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
The scene is a hospital room where Luke Dunphy, at age 14 the youngest of the Dunphy children, is being treated for an allergic reaction. His young cousin looks at the IV drop hanging by his bed and asks what it does. Without missing a beat Luke replies: ”I don’t know but thanks to Obama you’re paying for it”. This scene from an episode of the popular sitcom Modern Family, which aired the day after Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in the White House in 2012, was greeted with cheer among conservatives. Several conservative bloggers and news outlets commented on how Modern Family ”mocked” the president’s signature health care reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from 2010. The conservative website RedAlertPolitics expanded, writing: “even liberal Hollywood writers can’t escape the reality that is the expensive repercussions from Obamacare”. Others took to social media, within days several clips of the scene had been uploaded to YouTube and comments written on Twitter.
Commentators connected the joke to earlier reports of advertising plans in connection with the roll out of the online marketplace for the medical coverage in California. The New York Times had reported that suggestions from the Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide agency included having prime-time television shows, explicitly naming Modern Family and Grey’s Anatomy, incorporate the health care law into their storylines. The news of the plan was initially met with skepticism among conservative news outlets, criticizing viewers being “force-fed pro-Obamacare propaganda”. Following the Modern Family episode with the comment on the health care law these same voices gleefully saw it as a backlash towards the attempted marketing campaign.
“Can I get to that heart? Can I get to that mind?”A tribute to the frank, contested humor of intense teachers—and to Henry Higgins
Nine years ago in my first class in graduate school, a course on approaches to teaching writing, we read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a break from composition theory. I was thrilled, but I reigned in my enthusiasm when I noted that others in the class, including my professor who I respected immensely, felt apologetic about the book. Words like abusive and misogynistic were thrown casually around the seminar table, as they sometimes are in graduate seminars. Why was there this worry about the teacher in the story—about Henry Higgins? I was surprised that so many disliked his method because I had always thought of him as an effective teacher. My only real support for this inkling was that I found him . . . funny.
Did I have this wrong and, if so, what was the source of my misunderstanding? Or, if I was right that Henry Higgins was a funny and therefore benevolent man (I had collapsed the two conditions in my mind), what caused the confusion among others in my graduate school class? Why had everyone else failed to note his humor? And what did I see in his humor anyway? Could it be that I thought his humor lightened—or even completely neutralized—his seemingly harsh dealings with Eliza Doolittle? Or did we all have it wrong? Did a “correct” reading of the play really fall somewhere in the middle—was it really that Higgins was both funny and harsh? I began to doubt my first intuition about professor Higgins, as I seemed to be faced with a more complicated story.
The irony was that my own professor in this class, a good man with a fiery heart, who was, that very semester, dying of cancer (this would be his last seminar on teaching writing), was a gruff man himself. He and Henry Higgins shared a vocational intensity. In fact, like Henry Higgins, this professor had made it his life’s work to teach writing (or “speech”) to the underserved, hugely advancing the trend in what is now called “access” education at top universities. He was passionately focused on this until his last breaths—and he was passionately focused on us, his students; he read our final papers days before he died. Although we, his students, didn’t have a personal rapport with him—we would never have imagined going out for a beer with this man—our engagement with theories of speech and writing, particularly where low-income populations were concerned, kept him alert, stubborn, and justifiably cranky until the end.
I was talking with a colleague recently about the hard transition from the easy, lazy, unscheduled days of summer to the overbooked, cramped, and face-paced fall routine. As a full-time graduate student and full-time senior lecturer, I’m finding it quite difficult to locate any semblance of a work/life balance. My friends from graduate school tell me I will find it (and my sanity) once I finish my dissertation, but I have never taken kindly to waiting, nor do I want to put my health and happiness on hold in my pursuit of the degree.
The researcher in me went to work. I read article after article on the relationship between stress and illness, unhappiness, and disease. I digitally paged through JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association – and found studies by neurosurgeons, psychologists, and general practitioners on the harmful emotional, mental, and physical effects continued stress could have on the body. I reread Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a favorite analytical treatise, focusing on how the linguistic techniques of metaphors used to describe, categorize, and treat patients often discourage, stress, and alienate them all the more. I watched dozens of videos from motivational speakers on the work/life divide, some of them harsh, some humorous, others heartfelt and touching. I came across one video by BigSpeak with Juliet Funt, daughter of Allen Funt, acclaimed creator and host of the beloved show Candid Camera. In the clips, Funt speaks to 4,000 members of the emergency nurses association specifically about the work/life divide.
