Category Archives: Teaching American Sitcoms

Laughing with Laugh Tracks

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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?

Audience-clapping

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmLQaTcViOA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASZ8Hks4gko

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

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Thanks to Obama You’re Paying for It: The Politics of Sitcoms

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.

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

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Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies

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.

Humor in America

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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Teaching American Humor: Back to School

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:

Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)

Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire: A Response to Jeff Melton

Teaching American Satire: A New Piece for the Classroom from the Onion

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Jeff has also started a series about teaching humor:

Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies

Teaching American Sitcoms: Shall We Gather Round the Table?

What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Laughing with Laugh Tracks

The BCS of American College Football Humor

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To which we could add Sharon McCoy’s pieces:

Teaching Humor with Multicultural Texts; Teaching Multiculturalism with Humor

If I Hear it Again, I Swear I’ll Scream: Hemingway, Huck Finn, and “Cheating”

Poetry Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar: Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke

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.

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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

Five Subjects Behind: Some thoughts on grunge, time machines, and “Clam Chow-Dah!” by Tracy Wuster

The Funny Thing about Cancer by Sharon McCoy

Parody: A Lesson by Don and Alleen Nilsen

Studying Stephen Colbert: Nation, who is the most important humorist of the day? by Tracy Wuster

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

The Mount Rushmore of Mount Rushmores by ABE

Humor Studies: An Interview with Don Nilsen

Mojo Medicine: Humor, Healing and the Blues by Matt Powell

The Pitfalls of Activist Humor by Bonnie Applebeet

Power Girl and Girl Power (Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bombshell) by David B. Olsen

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.

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Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Here is your challenge: come up with a syllabus of material for a course on American Humor. Good luck with that.

First, count yourself lucky. In a parallel universe you could be asked to teach a course on American poetry before 1800 (here’s a hint as to how unpleasant that could be: “Day of Doom”). Unlike the poor soul who is stuck with Michael Wigglesworth and a handful of other dour Puritans, you have choices. In this universe, at least, you have the good fortune to teach humor. But you still have the formidable task of choosing from myriad possibilities. To even begin narrowing them down to a manageable body of work to fit into a course seems rather maddening in and of itself—Doom.

Where to begin? What to include? Why a duck?

I would like to take this forum to put together a working list of humorists, etc., and works that could be deemed essential. What I propose is an American Humor ……(wait for it)… Canon. If you are opposed to the rigid, standard-bearing, pomposity of the word, I understand. If you couldn’t care less and figure any guidance at all that may help you put together a class (or many classes) would be useful, then I greet you as a kindred soul.

This may start a fight. That is not what I am seeking, but I figure a discussion on anything but presidential politics may be welcome. I hope to stir interest and ultimately move toward building a broad and annotated database of sorts that could serve teachers and students alike. And serve American Humor. But there is no getting around the fact that such an enterprise forces limitations. I always tell students (in all courses) that I could easily put together multiple sections of the course without duplicating anything. That is not to intimidate them with the frightful power of my brain (that comes later); it is merely to confess up front that I am playing a bit of a shell game. Generally, they don’t mind. They embrace my “less is more” philosophy and often suggest an even more streamlined syllabus. Great kids, all around.

So, what should be taught?

I will serve up my neck with a few suggestions and wait for others to respond. I currently teach a course called “American Popular Humor,” and I am quite fond of it. I added the “popular” to be able to focus on works that have enduring and widespread appeal because, first, that interested me; second, it gave me some cover for leaving out works that I had never heard of. That statement has all the marks of a sound decision. I do not offer this as an ideal or even finished course; rather, I include it here simply to provide a reference point.

I divide the course into thirds: 1) prose and performance; 2) film comedy; and 3) situation comedy. Now, you can start being appalled at how much I have already left out simply by stating three general categories. It gets worse.

Here is my list of required material for prose and performance:

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Teaching American Sitcoms: Shall We Gather Round the Table?

Good families have a proper evening meal, all members gathered around the dinner table. No television.

Good parents reserve dinnertime for wholesome conversation about the day. It is a forum to work toward solving problems and to reaffirm the grace and power of the family unit. A celebration of middle America, the family mealtime is a profound expression of togetherness.

I know this from watching American sitcoms.

Few actual families perform this revered ritual with any level of success, confidence, or consistency. I know this from experience and a good dose of common sense. But most believe in the ritual nonetheless. I am no exception. My wife and I think that we are good parents, but deep down we fear being exposed as frauds because we rarely sit down as a family for dinner. Mostly, we feed the kids (two of them) as they sit at the table and watch a television, or we set up trays for them in the den so they can watch a bigger television. As they eat, we go about making dinner for ourselves—something defined by ingredients rather than shapes. At no time do we all four sit down together, almost never.

If you want an image of what’s wrong with America, my house at dinnertime may be useful. An anthropologist could easily conclude that there is nothing cohesive or unifying about this “family” time at all. I’m inclined to agree.

As a teacher, one of my standard bits is to ask students to think about the normalizing influence of the sitcom and its role in shaping American culture. I usually ask them to talk about their own family dinners and relate them to many scenes from popular situation comedies that reenact that iconic moment with regularity. It is a valuable way to get students to recognize formulas within the art form. This is not to say that the sitcom dinner table is always defined as a bastion of family accord. Quite the contrary, the dinner table is often raucous. Even if the family discussion is contentious, however, the location of the dinner table has a calming influence. It perpetually gives the impression that at any moment everyone at the table could spontaneously hold hands and say “grace.”

