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.

NEXT: Susan Lucci, Thou Art Avenged (Reason Wins Award Edition)

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Good lord, it’s been a while since I’ve seen such a purely contrarian argument about popular culture, and you know it’s not for lack of dedicated contenders, especially at Suck.

  2. Its not the canned laughter, its the writing that’s so insulting. Sitcoms today exist merely to imitate one another. Any one of the 30-minute shows on NBC, ABC, and CBS look and sound exactly like any other.

    Hell, the only good half-hour sitcoms today are THE SIMPSONS and SOUTH PARK. The crudely animated characters are so much more human than the lifeless non-human images on any of the big three networks. Some of the hour-long dramas are still good, though.

  3. What’s more, “Sports Night” was awesome, and it wasn’t supposed to be funny (although it was) or sentimental (ditto) so much as poetic. In aping David Mamet’s stylized discourse, Sorkin was not quite as consistent, but he was good enough to be mistaken for the original by true devotees, and the entire cast seemed adept at the style from the first episode.

    It’s a fairly stupid example, since laugh tracks could never have worked on “Sports Night” any more than in a comic opera or an Ogden Nash recitation. One would profit more to ask why they are almost universally considered unnecessary in successful animated comedies (pair this question, I’m thinking, with a measure of joke density).

  4. panurge —

    Have you seen “Family Guy”?

  5. In our previous discussion, Arrested Development came up quite a bit; indeed, I believe it was Arrested Development that prompted the first observations about funny shows without a laugh track.

    Is it not the case, that most of the punchlines on that show come at the breaks? …and isn’t it the case that, at the breaks, the punchline is almost always punctuated with the sound of a door slam? …It’s as if the door slam is taking the place of the traditional laugh track. …or the sound of a drum behind the prototypical bad comedian–you know–the *ba dum pum*.

    …The door slam, the ol’ drum routine, the laugh track–don’t they all have the same intent and the same effect?

  6. This canned laughter argument goes in cycles. Back when the Odd Couple was on they actually ran one show without a laugh track during prime time. What I remember is that it didn’t seem to make the show any better. Maybe it was just because I’d heard laugh tracks all my life but I doubt it. I would guess laugh tracks work because it’s a sort of the-more-the-merrier effect, it makes you feel like you’re in an audience enjoying the same things they are, whether you realize it or not, even though you’re probably just sitting in a room by yourself or with the same old crowd.

    And I don’t think you could make any reasonable argument that the writing or performances on the Odd Couple were bad or insulting. I think certain kinds of comedy work with laugh tracks, others don’t. If the show’s just bad, nothing works.

  7. Ken is spot on. There have been several great half-hour comedies without laugh tracks: The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, King of the Hill, South Park, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The (original) Office. The problem with Arrested Development is that, unlike those shows, it has the same rhythm as a laugh-tracked program — indeed, with its extremely intrusive narration, it’s arguably more heavy-handed than a traditional sitcom.

    The worst canned laughter I ever heard was in an Ask Dr. Science special I saw on either PBS or cable back in the ’80s. They only ran the laugh track after the lame jokes, assuming I guess that we wouldn’t need any prompting to chuckle at the good ones. It threw off the whole rhythm of the show, and a routine that was pretty funny on the radio wound up bombing completely on TV.

  8. Funny this story should show today. Looks like the public’s taste is starting to improve.

    J. Goard- Yes, FAMILY GUY is a show that has some great moments. If it has a serious fault its that it tries a little TOO hard sometimes, forcing gags here and there. But maybe trying too hard is preferable to not trying at all, which is the case with every other network sitcom.

    BTW, can anyone here tell the difference between THE GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW and ACCORDING TO JIM?

  9. “Bad TV is much worse. It’s uglier, meaner and more inane. But good TV has actually gotten better.”

    I think she’s on to something.

    You look at crap like “Gilligan’s Island” – that was prime time network television in its day.

    But you wouldn’t see people eating larvae.

  10. Have any of you seen “Coupling”? Damn that show if funny! (To bad I only get it on PBS at 2:30 AM.) Three guys and three girls that make “Friends” seem like a funeral. Not that “Friends” was ever very funny.

    Why is it that animated sit-coms are generally better than peopled sit-coms? Is it because they can choose great voice actors without considering their looks?

  11. Real Bill —

    No, although it probably doesn’t hurt. The reason is that they can fill scenes with humor, moving more or less seamlessly from one joke to the next and often thoroughly integrating the high-, middle- and lowbrow. Certain live-action films have accomplished this very well, chief among the (of course) being “Airplane!”. But I’m guessing that, aside from the technical challenge this would pose for sitcoms, it tends to be a far bigger distraction to overcome when such schizophrenic behavior is seen in real people.

  12. There’s much to be said for bad TV.

  13. Okay, no television would make her children some kind of social freaks so the other end of the spectrum would be that more television equals a more well balanced person?