Through the vehicle of humor, Funt expresses sympathy and understanding about the impact of various life stressors on our daily lives. A favorite clip speaks to the acronym C.C.P.P., a list of attributes we as overworked Americans aspire to be: calm, confident, patient, and present. The conversation with my colleague, in conjunction with this clip, reminded me of the power of humor to bridge the mythical work/life divide. I feel the most fulfilled in my private and professional lives when the two are harmonious, when the personal and the pedagogical are one in the same.
This week in class, I emphasized the importance of stress reduction. I had students watch Funt in action. We discussed how our course readings were not just solitary, literary pieces, but small, applicable tales that, when used correctly, added some humorous sustenance to our daily lives and helped to close the illusory divide.
© 2014 Tara Friedman
“Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds.” – Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
When I was a college freshman, a beloved English professor first introduced me to author Sherman Alexie. I have had the opportunity to pay it forward and teach Sherman Alexie (most notably his novel Flight) to freshman students for the past 6 years. Here are my top 4 reasons you should be doing the same.
1. He’s funny.
We teach in a modern, text-filled world where laughing out loud and rolling on the floor laughing are common phrases that now appear in our inboxes, piles of essays to grade, and classroom discussions. While this reliance on slang always reminds me to make a note, ‘AVOID SLANG’ in my syllabus, I am pleased to present an author who creates a safe space for readers to ‘lol’ and/or ‘rotfl’ and aim to generate a similar environment in my college classroom.
I usually introduce Alexie with a brief biography and a lot of excitement – I affectionately create an ‘S.A. Opening Day’ complete with an interactive Prezi on the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian from Wellpinit, Washington. In recent years, I have begun our discussions with clips from Time’s 10 Questions Series and Big Think’s Interview with Sherman Alexie below. While these videos help to promote different works, they also provide a context for young readers to see and hear from the author directly. When I ask for first impressions, students comment on Alexie’s passion about subjects like banned books, Native American history, and novel writing. They applaud his frankness and his ability to tell it like it is. Mostly, though, they talk about his humor. They continue to do so while reading his novel Flight.
2. He’s seriously funny.
In the midst of reading, students always exchange tales of laughter – they dog-ear pages to later share with classmates. Interestingly enough, students also inquire about another side of Alexie’s humor. They begin to question if they should be laughing at some of the outrageous stereotypes, politically incorrect statements, and explicit innuendos – and they dog-ear these pages as well. While they may not be aware of it, Alexie helps students become more active readers and critical thinkers. He helps them to formulate differences between types of humor such as slapstick, dark humor, and satire. Through satirical portrayals, he presents serious issues many of my students face on a daily basis such as alienation, peer pressure, and stereotyping.
In class, students create an ongoing list of ‘seriously funny moments’ from the novel, and explore these instances in their final papers. They use humor as a tool to talk about thoughtful social and cultural issues, an idea garnered from the pages of Alexie’s own work. For their final essays, they answer one or more of the following questions in an effort to explore, expand upon, and showcase their understanding of humor’s impact on society: How do humorists (like Sherman Alexie) use humor to get us to think about the world?; How does the type of humor in Alexie’s work impact, change, progress, and/or regress our worldview?; How, if at all, might this type of humor used in Alexie’s work help us to prioritize our values?; and How, if at all, might the instances of humor in Alexie’s work help us to change American society?
3. His writing is accessible.
I am a big proponent of challenging my students’ abilities – their writing skills, reading comprehension, and critical thinking – in my freshman English course. On the other hand, students often have a different agenda. With such a varied student population with an even more diverse set of skills in each classroom, I find their motivation to learn on a broader spectrum than ever before. Alexie’s writing, through culture references, simple sentence structure, and descriptive language, connects his characters’ thoughts to his readers’ world. Often, lofty diction and complicated sentence construction can alienate young readers. After a semester of trying to challenge their comprehension and deciphering skills, Alexie is a breath of fresh, easy air. Through his writing, he illustrates that language should promote critical thinking about sober, cultural issues plaguing the current American landscape.
His writing is also a great model for students. I often ask them to write and speak what they know – to avoid using the right-click feature found on their computers that allows them to replace their vocabulary with less familiar, obtuse words. I want them to focus on effectively communicating their ideas onto the page, and Alexie acts as a bestselling example.
4. He helps develop empathy in readers.
Call it what you will. Whether it is social consciousness, social awareness, or social understanding, Sherman Alexie has a true gift of facilitating empathy for other human experiences. As my freshman students study, humor, specifically the kind utilized by Alexie, helps to create a shared experience. These shared experiences produce stories, which are often told in the classroom, and build understanding and tolerance across different cultural boundaries. Alexie explores Native American stereotypes – the drunken Indian, the noble savage – and shows their harmful effects on the psyches of young men growing up both on and away from the reservation. He discusses cultural boundaries and often shatters preconceived notions of Native Americans, all in an effort not to acquire sympathy, but instead to illustrate the destructive force of willful ignorance. True understanding of another’s pain, isolation, and successes combats this deliberate cultural obliviousness. His interview with Bill Moyers, “Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Borders” is a poignant example for this discussion.
