Well, Double Dumbass On You!


A 15-year TV non-watcher checks in to provide some support for the theory that television is getting smarter. At the Dallas Morning News, a person named Mary Jacobs—who in an apparent effort to turn her kids into socially retarded freaks exiled the tube from her home during the first Bush administration—celebrates TV Turnoff week by spending a week with Paris and Simon and all our video pals. Her conclusion:

Bad TV is much worse. It's uglier, meaner and more inane. But good TV has actually gotten better. Characters have real depth; there's more ambiguity and nuance; plots take unpredictable and interesting turns. Maybe, when the baby boomers' hair turned gray, television became more adept at dealing with gray areas.

Dig the assumption that if anything has changed, it must be because the author's own generation has reached some new milestone in its (apparently neverending) journey. (Let go, Mary, let go!)

Anyway, in our previous discussion of this topic, I noticed several of you making the argument that the lack of a laugh track is in and of itself a mark of a high-quality sitcom. Not so fast! Back in Old '99, when the laugh track was coming under one of the periodic assaults that have marked its decades of high-riding hilarity, Mr. Cutlets responded with an enlightening history of canned laughter (invented in 1952, amid high hopes and aggressive belly laughs, by CBS engineer Charley Douglass), and concluded with a groundbreaking defense of this most maligned of comedy crutches:

The history of canned laughter…reveals not a Pavlovian bell rung by contemptuous producers but a democratic effort grounded in the social idealism of a better day. That the mechanized and tittering swells of an automated laugh track survive to this day should be considered one of the few remaining signs that producers of TV shows still give a crap about their audiences. Humming engines of self-congratulation like Ally McBeal and The Practice fill the small screen with incredibly narrow visions of urban hotshots bitching about their sex lives. Sitting at home with their unruly, half-literate, gun-polishing children and Hummel figurines, the "C and D counties" are excluded from the demographic paradise of most TV shows, and the artificial sound of laughter is one of the last things linking these middle-American morlocks to their demographic betters in the highly stratified audience class system

To say, at this late date, that canning canned laughter makes you special — well, it just isn't true. What it makes you is un-American, hostile to a tradition that a half-century of audiences have voted for with both real and manufactured applause. Which is why the recent spate of comedies for thinking yuppies — shows that offer only silence where laughter is expected — seems less like an evolutionary step forward than a cyclical setup for the Laff Box's triumphant return. Whether or not the next rev will offer digital enhancements or customization elements befitting the era of personalized television, canned laughter will be back and chuckling harder than ever. After all, there's nothing funny about the sound of nobody laughing.

Whole thing here.