We done here?”
The ‘HA HA’ Tapback’s special kind of magic is the way it meets your expectations as it lowers them.
That is where “HA HA” stands alone. This perfect little blue pill solves a problem that has always vexed my relationships with comedians or anyone trying to tell me a joke — a perceived unwillingness on my part to adequately “give it up.” It’s no exaggeration to say that this Tapback has saved many of my friendships.
I love comedy, but, to my great detriment, I react to jokes the same way my 6-year-old son appreciates his toys — by taking them apart and trying to figure out what makes them work. I’ve also never been an “LOL” person, especially over text. It’s uncomfortably performative, like typing “Ouch!” when you accidentally sit on your car keys. Though I have my own deep well of need tethered to every joke I attempt, it still makes me anxious when people use “LOL” too generously. Its motive feels questionable, like transactional flattery. When someone sends more than one “LOL” in a text thread, I can’t help thinking this person is about to ask me for a ride to the airport.
For a while I preferred a simple “Ha,” until I learned, through some negative feedback, to upgrade to the more emotive “Ha!” That felt like a commensurate response to a joke told over text, until the well became poisoned by that formless string of “HA”s. You’ve seen it, and you’ve probably done it: “HAHAHAHAHAHA.” Looks great on paper, feels great in a text thread, but it’s anarchic. Not only does it make the “Ha!” suddenly appear patronizing, it sets a terrible new standard, because there is no standard. How many “HA”s are enough? In any group thread, the “HA” string quickly leads to nightmare scenarios like this one:
PERSON A: [JOKE!]
PERSON B: HAHAHA
[A fine response; all is well.]
PERSON C: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
[Wow, I guess Person B hates jokes!]
When you’re improvising those “HA”s like jazz music, it becomes hard to track your work and easy to hurt feelings. Set the bar too high with a dozen or more, and, at any point in the future, even one fewer “HA” may suggest a curdling of your support.
That’s the joy of the “HA HA” Tapback’s neat, attractive uniformity: just a large “HA,” and one of diminished size beneath it, suggesting there’s probably no more where that came from. Gone are long, competing “HA” strings of varying lengths. Also gone are the overbearing “LOL” and the “streaming tears of laughter” emoji, which is, let’s face it, a bit much. The Tapback shifts the entire joke-grading system to “pass/fail,” and any professor tasked with grading that way knows more people are likely to pass — maybe even a few who don’t deserve to. The “HA HA” Tapback’s special kind of magic is the way it meets your expectations as it lowers them.
I once saw a comedian present his entire act to an audience that responded, perfectly appropriately, with a dense wall of silence. At one point, after yet another limp joke was received by nothing more than room tone, a member of the audience, possibly moved by the absurdity of it all, expelled a tickled snort. The comic onstage cocked his head slightly, like a cat hearing a can opener three rooms away, and said: “I heard a laugh. I’ll take it.” The “HA HA” Tapback streamlines a vast network of complicated and exhausting needs to just the one: I saw a laugh. I’ll take it.
Todd Levin is an Emmy-nominated writer and comedian.
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