We spend a great deal of time on historical context as the novel presents it. History is important to Alexie, and it is often the place to begin a discussion on empathy. We discuss historical injustices, legendary battles, and prominent figures, such as Jackson’s dismissal of the Supreme Court ruling for the Cherokee nation, leading to the Trail of Tears, Custer’s Last Stand, and Crazy Horse. My young students grapple with an historical understanding of these cultural experiences, and in weekly reflections, they often discuss with their own values, ignorance, and biases, senses and stories of personal betrayal, alienation, and cultural seclusion. Considering different histories and perspectives aids in the development of a more informed, empathetic, and socially conscious society. While habitually reliant on bland, disingenuous phraseology regarding their emotions, twenty-first century readers learn through Alexie’s affirmation that true emotions and deep, sincere empathy builds lasting, valuable human connections.
© 2014 Tara Friedman
Tara E. Friedman currently teaches English and Professional Writing at Widener University in the outskirts of Philadelphia. She is ABD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and hopes to complete her dissertation on female resistance and agency in select late nineteenth and twentieth century American novels and graduate in 2014 with her PhD in Literature and Criticism. While she has presented on critical thinking and writing center theory and pedagogy at the CCCC, her other research interests include nineteenth century British novels, the sixties in America, and American humor.
Around this time of year, I can always feel the tension whenever I walk into the building. Everyone I greet has puffy eyes, the bags under them extending all the way to their knees, from too many late nights, too many hours hunched over computer screens, books, and essays, frantically trying to get it all done before the deadline.
And those are just the instructors.
The students, though they have the resilience of youth on their side, tend to be in even worse shape, all of their tension exacerbated by too many dining hall meals, homesickness, lingering self-doubt, and being rousted out of bed or the shower in the wee small hours of the morning by fire alarms pulled in the dorms.
And yet, the serious business of learning must continue, and it must continue to be effective.
Humor can be a useful tool to deflect the tension and keep us focused on what matters. It can also be an extremely effective mnemonic device if it hammers home a concept. But I have discovered over the years, for myself anyway, that it isn’t a good idea to wait until this time of the year to try to inject that sanity-saving humor. It works best if by this time of the semester, it is already a habit.
Numerous studies have explored the links between laughter and learning, demonstrating that when humor complements and reinforces the concepts — not distracting from them — students retain more, their anxiety levels drop, and their motivation increases (Garner 2006). Self-deprecating humor on the part of professors relaxes students and makes them seem more approachable or understandable (Shatz and LoSchiavo 2005). The focus must always remain on learning, and a teacher must be careful not to undercut his or her purpose or credibility by becoming more of an entertainer in students’ eyes (Bryant and Zillman 2005).
A teacher must never forget the power dynamic in the room, either, and use humor to target a student or group of students (Gorham and Christophel 1990), or “put them in their place.” Such humor is far too aggressive and has no place in the classroom. As I’ve written elsewhere on Humor in America (Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?), humor depends upon some level of shared ground, and because of this reveals the boundaries of a particular community. Making a student or group of students the butt of a joke sets them outside the community rather than bringing them in, and further, raises anxiety levels in all of the students, causing them to wonder what would make them become a target. This doesn’t mean that you can’t kid around with students or gently tease them, but the focus must always be on enhancing their learning or reassuring them that you don’t doubt their abilities. You can never forget who holds the real power in the classroom, or the damage you can casually do.
Humor shouldn’t be forced or feel obligatory either. It isn’t for everyone, but it sure gets me through the day, and my students seem to enjoy it. More important, they learn, doing themselves and me proud.
I teach writing and literature, with a focus on research. Much of the humor I use in the classroom is geared toward revealing the absurdity behind bad habits of writing or sloppy thinking, or toward removing some of the mystery about what makes good scholars, writers, and researchers — and students’ anxiety about whether they have what it takes.
