A dozen young folk in bright thrift-store duds got on the Blue Line at Jackson and took seats in pairs, trying not to laugh–at least not yet. Their intent was in fact to chortle in unison when the doors opened at each subsequent el stop, in a performance-art project called the Great Guffaw, staged by School of the Art Institute grad and employee Meg Duguid. The forced hilarity was supposed to elicit real, contagious laughter from the unsuspecting public, but on the evening of January 30, the Loop was filling with sloppy snow and the bundled, sweaty rush-hour commuters were having none of it.

Before they got on the train, Duguid had circled the troops–mostly her friends from college, gathered by an E-mail sent out earlier in the week. After a couple participants who didn’t already know each other were introduced, she explained her strategy over the croon of a baby-faced busker: the participants were to spread out on the same car and act natural, commence laughing as soon as the doors opened at Monroe, cease as soon as the doors closed, and then do it again at the next stop. Duguid assured them that sitting in pairs would make it easier. “Laugh like you’ve never laughed before!” she commanded with a genuine chuckle. She remarked to me that she hoped the stunt wouldn’t trigger any schizophrenic episodes.

No one snapped, but not many riders seemed to get the joke as the train got packed. A red-faced woman who had to stand up for the ride gave the guffawers a long, hostile stare as she bailed at Grand, escorted out by another salvo of laughter. A man in a newspaper-boy hat and a wide tie covered with large flowers said, “At least they’re not salivating.” The man sitting next to him, who apparently didn’t know him but to whom the remark seemed addressed, groaned and continued massaging his face with his hands. The first man snorted and stuck his face in the Sun-Times sports section.

Duguid (who last appeared in the Reader in October 2000, when her creative energies were focused on organizing food fights) has staged three other Great Guffaws, and Dan Mojonnier, a three-time guffawer, claimed the response wasn’t always so stony. “That was a…er, strange crowd,” he said as the group piled out at Division and plodded west toward the Gold Star bar.

“Two guys in front of me were trying to laugh along,” said another vet, Maire Kennedy. “They were going ‘Huh, huh, huh!'”

“Oh, that’s beautiful!” said Duguid.

Kennedy ran ahead of the group and made a snow angel on the sidewalk.

At the Gold Star, Duguid laid her copy of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius on a table next to the video camera she’d borrowed from the Art Institute–she’s gathering documentation of her laugh-ins for a show this spring–and bought a celebratory round of Old Styles.

“To the Great Guffaw!” Mojonnier toasted. “People just didn’t get it. If I was having a shitty day, that could really turn it around for me.”

“Not that September 11’s had any effect on this particular situation,” said guffawer John Greenfield, who met Duguid through some mutual musician friends, “but you couldn’t do this on an airplane. You’d get in trouble.”

Duguid agreed. “The most amazing thing about doing this sort of stuff in Chicago is that nobody’s ever said anything to us!” she exclaimed. After a shot and another beer she added, “Sometimes I kinda wish we’d get in trouble.”