Teaching American Humor: Laughing with Laugh Tracks
My life would be better with a laugh track. My writing would be better, too. So would your reading experience–well, with a laugh track and a few drinks…
I am with the majority opinion on this issue, at least according to most producers of American situation comedies for the last sixty years. The reasoning behind the laugh track, as I see it, goes like this: A laugh track makes people laugh; people who laugh enjoy situation comedies; people who enjoy situation comedies see plenty of commercials; people who see commercials while in a good mood tend to buy things; a laugh track makes people laugh, and so on… Those who buy and sell commercials fund sitcoms, and they have never been inclined to trust writers or audiences. Neither do I.
I have skillfully written two first-rate jokes thus far. But, of course, you can’t really know that because this post does not have a laugh track. I spent several hours trying to insert laugh track audio here and failed. That’s funny–I think–but how can any of us be sure?
Teaching the American sitcom requires some discussion of laugh tracks. I admit that I have only glossed over laugh tracks in courses on American humor thus far. This has been a mistake. I have awakened to an obvious point: laugh tracks provide a compelling way for students to consider a more challenging array of characteristics of the art form–from the aesthetic to the mundane, from the heart of performance to the mechanics of production, from the implicit honesty of comedy to the manipulative potential of technology. From now on, I will begin all coursework focused on the sitcom with the laugh track.
Here is how I came to this astounding awakening; it’s all about The Big Bang Theory. I like the show (though I can’t decide whether I should consider it a “guilty pleasure” or an appreciation of solid, if broad, writing). The laugh track, however, drives me crazy. It is loud and intrusive. I don’t believe it at all. I am not alone. Any quick Google search of “laugh tracks” will provide over 31,000,000 hits. Type in “Big Bang Theory,” and you will find 127,000,000 hits, virtually all of which refer to the show (I didn’t check out all of them, by the way. I simply reached that conclusion using the scientific method based on my observations of the first two pages). Here is a fact: lots of people care about the television show; almost nobody cares about the scientific theory. A search of the show title combined with “laugh tracks” gets 181,000 hits. Lots of people hate the laugh track (lots of people hate the show, too). YouTube has plenty of clips of the show with the laugh track removed. Here are two examples:
These clips draw out two basic responses from interested parties: one, that the show is hurt by the laugh track (so the complaint concerns its use rather than the inherent quality of the show itself); two, that the laugh track lamely attempts to cover up a lousy show. There is no reconciling of these opposing positions, but the removal of the laugh track is disingenuous in that it creates a show wherein the comedic timing has been wholly distorted. The Big Bang Theory is filmed in front of a live audience, and the performance reflects the interaction between audience and cast. The producers of the show claim that the audience responses are genuine and have not been “sweetened,” a term to imply that the laughter has been engineered in production to enhance audience responses. This claim is disingenuous as well. Any production process will inevitably “sweeten” the final product–from placement of microphones to volume applied. All steps in the process of preparing a show for airing are a form of “sweetening.” Simply because the producers do not use canned laughter (laughter recordings NOT from an live audience) does not mean that no laughter manipulation occurs. Of course it does. As always, The Onion provides the best satirical take on laugh tracks with the show by simply raising the volume of the laugh track so that it wholly overpowers the show itself: Big Bang Theory with laugh track enhanced by The Onion
Tourists say the dumbest things. They travel the globe ostensibly to learn and to gain experiences so that when they return home they can do so as more well-rounded and informed human beings. Well, that’s the dream anyway. Tourists are always out of place, they are often pretending to be (much) smarter than they are, and they carry with them a sense of entitlement–all of these factors set them up to be perennially funny as objects of ridicule. Few things are funnier than ignorance, but when it combines with arrogance, then a wonderfully silly comic star is born: the American tourist, a figure of derision for about hundred and fifty years now.
It was Mark Twain who first popularized and perfected the American tourist, in his best-selling The Innocents Abroad in 1869, a narrative of a bumbling five-month tour–America’s first pleasure cruise–across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean Sea to see the “Old World.” He later built on that persona in other travel books like A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). Twain captured the perils of tourism in many ways, but one of his most effective and hilarious shticks was to mock the inherent ignorance and arrogance of tourists simply by reporting what they said.