Because many of them come to the classroom well-trained in timed exam writing, they tend to want to have a thesis before they start writing, to need to know what they want to say before they begin, before they really look into the evidence. I’ve kidded around with them about this for years — if a thesis is an interpretation of evidence, how can you interpret what you haven’t got yet? But this video is the best thing I’ve found for helping students see that when you narrow your focus too soon, you cherry-pick the evidence, seeing only what you want to see or have decided that you will see — and often miss the best part in the process:
After watching this video, I have a ready-made shorthand for marginal comments or conferences. As the video says, “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for,” so it is dangerous to have a thesis too early, and in the evidence-gathering part of the process, you must remain open to what is there. When a student is having problems with this, I can just point out briefly that there seem to be some moonwalking bears around. And instead of getting defensive, they laugh ruefully, and settle in to talk about what else might be there.
Another problem students often have is missing key facts in a text, reading hurriedly or sloppily, and ending up with arguments that cannot be supported because the facts are against them. While there is never one correct interpretation of a text, there are wrong ones, interpretations that violate or ignore facts. But when you point out that a student is doing this, s/he often feels defensive, stupid. Humor can help. So I tell students, “You can’t make a stunningly brilliant argument about the symbolic significance of a yellow shirt if . . . Continue reading →
Jeffrey Melton wrote this great piece on teaching “The Beverly Hillbillies” as the first piece in his “Teaching American Humor” series. You can click on his name under “Authors” on the sidebar to the right to see more of his excellent posts.
Editor’s Note: This piece is the first piece in a planned series on teaching humor and television sitcoms. Jeffrey Melton will be spearheading this feature, but he invites you to contribute to the series, as do I. Do you have a sitcom that you teach that you would like to write about? Please contact the editor. Thanks.
I made my ten-year-old daughter watch the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was going to be a bonding experience for us. At the end as the credits rolled and the Clampetts waved, she said, “That was dumb.” A rift came between us at that moment, a deep realization of disappointment for both of us. We had expected more from one another. But I couldn’t argue against her basic assertion. So I simply said, “Well, you’re dumb, too,” and sent her to her room. No, I didn’t really say that, but…
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Jan McIntire-Strasburg, Executive Director–American Humor Studies Asociation
Humorist employ many different stylistic techniques in order to incite thought-provoking laughter in their readers. Once such is Mikhail Bahktin’s concept of heteroglossia. As Bahktin used it, this term refers to a linguistic play of different forms of a language from different races, classes or genders that highlights difference. While such use does not always result in humor, it is an excellent way to do so. Juxtaposing the dialects representing upper and lower classes, for example, can result in humorous misunderstandings that highlight the differences between the two classes in education or experience, and demonstrate the difficulties of effective communication between the two. The elements of contradiction and surprise that result from such conversations often invoke laughter.
Mark Twain makes excellent use of this linguistic play in “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” a short sketch in his travel book, Roughing It. Miner Scotty Briggs’ Washoe slang and poker analogies are incomprehensible to the Eastern minister he is trying to convince to officiate at Buck’s funeral. The minister, in his attempts to understand Briggs’ request are equally confusing to the miner. The minister’s “clarifications” are long-winded and employ theological vocabulary well outside of Scotty’s experience. Thus for the space of several pages, the reader is treated to the experience of watching (hearing) two men groping toward an understanding of each other. Since the reader already knows what is required, she is free to enjoy laughter at the expense of both the formal, highly educated minister and the slangy Western miner.
Such laughter can, and often does, result in humor for entertainment purposes only. But in Twain’s case, the laughter engendered by Scotty and the minister also highlights major differences in Eastern and Western life in nineteenth century and the clash of two cultures within American borders. He demonstrates through the dialog a wide gulf in value systems and invites the reader to take a side—should we favor the minister who, though well educated, comes off as stuffy and superior, or should we instead value Scotty’s more homey and practical view of life on the frontier?
These insights are all available to us as we read Twain’s sketch, and because regional dialects comprised a large part of nineteenth century writing, Twain’s contemporaneous readers would have had no trouble discerning the meaning or recognizing the humor. However, contemporary readers, unused to the idiosyncratic spellings and pronunciations often find this kind of reading slow going, and the “translation” that must take place can affect how readers interpret the humor of the sketch. The sound recording below, because it offers the opportunity to hear rather than see the dialect, allows for a 21st century “reader” to avoid the difficulties of reading through the dialect, and lets the humor come through. Thus it frees the reader to think about what is said instead of spending time deciphering the text itself. For students who are inexperienced readers of dialect, this freedom is necessary to understanding. For experienced readers of Twain and dialect, hearing the text enhances the fun of it.
Sound recordings can make excellent teaching tools to demonstrate the concept of heteroglossia by showing them how it works in practice instead of telling them how it works. This recording of “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” is one example of how we can use sound to enhance teaching humor to undergraduates. It is also a great way for Twainiacs and humor scholars to entertain themselves.
The American Humor Studies Association welcomes teaching resources for their website. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org