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
In my introduction to literary genre course this semester, we had a running joke that all started with my introductory letter to students in January asking them to consider what humor could do. A bit of background: I begin and end each semester with the epistolary form – in August I introduce myself and my goals for the semester, as well as my rationale for selecting the various readings, and in May, my students craft their own letters back to me regarding their experiences in the course, their continuing struggles, and their diverse accomplishments. My students remark how these letters help them to reflect on everything they have learned, to express a new-found confidence they often feel as young writers and critical thinkers, to feel connected to their professor and their own learning, and to garner a sense of responsiveness and engagement for the future learning of peers who will take this course. Most students this semester examined their appreciation for the theme of our course, incorporating our joke in their responses: humor can do that!
You see, as a professor, like many of us I’m sure, I find myself constantly thinking about the progress of my students and my classes, especially while I’m performing tasks that permit my mind to wander and reflect, such as grocery shopping, waiting in line at the post office (yes, I still frequent the USPS), or trying to fall asleep. Recently, while sitting and waiting and waiting and waiting in my doctor’s office, I came across an abstract in an October 2003 issue of Science (see Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams’ abstract) detailing a study on the connectivity of social isolation to physical pain and instantly thought of my students. All semester long, they read plays, novels, short stories, and poems that showcased a variety of types of humor. I also supplemented their genre introduction with discussions on humor from physiological, economic, and psychological prospectives. This Science abstract, while not itself humorous, fit right into my theme, and I shared it with students via email as they were working hard to complete their final essays and reflective letters.
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My mom once told me that the secret to a happy marriage is to do all of your construction projects while your husband is at work. She knew well what she was talking about — over the years, she cut into walls to create built-in cabinets; she put up new shelves in rich and vibrant woods and hung hinged doors on other shelves that she wanted covered. All construction debris was cleared neatly away, though, each day before my father got home — and this year marked their 65th year together.
What my mom never had to tell me, though, is that the real key to a long and happy relationship is a sense of humor. Life is far too important to take seriously.
When my father passed away last month, among his things we found a treasure that his mother had saved from her wedding shower on June 5, 1919. The gifts to her included a collection of spices in tins to start her kitchen in her new household — and a book of personal and spicy advice, written in acrostics, called How to Manage a Husband. By the Experienced and the Inexperienced. When I started reading, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I got to the “T” in “Edith,” I knew that the women of that long-ago post-war generation were no different. I’ll never think of my seemingly serious and elegant grandmother in quite the same way again.
Eat everything prepared and
Invite no quarrels
Tie him to a tree if unmanageable
Help in everything
Make the ice cream
Receive his friends
Never give up
Never leave him
Love him a little more
Serve him plenty of food
Hang him if necessary
Attract no one else
Get up early in the mornings
Educate him to help with the work
Okay, so I did a double-take on this one. “Hang him if necessary”? One hopes that Nellie was one of the “inexperienced” . . . . Continue reading →
Teaching American Humor:
What is funny?
I begin all courses on humor by polling students on their tastes. What do they find funny and why? It is a logical beginning from a pedagogical standpoint because it emphasizes the importance of their voice in the class while also asserting a key point of any study of humor: it’s always personal. Students bring an array of predispositions to the humorous material the course will cover. They know what they like, but they may not be so sure as to WHY they like it. We need to use that tension throughout the course. I must also make sure that while they explore their personal preferences that they also find connections to audiences across time and mediums. In short, they need to recognize that the personal responses also have historical, social, and political connections.
A questionnaire assessing students’ tastes in humor could take any number of forms and approaches, and I would love to hear other ideas. I am certain that many teachers do something very similar to what I am sharing here.
Here are the core questions focused on getting students to open up about their tastes:
**Do you have a good sense of humor?
Obviously, the class will respond overwhelmingly in the affirmative. “YES!!” they shout, “WE HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF HUMOR!” This is true, of course, and I congratulate them on this fine accomplishment. It does, however, set me up for obvious jokes as we discuss their answers to the next two questions wherein they provide examples in support of their good senses of humor.
**List two favorite funny films.
**List two favorite television situation comedies.
There is a wide range of answers to these questions, though they lean very heavy to the most recent hits. For example, The Hangover (1 and 2) has been popular for three semesters in a row, though I am certain that run will be gone by next fall–unless two or three more sequels are released this summer. But it is in no way dominant as a favorite. As for sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother rank high, but, as with the films, there are no real favorites. This list is broad, with most shows getting only one or two votes (out of 35-40 students).
The wide range is the hoped-for response. It gives us an opportunity to mention quite a few films and shows and seek common ground among the varied responses. The more substantive question follows:
**Judging from your favorite films and sitcoms, how would you define or classify your taste in humor?
This is a key moment in the self-assessment. Students cannot just name a recent familiar title; rather, they have to justify it by defining the attributes that lead to laughter. Here is a rather typical range of the phrases they provide:
–Dry, Witty, Intellectual, Sarcastic
–Vulgar, Unnatural, Tasteless, Crude
–Simple, Physical, Stupid
The two largest responses are consistently the first two above, and they are generally equally represented even though they seem contradictory. A significant group of students always values wit above all else. An equally large group values crudity above all else. Some students see themselves in both. The inherent tensions between these two seemingly opposite taste preferences is the crux of the course, perhaps, as students explore the cultural values that encourage–demand–both strains in American humor.
