The Politics of canned laughter

With the Emmys coming up this Sunday, writers Brian Hastie and Kristen Theodore analyze the mysterious persistence of the laugh track in TV comedy.

(by Brian Hastie and Kristen Theodore)

For every TV fanatic, the Emmys (airing this Sunday) are the ultimate award ceremony, the Superbowl of the remote-clutching set. The 64th annual ceremony ostensibly showcases the best of the small screen. And while we love to ogle the likes of Tina Fey and Larry David and salivate in anticipation for the Bryan Cranston acceptance speech, there still remains an “I’ll forgive but not forget” attitude toward Emmy membership for failing to get it right.

Shows like Parks and Recreation are overlooked while The Big Bang Theory remains a contender in the “Outstanding Comedy” category. That’s the sort of thing that has enlightened television watchers on hate-watch.

It raises an important question about the state of comedy: does the laugh track serve a real purpose? If anything, one should hope the Emmys would be an example to the TV masses about how outdated a mechanism it is. In the “Outstanding Comedy” category, only one of the nominees relies on robo-laughter, the aforementioned Big Bang Theory. In fact, shows like Modern Family and 30 Rock have dominated the Emmys in recent years; both are single-camera comedies that depend on the talent of their casts to conjure the laughs. If that’s the case, then, why do networks still commission sitcoms weighed down by canned guffaws?

Look no further than the “decorated” television series of the ’90s as likely culprits, when genre convention-respecting shows like Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond and Home Improvement were everywhere. All of these shows followed the tried-and-true formula: a comedy of errors unfolding before the audience, conflict, resolution, and the viewer is enticed to laugh along.

Actors serve the narrative, which in turn acts as the coatrack that jokes are hung upon. There is minimal character growth from week to week; their role, above all, is to deliver the punchline.

The continued use of the laugh track in sitcoms should arouse suspicion in any educated viewer’s mind. Originally implemented in the nascent days of television in the mid-20th century as a way to cue the audience at home to the setup of the joke format, by now it has become a crutch for lazy writers who use tropes rather than actual jokes. Watching an episode of Two and a Half Men, for example, is an exercise in “been there, done that.” More than a half-century since the sitcom’s inception, network executives seemingly still don’t trust their viewers to make up their own minds about what’s funny and what’s not.

Perhaps there exists in the network suits’ minds a suspicion that viewers will question the format of the situational comedy and the set-up/punchline procedure that occurs in the silence a laugh track would otherwise occupy. Recurring jokes (known in the biz as “callbacks”) in sitcoms rarely happen, in part because of the difficult nature of continued, sustained humour. In this era of prolonged syndication contracts, the stations who purchase the rights to rebroadcast episodes will shuffle them around in any order it feels fits, just because of the format.

There is, however, a certain comfort built into the concept of the laugh track. It’s almost like a big hug from the screen to your brain, letting you know that everything is still functioning the way it always has. The laugh track offers that blithe sense of belonging. You’re there, too, laughing right along with your favourite characters as they try to get out of the sticky situation. This feeling may have been prevalent and accepted without question 30 years ago, but a large percentage of the public is now aware that these devices exist.

On YouTube, one needs simply to seek out “The Big Bang Theory Without the Laugh Track” for pertinent evidence that there is a contextual distortion in instructing audiences when to laugh. In one example of this altered practice, Sheldon (played by actor Jim Parsons) sits at the bottom of the stairway, playing on his computer. Penny, played by Kaley Cuoco, enters and they banter. But without the audience’s laughter, the dialogue is clunky and laden with jargon that a layman viewer doesn’t actually understand. It loses any comedic appeal and instead reveals itself to be a rather poignant exchange between people from two completely different worlds.

So here we are, a generation of “educated viewers.” Do we still require this mechanical device in an era where we learn the formulaic ways of the situational comedy at an early age? The answer is a hopeful yet tentative no.

The “comedy without safety net” category of show is a small yet critically acclaimed one. Quasi-situational comedies such as Arrested Development (itself an Emmy recipient, though most consider its win an anomaly), It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Parks and Recreation, Louie and (2012 Emmy nominee) Girls have been acting without reference markers for the audience during their entire runs with varying levels of success. These series rely on the viewer remaining faithful to the show, the concept of the payoff over the long run, and of proper character and narrative arcs.

One can argue that the comedy emanating from these shows is more pointed because of the fact that it forces the viewer to go from passive to active — it asks them to figure out what points for them are of comedic value. This makes viewing these shows a much richer personal experience, as they ask viewers to figure out their own sensibilities. Compare this with shows that utilize the laugh track so viewers can almost tune out and let the television tell them the opportune moment to laugh.

The practice has diminished in some capacity, and as the growing success of recent laughter-less network and cable shows proves, the laugh track’s days are numbered. As audiences grow ever more educated, the need to be told when to react may indeed fall by the wayside, although it won’t happen overnight. ■

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