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
My grandma, Louise, babysat for Lawrence Welk‘s kids when she was a girl. She lived across from Elitch Gardens, where my great-grandmother ran the roller coaster and my great-grandpa worked in the greenhouses. Growing up, we often watched the Lawrence Welk show with grandma.
I remember laughing a lot at the show–for both the intentional humor and the unintentional. Welk’s persona and corny jokes always made grandma laugh. Such as:
How many of Lawrence Welk’s critics does it take to change a light bulb?
– They don’t know how to change a light bulb, but they’ll find something wrong with how his Musical Family does it
Welk continues to maintain popularity, and his fan pages are examples of humorous web design in themselves. The music and costumes were often hilarious, often unintentionally so.
Which leads to some obvious and welcome parody:
Feel free to post your own Welk pieces and humor.
Don and Alleen Nilsen
An essay based on a lesson, the Powerpoint of which can be found (along with many others) here.
In the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs wrote that parody is the hardest form of creative writing because the style of the subject must be reproduced in slightly enlarged form, while at the same time holding the interest of people who haven’t read the original. Further complications are posed since it must entertain at the same time that it criticizes and must be written in a style that is not the writer’s own. He concluded that the only thing that would make it more difficult would be to write it in Cantonese.
Obviously, it is easier for people to enjoy a parody if they know what the original was. In our increasingly diverse culture, memories of “classic” children’s books may be one of the few things we have in common. Advertisers, broadcasters, cartoonists, journalists, politicians, bloggers, and everyone else who wants to communicate with large numbers of people, therefore turn to the array of exaggerated characters that we remember from childhood books. Chicken Little represented alarmists; Pinocchio stood for liars;The Big Bad Wolf warned us of danger; Humpty Dumpty demonstrated how easy it is to fall from grace; The Frog Prince gave hope to women of all ages; and Judith Viorst’s The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day lets us know that we all have really bad days.
Some of Lewis Carroll’s parodies were just for fun. When Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of the poem “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. How I wonder where you are,” it became, “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat. How I wonder where you’re at.” This is merely fun word play. But some of Carroll’s parodies had a deeper significance. Lewis Carroll lived in a time when the Victorian poetry tended to be filled with sentimentality and didacticism, so many of Carroll’s poems parodied that sentimentality and didacticism. G. W. Langford wrote a poem that not only preached to parents, but also reminded them of the high mortality rate for young children: “Speak gently to the little child! / It’s love be sure to gain; / Teach it in accents soft and mild; It may not long remain.” Carroll’s parody turned this poem into a song for the Duchess to sing to a piglet wrapped in baby clothes: “Speak roughly to your little boy. And beat him when he sneezes. / He only does it to annoy / Because he knows it teases.” The poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” by Isaac Watts read as follows: “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour / and gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!” Lewis Carroll’s parody is much more fun, and much less didactic: “How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale?”
In a previous post, I attempted to work through an unlikely dialectic of pride and guilt when it comes my own defiance of the enduring stereotype of male comic book readers; somehow, and for whatever reason, it turns out that I read more monthly titles starring female superheroes than male. So pride because there are some really strong books right now, and many of these characters have rich histories and devoted creators despite the constant threat of cancellation due to poor sales. (Just this week, best-selling author Marjorie Liu’s brilliant run on the Marvel series X-23 ended after only 21 issues.) And guilt because these characters tend to be dressed in costumes that I’m sure Rush Limbaugh would have a choice word or two to describe. But we’ve been over this, and you can read the whole thing here. The conclusion is that the best part of superheroines like Power Girl is the way that they actively resist and subvert the male gaze, turning the target audience – men, basically, who are just too easily titillated – into the worst villains with whom they will have to contend.
This, of course, is all very serious stuff, and so I would like to follow up that discussion with the work of two creators whose satirical versions of comics’s most enduring female superhero, Wonder Woman, challenge our principal assumptions about the character: her historically fierce compassion and overall, um, niceness. Wonder Woman is a character who has had innumerable incarnations and iterations – the subject of an excellent recent retrospective on io9 – and as a result remains elusive despite her seeming ubiquity. For all of her alternate origin stories and shifting set of powers, she nevertheless signifies a kind of permanent strength that has withstood an often uncertain role in the shared DC Comics Universe and a rotating roster of creators who have different interpretations and agendas. Also, there was the whole pants or no pants debate.
Wonder Woman is in a lot of ways what is best about superheroes in that she is both strong and symbolic, dissatisfied and driven. The failure of “man’s world” to ever be at peace is her ironic call to arms, although she is not quite immune to a love of battle and the lure of brutality. And yet, somehow she’s still totally nice, of which Steve Rude’s Rockwell-esque portrait is a not uncommon representation.
What one finds in parodies of the character, therefore, is a kind of world-weariness and existential I-simply-refuse-to-keep-caring that is likely the result of having been so widely and wildly interpreted. Kate Beaton’s parodic appropriation of the feminist icon is the result of the character being so routinely misunderstood, as Beaton said in an interview with Comics Alliance:
She’s just a bit more complicated than everybody else. I mean, how many dudes are going to write her and get her right? I just think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I think it’s a real shame people haven’t figured her out…. I guess the Wonder Woman that I draw is kind of sick of everyone not understanding her.
As a member of the pantheon of historical figures that comprise her brilliant webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton’s version of Wonder Woman smokes unrepentantly, disdains children, and is as unwilling to indulge the praise of her fans as she is the prattle of her super-peers. In one of Beaton’s strips, even the most seemingly effortless feat of super-heroism – getting a cat out of a tree – becomes a study in super-annoyance.