The next question gets to important issues related to how we experience humor:
**Which is funniest scenario? Choose one:
1. –A man slips on a banana peel.
2. –A man who is showing off his skills as a dancer slips on a banana peel.
3. –A man who has just been dumped by his girlfriend slips on a banana peel as he walks away.
The battle for supremacy is waged between answers 2 and 3. A Few students will choose number 1 because they hesitate to admit any pleasure in the pain of others. A man slipping on a banana peel is enough–small harm, small chuckle. When you add in an element of hubris, then the humor potential jumps up exponentially. The guy showing off deserves humbling; that is an easy choice to make. An equal number of students, however, will opt for the other guy in number 3, the one they call “the loser.” What does he deserve? Well, that hardly matters; we simply love someone falling down, the further the better. In all cases, of course, we are all simply thankful that we are not the victim of the vagaries of banana peels and their inexplicable powers for being so damned slippery. It’s a cold world.
The final question ascertaining students’ taste in humor is the easiest one.
**Which is the funnier scenario? Choose one:
–a group of cows
–a group of sheep
Everybody knows that cows are funnier than sheep. Everybody.
Many people assess humor and the funny using the same litmus test employed by Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 obscenity case “Jacobellis v. Ohio.” In regards to hard-core pornography, Stewart famously stated “I know it when I see it.” While I have no knowledge of Justice Stewart’s expertise in this particular subject, I do tend to think that the ability to make snap judgments stems from experience. That is one reason why so many of us feel capable of instantly ascertaining what is funny and what is not. We’ve spent our whole lives laughing, so we believe that we know it when we see it.
Technically speaking, of course, comedy is also a performance structure. (And if you don’t know an academic when you see one, it’s possible to spot a scholar through the use of such phrases as “technically speaking” and “performance structure.”)
I’ve been intimately involved with one particular Absurdist comedy of late, and it’s reminded me of how some of the best comedies question what and how comedy works, and whether we should know comedy when we see it. Last year I joined with some former colleagues from the Stanford and Berkeley doctoral programs in performance to found The Collected Works and our inaugural project is Princess Ivona, a 1935 play by Polish literary legend Witold Gombrowicz. (While the text is European, I trust that staging this in San Francisco qualifies it as “Humor in America.”)
I’ve noticed throughout the production process that Princess Ivona brings to the fore our uneasiness surrounding comedy and our desire to be on the winning side when it comes to mockery and the mocked. On the lower end of the social hierarchy, there are aunts in the first act, concerned that they are being teased…
2nd AUNT: Your Highness is laughing at us of course. You are welcome to, I am sure.
…and courtiers in the second act, determined to tease the court newcomer, only to find that the tables have been turned on them.
2nd LADY: I understand now. You have arranged it all to show us up. What a joke!
Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a planned series on archival sources on humor. We will be posting important primary sources that might be of interest to humor studies scholars and general readers. If you would like to contribute a post or recommend a source, please let me know.
See our other posts in this series:
A new word for the day: misegolast. Laughter hater. As Robert Mankoff notes in the New Yorker, misegolasts can be traced back to the Old Testament. As John Morreall noted in his book, Humor Works, the long history of those opposed to laughter counts the English poet Shelley as a prominent spokesman. He stated: “I am convinced there can be no entire regeneration of mankind until laughter is put down.”
George Vasey’s The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling, published in London in 1875, is a classic of the anti-laughter genre. Coming at time in which humor, especially in the works of the American humorists Artemus Ward and Mark Twain, was exceedingly popular in England, Vasey’s work argued that laughter was both morally and physically dangerous. Indeed, Vasey argues that laughter is a symptom of modern civilization, one that has been commercialized by humorists who spread a dangerous behavior.
According to the article, “”The pleasure of fiends”: Degenerate Laughter in Stoker’s Dracula,” by Mackenzie Bartlett, the book was reviewed by at least 19 British periodicals. And Vasey’s work is not the only argument of the misegolastic variety either at the time, or since. And while the anti-laughter argument my paradoxically inspire much laughter, or at least certain types of smile (which are better than laughter, according to this argument), shouldn’t we take serious the argument that the meanings of laughter might have changed historically and might, in some cases, be harmful. One place to start might be Anca Parvulescu’s Laughter: Notes on a Passion (Short Circuits).