Tourists say the dumbest things. Just ask Azie Dungey, an actor who, while looking for stage work in the Washington D.C. area, found roles, as she puts it, playing “every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Carline Branham–Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid.” Readers here may be too timid to ask this: Is that THE Martha Washington, President George Washington’s wife? Yup. History is fun. Ms. Dungey, during the energy and optimism infused into the presidential election of 2008 and throughout President Obama’s first term, Azie Dungey supported herself by playing a slave who served the first, first family. American irony at its best.
Her role is as “Lizzie May,” a fictional character drawn from Ms. Dungey’s experiences performing as a slave woman at George and Martha Washington’s home named Mount Vernon, now a popular tourist site. And her forum is Ask a Slave: The Web Series. The short sketches recreate many of the questions that tourists posed to Ms. Dungey over the years. Ask a Slave is promoted as “Real Questions, Real Comedy.” It will make you cringe.
When tourists reveal their ignorance and arrogance, we have what is called in the profession “a teachable moment.” A traditional method of trying to encourage a learning process is called the Socratic Method, named after Socrates that famous smart guy from ancient Greece. He is dead now. The method involves getting people to ask questions and from the answers to encourage more questions and thereby lead to the gathering of knowledge–and, from that process, achieve the gaining of wisdom. Or something like that. Tourists all over the United States (and the world, for that matter) are often encouraged to ask questions of their guides. At many historical sites, guides are often complemented by historical re-enactors to create “living history.” It is an appealing bit of stage craft. “All of history is but a stage, and we are merely reenactors and tourists.” Shakespeare wrote something along those lines. I just updated it.
But when the questions are so clueless, what’s a slave to do?
Well, the actor Azie Dungey performed her role to the best of her ability (and with much patience), but all the while she collected information, and now, as Lizzie May, she has some different answers to give. She, with the help of other members of the crew, are re-enacting those tourist re-enactments and providing the rest of us with our own funny teachable moments. The first episode immediately reveals why the online comedy series has caught fire.
Lizzie May is a significant expansion of the role that Ms. Dungey played at Mount Vernon. She is able to provide answers that would have gotten her fired at Mount Vernon, all the while maintaining a demeanor that is seemingly polite and deferential and that the original role demanded. Yet the answers are assertive and thus subversive. She thereby provides a compelling satirical voice. The resulting humor is well worth viewers’ time and offers us our own teachable moments.
Ignorance is funny. It has always been funny because it provides us the wonderful opportunity to laugh at someone else’s stupidity. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of it, so humorists can always find some facet of human behavior to exploit for laughs. When the subject matter is tied to the legacies of slavery, the humor has an unavoidable edge. One thing that the tourist questions reveal beyond their stupidity is a desperation for self-affirmation, or an almost pathological need to lessen the horror of slavery, to give many modern tourists more distance from the slaveowners and supremacists in their racial family tree. The need is understandable; the ongoing moral cowardice, however, is tiresome to say the least.
My grandma, Louise, babysat for Lawrence Welk‘s kids when she was a girl. She lived across from Elitch Gardens, where my great-grandmother ran the roller coaster and my great-grandpa worked in the greenhouses. Growing up, we often watched the Lawrence Welk show with grandma.
I remember laughing a lot at the show–for both the intentional humor and the unintentional. Welk’s persona and corny jokes always made grandma laugh. Such as:
How many of Lawrence Welk’s critics does it take to change a light bulb?
– They don’t know how to change a light bulb, but they’ll find something wrong with how his Musical Family does it
Welk continues to maintain popularity, and his fan pages are examples of humorous web design in themselves. The music and costumes were often hilarious, often unintentionally so.
Which leads to some obvious and welcome parody:
Feel free to post your own Welk pieces and humor.
Hello readers. Two calls for papers out now for Humor Studies–one from the AHSA and one from the Humor Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association. See the Announcements page for a few more CFPs, as well. Please remember to send me any announcements, CFPs, etc. to post here and on the AHSA site.
