A peanut gallery, in the days of vaudeville, was a nickname for the cheapest seating in the theater. The occupants of these seats were often rowdy and would heckle the actors. The cheapest snack served at the theatre would often be peanuts, which the patrons would sometimes throw at the performers on stage to show their disapproval.
If you’ve seen The Muppets, vaudevillian peanut galleries were much like the two old men who sit in the balcony and heckle Kermit the Frog or Fozzie the Bear.
The phrases “no comments from the peanut gallery” or “quiet in the peanut gallery” are extensions of the name. The derived and more modern meaning is “a group of people who criticize someone, often by focusing on insignificant details.”
Recently, the term has been used in social networks and online chat rooms. Alternatively, it may refer to the stream of open comments visible on certain types of blogs.
In 1943 the Howdy Doody children’s radio show adopted the name to represent its audience of children. Howdy Doody is most remembered for its later transition to television, which continued the Peanut Gallery audience, now on camera. It is from this usage that the name of the comic strip Peanuts was derived.
Vaudeville and “the peanut gallery” got their start on the American frontier and were appropriately wild and wooly. By the late 1800s, however, vaudeville had become a one-stop-shop for family entertainment. Vaudeville shows combined the best elements of circuses, theatre, and concerts. Audiences were dazzled by upwards of 12 different acts all as part of one show. Over the course of just a few hours, people would watch acrobats and contortionists defy gravity and basic human anatomy. They’d laugh at slapstick comedy acts, and hum along to popular music of the day.
In major cities, vaudeville theaters were massive buildings that could hold as many as 1,000 people. Today, people refer to the “peanut gallery” as the “nose-bleed section.”
I must admit that I didn’t know where this phrase came from until I did the research. I’d heard it many times over the years, and knew the modern meaning, but all I ever visualized was a balcony filled with watching, heckling peanuts. Still in the shell, of course.