You can download the entire PDF of Vasey’s book here. Enjoy such chapters as “Further observations on the means employed to produce what is termed laughter in infants, and on the injurious effects which result therefrom…”; “On the moral and intellectual characteristics of those who are addicted to laughing…”; “Are laughter and joking, badinage and fun, consistent with dignity of character? or are they conducive to the maintenance of a beneficial political or social influence?”; “On the injurious effects of nursery rhymes and juvenile literature in stultifying the minds of children and youths by furnishing them with extravagant lies and egregious nonsense to excite their wonder and induce them to laugh” (a must read for all the parents out there); and, in an appendix on tickling, a section of special interest to me, as a ticklish person, “On the extremely horrible and agonising condition to which a human being can be reduced by systematic tickling.”
SEE BELOW FOR ILLUSTRATIONS OF LAUGHTER FROM THE BOOK,
including the full size picture of this fine fellow:
Here is a sample from the first chapter: “First–On the pecuniary expense of laughter. Second–On those who are enriched by it. Third–On its imagined advantages and benefits.”
1. It is assuredly a great fact, which cannot be gainsayed, that an immense majority of the inhabitants of most civilised countries hold the habit of laughing in such high estimation, and feel such a craving for the exercise of it, that collectively they expend vast sums of money in procuring the stimulus necessary to produce its action.
2. This golden harvest finds its way into the pockets of those highly-gifted individuals who have acquired the happy knack of writing, or mouthing and spouting, those facetious words, or of performing those grotesque actions, which have the magical power of contracting our cheeks into wrinkles, and distending our jugular veins.
One assignment that has become a staple of my first-year writing course is a reflective essay about why your favorite song is your favorite song. This is the first major essay that we write, in fact, followed by more research-driven essays about music and its social, historical, and aesthetic role in our culture. My own personal favorite song is “Little League” by Cap’n Jazz, a young batch of super-smart goofballs from Chicago in the early 1990s. They may have done a reunion tour or something since then, but that’s not the kind of thing I tend to feel comfortable encouraging. Either way, and nostalgia or no, this song is one that I really still love.
But where’s the humor in all of this, you ask? For some reason – and this happens every time – most of my students straight up erupt into laughter when I play “Little League” for them in class. Something about this song is funny to them, but it is not a funny song. It might be the howling. Or maybe the fact that this song doesn’t sound at all like the way that I look. So over the last few years, I have developed the following short essay as a way of writing with them and sharing my own work and seeking out the reasons why my favorite song is, well, my favorite song. I have my reasons.
Being Nerdy Loudly
I didn’t learn shit in science class, but I remember that centripetal force draws things into the center – like the “petals” of a flower or some other pneumonic device – and centrifugal force goes the other way. I guess, therefore, that in my own life, I tend to move centrifugally: outward from the center, haunting the fringes of wherever I end up, and stopping only when there is finally a wall.
This is also how I played sports. As a once-aspiring hall-of-fame baseball player, I began little league on the first day at first base, and slowly made my way around the infield – seeking out less important positions – until the only place I could be trusted to stand was in deep right field, where no one was yet strong enough to hit the ball.
This is also how I listened to music. I went to my first punk show a few years after my retirement from future professional athletics, and I hit the mosh pit immediately – only to learn that the pit hit back. Within minutes, I was standing with a cool, cerebral distance in the back of the club, where I’ve remained a gargoyle for the last seventeen years. I’m the same at parties, too, and I can describe most of the artwork on my friends’ walls with a depressing attention to detail.
Which is why, when it comes to music, I’ve always preferred the awkward to the anthem. I mean, I’m not the fist-pumping-est guy in the world. Basically I am the “you” who gets rocked in “We will, we will rock you.” It also goes without saying that I’m not much of a dancer. I dance the way that babies eat: it’s messy, it’s kind of gross if you actually watch it, and something usually gets knocked over.
And so when I first heard the song “Little League” by Cap’n Jazz through the tinny, tiny speakers of a thrift-store record player in a stranger’s basement, I heard myself dance, play baseball, and grow up all at the same time. It’s a really messy song – almost embarrassingly messy – as though the band had never played it before. The verses sound like someone is mugging a group of maladjusted choir-boys in a room where different stereos are tuned to different songs – none of them hits. The chorus… well, I’m not totally sure that there is a chorus. The lyrics are really kind of brilliant, but you’ll never hear them. The vocal delivery is as earnest and clumsy as finally telling a girl that you “like” her in junior high, but at maximum volume. There is also a lot of yelling.
By the end, there’s nothing to sing along to, nothing identifiably rhythmic to dance to, and if you really wanted to pump your fist in the air, you’d have to do it randomly.
It’s like my national anthem.
This song is my answer to age, really, because it always sounds young to me – again, like it is being played for the first time each time. And you can hear the band grow up as well; the song somehow already embodies their own short career. It starts small, gets loud, and then basically kind of falls apart. And so you can literally hear the band emerge from their modest, awkward beginnings (in 1993) to their glorious, awkward brilliance (in 1994) to their tragic, awkward demise (in 1995).
Whenever I play the song, as loudly as I can in my small car or apartment, I feel as though I am hitting back at the same world that I am also hiding from, and that it’s okay if I’m not totally cool. No one will probably notice anyway.