The Humor Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association is seeking papers for the 2012 ASA Conference:
American Studies Association Annual Meeting:
“Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent,”
November 21-24, 2013: Hilton Washington, DC
Proposals on any aspect of American Humor will be welcome, including, but not limited to:
Stand-Up Comedy Jokes Wit Merriment
Literary Humor (both high- and low-brow) Richard Pryor
Film Satire Will Rogers
Comedy Jokes Risibility Sitcoms
Mark Twain Dirty Jokes Lenny Bruce
Ventriloquism the Circus Marietta Holley
subtle humor broad humor
Margaret Cho regional humor
transnational humor ethnic humor
and even puns…
Proposals due by: January 11th
Panels will be assembled for submission by the January 26 deadline.
Proposals should be no more than 500 words and should include a brief CV (1 page). Please include current ASA membership status.
Proposals (and questions) should be sent to Tracy Wuster and Jennifer Hughes: firstname.lastname@example.org & email@example.com
American Humor Studies Association
American Literature Association
2013 National Convention
Boston, Westin Copley Hotel, May 26-29.
The AHSA plans to sponsor two sessions at the 2013 national meeting. We seek cogent, provocative, well-researched papers on the following subjects:
1. “Humor in Periodicals: From Punch to Mad”—Abstracts (300 words max.) are encouraged on the role of humorous literature in American periodicals from the early national period to the present. Subject adaptable to both humorous periodicals and humor in serious periodicals across a wide time range; thus, title will change to reflect composition of panel.
2. “Reading Humorous Texts”–Abstracts (300 words max.) are encouraged on the interpretation, recovery, or pedagogy of humorous texts from novels and poems to plays and stand-up. Some focus on the act of interpretation of humor in its historical, performative, formal, or other cultural context is encouraged.
Please e-mail abstracts no later than January 15, 2013 to Tracy Wuster (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject line: “AHSA session, 2013 ALA.” Notifications will go out no later than January 20, 2013.
Our friend and contributor sent along this announcement:
Persons interested in American humor may have a free and uncopyrighted copy of Scalawag, my biography of John N. Reynolds in Microsoft Word, e-mailed to them as an attachment by sending a request to email@example.com. It is not totally funny, but there are several chuckles here and there, and one or two outright laughs. Included are an amusing folk limerick and two examples of the prose of Walt Mason, one of the great but forgotten American humorists.I ran across Reynolds while working on my book on E.W. Howe. After completing the Howe book, I gathered as much material as possible and wrote an account of his life, making it both as factual and as entertaining as I could. Reynolds has no real importance, but I thought the general public would enjoy reading about him. I tried to get book publishers to agree with me, but without success. And I really didn’t have enough for a book anyway (76 pages). So I am giving it away.Who was John N. Reynolds? He was a hard-working college student, a self-ordained minister, a pioneer schoolmaster of brilliant success, a Sunday school superintendent, a newspaper editor, a music storekeeper, a sewing machine agent, a baker, a rogue, an inventor, a penitentiary inmate, a public speaker, a land salesman, a farmer, a candidate for public office, a banker, an itinerant evangelist, an insurance executive, a student of shorthand, an author, a book salesman, and a maniac — in approximately that order, but some of them more than once and some of them simultaneously. He was also — and in this he was quintessentially human — an enigma.You can read Scalawag on your computer or print it out. It’s free. And if you don’t like it, I’ll gladly refund every penny you paid for it.Sam Sackett
Don and Alleen Nilsen
An essay based on a lesson, the Powerpoint of which can be found (along with many others) here.
In the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs wrote that parody is the hardest form of creative writing because the style of the subject must be reproduced in slightly enlarged form, while at the same time holding the interest of people who haven’t read the original. Further complications are posed since it must entertain at the same time that it criticizes and must be written in a style that is not the writer’s own. He concluded that the only thing that would make it more difficult would be to write it in Cantonese.
