Friday, December 11, 2009

On Laughter and the Big Bang

In an interview over at /film, culture critic Chuck Klosterman (author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and the new Eating the Dinosaur) touches upon a subject that is frankly one of my biggest television pet peeves: the laugh track. Klosterman has this to say, as excerpted from his latest book: “In the short term, [the laugh track] confirms that the TV program we’re watching is intended to be funny and can be experienced with low stakes. It takes away the unconscious pressure of understanding context and tells the audience when they should be amused. But because everything is laughed at in the same way (regardless of value) and because we all watch TV with the recognition that this is mass entertainment, it makes it harder to deduce what we think is independently funny. As a result, Americans of all social classes compensate by living like bipedal Laff Boxes: We mechanically laugh at everything, just to show that we know what’s supposed to be happening. We get the joke, even if there is no joke.” [source]

I'm not always Klostermans biggest fan, but that, my dears, is Truth (capital T). I hate the laugh track. When i was growing up, i reached a point where the laugh track quite literally felt like a skin that needed to be shed. It was part of my past and a sign of something almost too juvenile. Sure, i was comfortable with the laughter on The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince, or Full House, but in their wake i found myself largely unable to tolerate those bursts of laughter or well-timed "oooos" and "awwws". I knew when to laugh, i didn't need someone else to do it for me. For me, canned laughter (with few exceptions) makes perfectly good shows feel a little cheap and tawdry. It furthers that studio live audience aesthetic of yesterday that pushes television into a category fanatic intellectuals like to label "a lesser art", which, in this day and age, is frankly a fiction.

The true rebirth of the American situation comedy, for me, was in 2003 with Arrested Development (though, you could say earlier if you consider Sex and the City straight comedy), a show that proved too smart to stay on television. Yet, it was a critical success. It showered Fox with awards and acclaim, and the DVD sales following cancellation have lead to a film deal. In its wake, NBC has moved its comedies into a laugh track free zone, replacing 90's nostalgia clunkers like Friends with clever, full-bodied titles like 30 Rock and The Office. ABC, with shows like Modern Family, is finally following suit, and it could be said that FOX's focus on animated comedy serves much the same function. The result? It's now even more difficult for me to subject myself to any program that uses the dreaded laugh track.

Of course, the sole refuge of the laugh track is the backwards land of CBS. Yes, CBS, somehow inexplicably the most watched network television station in this country. Also, my own personal hell. Seriously. Why is that? To me, CBS is a dinosaur, for dinosaurs. Its very mention turns me into an angry Rex Harrison ranting about the state of American taste (really, America? Do you actually think Two and a Half Men is in any way amusing, really?). It is home to the least creative, most stagnant line-up of programs on television and has been for about as long as i can recall. If the case needs to be made that television is that lesser art, or that it isn't an art at all but merely a dumbed down distraction, CBS will provide all forms of evidence when the culture warriors come calling. Night after night CBS airs nothing but the bare bones basics: police procedural 'mysteries' spawned from other police procedural 'mysteries' and family oriented sitcoms tainted by maniacal group laughter. I, personally, can't handle it. Thus, up until very recently, i haven't paid the slightest bit of attention to any single show airing on that network. Then, some folks insisted that i check out The Big Bang Theory. I was hesitant. Very. But this time, my fears were sort of unfounded. It was a rocky start, i stopped after the first disc only to be egged on to try again...strangely, in a fit of boredom, i did.

Dear readers, The Big Bang Theory is a tragedy. Not because it's bad, but because it has a lot that's good. Actually good. The writing is smart, the actors are terrific in their roles, the references are en pointe. It's a show that champions the geek without backpedaling and makes more use of hard science in any five minutes than CSI does in a whole episode (hyperbole, probably). What's tragic about it is that it could be better. Given another place of origin, The Big Bang Theory could have triumphed as a sort of male nerd antidote to the fast-talking Gilmore Girls. We could have forgiven the obvious mechanics of moving in a pretty blonde across the hall if we weren't trapped by the limited movement of the camera and the interference of the laugh track. This is a case where the laughter is really too noticeable, where it obviously doesn't belong. Short of a sci-fic onvention, what's the likelihood of having a large group audience laugh uproariously at a one liner about Leonard Nimoy or String Theory? Not very high. This much i know. Yet, while it becomes accessible to the CBS audience, i would posit that it loses a fair share of the crowd who would really appreciate it by inadvertently assuming said audience's lack of understanding. Those who do watch it probably fell into a trap carefully devised while they were watching Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan act happy-go-lucky on that other show people are big into on CBS. Which brings me back to Klosterman, and wondering why the laugh track still exists at all. I can see, at the dawn of television, the thought process behind the apparent necessity of the laugh track: make the moving image more like a live comedy routine or stage play, less like cinema, give it an atmosphere, you know. But now, why? Why do people need that reinforced laughter? Most generations have been raised on TV, we know its basic purpose, we know how it works. What purpose does does the laugh track still serve? Are we seeking community in our isolated entertainment? By the way, do you watch Community? Because really, you should.

Kill the laugh track. Kill the fat ouroboros of CBS primetime. Vive la revolution.

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