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
“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.
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 →
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 email@example.com
Editors of Humor in America
As many of us prep our syllabi and get ready to head back to school, some of our readers will be so lucky as to get to teach humor to their students–either in a specifically focused class or in a more general context. One of the founding goals of this website was the importance of the pedagogical discussion of humor. Amy Wright, Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, and Tracy Wuster discussed some of these issues in An Educated Sense of Humor.
Our writers have taken on a number of topics related to teaching humor. Sharon McCoy and Tracy Wuster have both taken up E.B. White’s famous saying about humor and dissecting a frog (here, here, and here). Jeff Melton and Sharon McCoy have written on teaching satire:
Jeff has also started a series about teaching humor:
To which we could add Sharon McCoy’s pieces:
Other pieces on the site aren’t specifically focused on pedagogy, but they do touch on related questions. Tom Inge’s Politics and the American Sense of Humor launched the website just over 2 years (and 185k views) ago. Michael Kiskis’s The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also helped launch our site. Both pieces offer insight into the cultural roles of American humor, and both have proved to be popular over the course of the site’s life.
In perusing the list of pieces on the site over these last two years, there are too many strong discussions of humor to list here. Pieces of interest in relation to teaching humor might be:
The Muppets: An Exercise in Humorous Metacinematic Irony by Michael Purgason
REMEMBERING DICK GREGORY by Sam Sackett
Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry by Caroline Sposto
The Funny Thing about Cancer by Sharon McCoy
Parody: A Lesson by Don and Alleen Nilsen
The Onion and How Comedy Deals with Tragedy (Or Not) by Matthew Daube
Meta-Racist Airplane Jokes: The Foolish Audience and Didactic Humor by Philip Scepanski
Mojo Medicine: Humor, Healing and the Blues by Matt Powell
The Pitfalls of Activist Humor by Bonnie Applebeet
In the Archives: Mr. Dooley in Peace and War, “On the Indian War” by Luke Deitrich
And so many others… if you wish to write something about humor and learnin’, please write the editor. We’d love to have more.
Vacations are meant to be relaxing. Swim, sun, cook, drink, rinse, repeat. Due to personal and professional deadlines my vacation went more like: clean, trash, write, apply, review, request an extension. Between submitting for publication, looking for new employment, refinancing the house, and running an amateur wrestling clinic for small children out of my living room, I found enough time to scribble a few thoughts on humor, drink unwatered whiskey, and beg for a quick death between the hours of 11pm and midnight before it all began again the following day.
Few and far between do I ever find the emancipated evening, like my pass to the local class on voice acting I mentioned last time. If you’re the type to follow links in an online article like E. T. tracking Reese’s Pieces (timely I know), then your detective work discovered my town of residence. Salem, MASS. There are a lot of Salems in the United States, but only ours burned witches so their descendants could sell cheap gimcracks that turn tragedy into novelty. History is ripe for humor, and when that humor becomes routine, the resulting tradition can be called horrible.
Or rather, Horribles. The Ancient and Horribles Parade is a fading New England tradition that sounds a lot like a lottery in Shirley Jackson literature. “We’ve always had a parade!” some old codger mutters before throwing a rock at the chosen sacrifice. Similarly, the parade stretches back into forgotten memory, where many claim its origin but no one really knows when exactly. But they do know what and how. Usually on or around July 4, a community informally gathers to lampoon people in the public eye as a supplement to the formal celebrations sponsored by the government on our day of independence. Like Gerrymandering, the North Shore above Boston also made the event a political device, “whereby the speaker argues against taking a certain course of action by listing a number of extremely undesirable events which will ostensibly result from the action.” But why speak of politics when it can be satirized?
Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s UniversityAmy Nathan
Wright, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s University
Tracy Wuster, Adjunct Professor, The University of Texas at Austin
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally written for the newsletter of the Association of General and Liberal Studies, but the newsletter was discontinued. Amy and Laura agreed that we could publish it here.
“…liberal learning—the development of knowledge, skills, values, and habits of mind characteristic of an educated person.” –AGLS Mission Statement
Whether humor is used as a strategy for teaching or as content in a general education course, one major goal of a liberal education should be the development of our students’ senses of humor—the skills and habits of mind to interpret and use humor well.
The cliché with humor is that if you have to explain a joke, then it ceases to be funny. The implication is that we, as educators, don’t really need to teach humor, since students either get it or they don’t, and that by explaining humor, we take the fun out of it.
This is true, insofar as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Humor cannot be translated into a non-funny statement of fact or analysis, which is the meaning most people mean when warning against explaining humor. But instances of humor can be contextualized, historicized, and interpreted in ways that can deepen students’ understanding of key subjects, of other people’s points of view, and of a society in which humor has long been a central means of communicating and contesting societal visions and values.
Humor is especially useful in general education classes to introduce, explore, and deepen the understanding of difficult subjects, such as race and gender, for a diverse population of students. In these cases, teachers must help students come to a rich and nuanced understanding of humor, or its can end up accomplishing the opposite of one’s intentions—it can reinforce stereotypes and divide people.
How do we help students distinguish between racial humor and racist humor? How do we help students distinguish between gender-based humor and sexist humor? How do we get students to take race and gender seriously? How do we use humor in the classroom, whether telling the jokes ourselves or providing comedic examples, while engaging students’ critical thinking skills so they get the joke?
Hello all. Do you teach classes on humor or related topics?
One of our goals here at “Humor in America” is the discussion of humor studies pedagogy. Such as:
Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies by Jeff Melton
Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically) by Jeff Melton
Today, our goal is to extend this conversation by politely request that any and all of you who teach, or have taught, humor studies courses (broadly defined) submit them to us to post here (as well as on the website of the American Humor Studies Association, with your permission of course). The plan is to create a single post with a number of links to various syllabi as a resource for teachers and scholars. You can send it as a word doc or pdf.
So, please send us your syllabi for courses on humor, Mark Twain, comics, Kurt Vonnegut, etc. etc. to: firstname.lastname@example.org …. Let me know if you have any questions. Thank you. Tracy, editor.