Obviously, it is easier for people to enjoy a parody if they know what the original was. In our increasingly diverse culture, memories of “classic” children’s books may be one of the few things we have in common. Advertisers, broadcasters, cartoonists, journalists, politicians, bloggers, and everyone else who wants to communicate with large numbers of people, therefore turn to the array of exaggerated characters that we remember from childhood books. Chicken Little represented alarmists; Pinocchio stood for liars;The Big Bad Wolf warned us of danger; Humpty Dumpty demonstrated how easy it is to fall from grace; The Frog Prince gave hope to women of all ages; and Judith Viorst’s The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day lets us know that we all have really bad days.
Some of Lewis Carroll’s parodies were just for fun. When Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of the poem “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. How I wonder where you are,” it became, “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat. How I wonder where you’re at.” This is merely fun word play. But some of Carroll’s parodies had a deeper significance. Lewis Carroll lived in a time when the Victorian poetry tended to be filled with sentimentality and didacticism, so many of Carroll’s poems parodied that sentimentality and didacticism. G. W. Langford wrote a poem that not only preached to parents, but also reminded them of the high mortality rate for young children: “Speak gently to the little child! / It’s love be sure to gain; / Teach it in accents soft and mild; It may not long remain.” Carroll’s parody turned this poem into a song for the Duchess to sing to a piglet wrapped in baby clothes: “Speak roughly to your little boy. And beat him when he sneezes. / He only does it to annoy / Because he knows it teases.” The poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” by Isaac Watts read as follows: “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour / and gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!” Lewis Carroll’s parody is much more fun, and much less didactic: “How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale?”
In a previous post, I attempted to work through an unlikely dialectic of pride and guilt when it comes my own defiance of the enduring stereotype of male comic book readers; somehow, and for whatever reason, it turns out that I read more monthly titles starring female superheroes than male. So pride because there are some really strong books right now, and many of these characters have rich histories and devoted creators despite the constant threat of cancellation due to poor sales. (Just this week, best-selling author Marjorie Liu’s brilliant run on the Marvel series X-23 ended after only 21 issues.) And guilt because these characters tend to be dressed in costumes that I’m sure Rush Limbaugh would have a choice word or two to describe. But we’ve been over this, and you can read the whole thing here. The conclusion is that the best part of superheroines like Power Girl is the way that they actively resist and subvert the male gaze, turning the target audience – men, basically, who are just too easily titillated – into the worst villains with whom they will have to contend.
This, of course, is all very serious stuff, and so I would like to follow up that discussion with the work of two creators whose satirical versions of comics’s most enduring female superhero, Wonder Woman, challenge our principal assumptions about the character: her historically fierce compassion and overall, um, niceness. Wonder Woman is a character who has had innumerable incarnations and iterations – the subject of an excellent recent retrospective on io9 – and as a result remains elusive despite her seeming ubiquity. For all of her alternate origin stories and shifting set of powers, she nevertheless signifies a kind of permanent strength that has withstood an often uncertain role in the shared DC Comics Universe and a rotating roster of creators who have different interpretations and agendas. Also, there was the whole pants or no pants debate.
Wonder Woman is in a lot of ways what is best about superheroes in that she is both strong and symbolic, dissatisfied and driven. The failure of “man’s world” to ever be at peace is her ironic call to arms, although she is not quite immune to a love of battle and the lure of brutality. And yet, somehow she’s still totally nice, of which Steve Rude’s Rockwell-esque portrait is a not uncommon representation.
What one finds in parodies of the character, therefore, is a kind of world-weariness and existential I-simply-refuse-to-keep-caring that is likely the result of having been so widely and wildly interpreted. Kate Beaton’s parodic appropriation of the feminist icon is the result of the character being so routinely misunderstood, as Beaton said in an interview with Comics Alliance:
She’s just a bit more complicated than everybody else. I mean, how many dudes are going to write her and get her right? I just think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I think it’s a real shame people haven’t figured her out…. I guess the Wonder Woman that I draw is kind of sick of everyone not understanding her.
As a member of the pantheon of historical figures that comprise her brilliant webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton’s version of Wonder Woman smokes unrepentantly, disdains children, and is as unwilling to indulge the praise of her fans as she is the prattle of her super-peers. In one of Beaton’s strips, even the most seemingly effortless feat of super-heroism – getting a cat out of a tree – becomes a study in super-annoyance.