Of the many tropes of sitcoms, the use of the dinner table (or kitchen table, etc.) as a gathering place is both logical and convenient, on one hand, and symbolically resonant and thematically useful, on the other. A family-based sitcom could hardly avoid using the eating table as a major setting. The convenience, however, also allows for sitcom writers to create an enduring statement of normalcy for the American viewing families, one whose features steadily blur distinctions between real American families and our models on television.

Implicit in asking students to discuss their own family dinner memories is the prodding goal of getting them to assess how well their families stack up to television families, and, moreover, how they feel about the spaces in between their reality and the created normalcy of the sitcom. For those interested in the study of the American sitcom as a cultural production, paying some attention to the family dinner table can be valuable. In this space, I would like to suggest that focusing on such scenes and imagery across a range of programs over time could be a productive exercise for students (for everyone). We will take just a short glimpse in this post. Perhaps others will add to the images in subsequent posts.

Few sitcoms resonate in our culture as deeply as Ozzie and Harriet, which ran on ABC from 1952 to 1966. Although it was not a blockbuster hit, it earned a steady and large following and has since become the preferred shorthand reference—from supporters and detracters—for the mainstream family ideals. My favorite reference is in the Coen Brothers film, Raising Arizona, as the aspiring father, H.I., in acknowledging his failures as a proper head of household, states, “Well, it’s not Ozzie and Harriet.” The image below captures the ideals represented by the show as symbolized by the family around the table. We should note, of course, that Harriet is firmly frozen in her role as housewife and mother, standing and serving the family. Likewise, all eyes are on the father as the source of the pleasant family moment. Gee, how does he do it (while wearing a sweater vest and white socks, to boot)?

Ozzie and Harriet, Defining the American Dinner Table

The show establishes a useful pattern that many sitcoms would follow over the years. If the scene around the table is breakfast, a conflict is introduced as the family shares a meal and either some plan or action is initiated to drive the episode; if the scene is around dinner, just as often the conflict is resolved. There are many variations of this theme. Even Ozzie and Harriet would allow the family eating routine to be punctuated by conflict, usually squabbles between the two brothers—enough conflict to set up the modest humor without introducing anything with deeper social tensions. An especially useful episode, “Separate Rooms,” aired February 6, 1953. Here is a YouTube link to the first part of the episode: http://www.youtube.com/watchNR=1&feature=endscreen&v=OCy0TF_z7a8

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Big News! News! More News!

Tracy Wuster

Hello all.  Your regularly scheduled post on visual humor has been rescheduled for later this week.  In its place, we have big news, news, and more news.

Big News! 

We are welcoming a new editor to “Humor in America.”  Jeffrey Melton will be taking on the role of “pedagogy editor” and working on creating a series called “Teaching American Humor.”  This series will include his own writings, writings from the current editors, and (most importantly) pieces written by you–the scholars and readers out there who teach humor and are longing for a place to discuss it.  This is your place.

So check out Jeffrey’s pieces:

Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies

Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)

And check out his next post on “Teaching American Sitcoms” next Tuesday.

News

The CFP for the American Humor Studies Association, as well as the Mark Twain Circle of America and the Kurt Vonnegut Society, are posted in the Announcements section of our website, as well as at the website of the AHSA.

AHSA Calls

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 (wustert@gmail.com) with the subject line: “AHSA session, 2013 ALA.” Notifications will go out no later than January 20, 2013.

Remember: please send me any relevant announcements at: wustert@gmail.com  — I will post them both here and at the AHSA website.

Remember also: you can renew your membership or join the AHSA electronically or by mail.  See here.

Remember as well: we have a Facebook page.  As does the AHSA and the Mark Twain Circle of America.

More News

Last Thursday’s poetry post by Caroline Sposto was featured on the “Freshly Pressed” section of WordPress.  Congratulations to Caroline.  Keep an eye out for future posts on the presidential debate, on the dinner table in family sitcoms, on Halloween music, and more…  and, as always, please consider contributing.

 

Andy Griffith: The Music of Mayberry and Beyond

Had Andy Griffith lived one day longer, he would have died on the 4th of July. This seems fitting for a man as American as apple pie, yet his simple modesty would never have allowed it. Thus, Andy Griffith passed away last week on July 3, one month into his 86th year, leaving a monumental contribution to American culture behind him.

He was best known as an actor, playing the straight-man, small-town Sheriff Andy Taylor in the eponymous television show he helped create – and with it an entire world. His childhood was rich with storytelling and, especially, music. The eccentric residents of the fictional Mayberry were inspired by the colorful characters that peppered his childhood in Mount Airy, North Carolina. While it is true he grew up dirt poor in the small southern town, even reduced to sleeping in dresser drawers as an infant, Andy Griffith was no bumpkin. In 1949, the ambitious and multifaceted Griffith graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Music, where he served as the Men’s Glee Club President.

Music played a key role in the original “Andy Griffith Show,” which ran from 1960-1968. The Sheriff could often be found pickin’ a guitar on the front porch of a summer evening, but things really started to cook when the Darlings came to town. Continue reading →

Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies

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 I wanted to. I actually said, “Yes, it is dumb, but not as dumb as it seems.” And that’s the moment when “Dad” shifted to “Academic.” She left the room on her own.

The Beverly HIllbillies in their car

There goes the neighborhood: the Clampetts enter Beverly Hills

Why was The Beverly Hillbillies so popular, as corny as it is?

Janet Staiger, in her Blockbuster TV (New York: New York UP, 2000), notes that the early reviews were brutal. Staiger goes on to point out, however, that over a third of all TV households were tuning in by the close of the first season. It was the top show for the 1962/63 and 63/64 seasons by a substantive margin and remained in the top twenty for six more years after its highpoint. According to Staiger, it was THE blockbuster sitcom of the decade.

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