  14. Laugh tracks are democratic?? Canning canned laughter is un-American?? There’s nothing funny about nobody laughing?? Please. Enthusiasm for anti-snob snobbery is my least favorite characteristic of Reason. Well, second least favorite after boomer bashing. Personally I don’t give a whit whether TV shows use laugh tracks or not. I do see their use as a potentially interesting subject for study. Why do they work? When do they not work? Etc. If some critics get on their high horse about them supposedly being immoral or disgusting, best to remember that critics get paid for acting like their personal opinions are universal facts and move on. Best not to redirect worship to critics spewing about how their own preferences are more democratic because they go against what those other supposedly elitist critics say or because they are in agreement with popular opinion. Popular opinion speaks for itself, it doesn’t need to justified or supported by critics. I might ocassionally read critics for the same reason I might read anything, for something interesting. Telling me that laugh tracks are good because they’re popular (the thrust of this line of reasoning) isn’t.

  15. Couple of interesting things that relate:

    I seem to recall an experiment that found that when people tell jokes casually, the person telling the joke is usually the one laughing the most – a social prompt.

    Antonio Damasio, neurologist and popular author on the subject, has a well supported theory on emotions and feelings that relates here. Briefly (if I don’t butcher the ideas), he distinguishes between feelings, which are mental phenomina, and emotions, which are outward physical expressions. In almost all cases, emotions preceed their related feelings – the body goes before the mind, like a highly nuanced reflex. He also describes surgeons that were poking around the SMA of the right front lobe of someone and consistently producing genuine, “contageous” laughter. (Like, the surgeons found it funny that that the guy laughed when they poked his brain.) The patient then described a feeling of “merriement or mirth” attribuited to whatever he was concentrating on at the time.

    So, without a laugh track, it could be that people have no physical cue, and no social reason, for the expression of the emotion ‘laughter’ – and thus diminished expression of the corresponding feeling.

    So, if you take my word on it, there’s science that supports the obvious: laugh tracks work because we’re suckers.

  16. Wow! Tim Cavanaugh really thinks people forgoing TV “turn their kids into socially retarded freaks”.

    This actually tells its own tale; about Mr. Cavanaughs state of mind, that is.

    Apropos of “socially retarded freaks” — little wonder that so many people think Libertarians are exactly that.

  17. Well, most people watch a fair amount of TV, and that becomes part of the shared experiences that people tend to talk about.

    I don’t get to watch a lot of primetime TV, so I sometimes feel “out of the loop” when people talk about the most recent episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, or whatever. (I’ve since caught that show on late-night syndication, and I have to say that of the conventional sitcoms out there, it’s one of my favorites, along with King of Queens.)

    On the other side, I’ve met a few people (either TV-haters or just too young) who’ve never seen an episode of Gilligan’s Island. To me, this is incredible — like saying, “I’ve never ridden in a car.” And they don’t get my references to Ginger, Mary Ann, etc.

  18. As a TV non-watcher for the past 5 years, I have no clue what any of you are talking about. Have I missed anything?

  19. Two shows without laugh tracks:

    The Tick live-action show. It was damn funny, but it died.

    Scrubs. It’s still on and still funny. They recently did an episode where JD wonder what the hospital would be like if it was a situation comedy with a laugh track.

  20. …And they don’t get my references to Ginger, Mary Ann, etc.

    …My answer to that old question is always “both”.

    *ba dum pum*

  21. My mother was a complete wackjob. We had no television in our house when I was growing up. Am I more socially retarded than I otherwise would be? I don’t know. I do know that I was excluded from many conversations in school because I had not watched Monday Night Football or whatever had been on the tube the previous day. That made me want a TV badly. When I left my mother behind, I acquired a TV immediately. I watched it all the time for the first couple months. Then I became bored with many of the shows and watched less. The few shows I liked did not last long. Now, I only watch an occasional sporting event or a movie on dvd. I really don’t want to start following another show just to see it cancelled. I guess a side effect of my social retardation is that any show I like is sure to go over like a lead balloon.

  22. thanks Capt, for citing this. there’s coffee (yes, JUST COFFEE) on my screen. star trek IV (save the whales).

    good reference with colorful metaphor, Tim!

  23. 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…

    I’d like to extend a hearty ‘fuck you!’ from a midwestern C county.

  24. “Enthusiasm for anti-snob snobbery is my least favorite characteristic of Reason. Well, second least favorite after boomer bashing.” – fyodor

    Now I realize why I like Reason so much. Boomer bashing is something that NEEDS to be done to protect future generations from losing the ability to rebel against the stupidity of the previous generation.

    Being anti-elitist (anti-snob snobbery?) is something else that anyone who believes in liberty and the rights of all should support.

    Of course, I’m a bit of an elitist myself… I think I’ve got the right answers and that my taste is impeccable.

    But that doesn’t stop me from being wary of other people who think the same thing but disagree with my answers or my tastes. That leads to the realization that if I want to protect my prerogative to continue living according to my elitist vision of the world it requires me to maintain a healthy anti-elitism for everyone – including me.

    Or to sum it up in less than 20 words: I’ll probably keep reading Reason as long as anti-snob snobbery and baby boomer bashing are on the menu!

  25. rob,

    Being wary of what other people tell you to think is one thing. Embracing people who do the exact same thing in the name of anti-elitism is another.

  26. Cartoons, Live Action and Humor

    Malcom in the Middle irritates me to death. Though it’s style is unconventional, the situations are out of the ordinary, the characters are quriky, and there is no laugh track, all signs of a potentially strong show, it falls flat on it’s face. Why? Because it is really a live action cartoon. It’s entire style and tone is so exaggerated that it just becomes silly. That sort of humor(incontrast to conventional sitcoms), is always desired, but that is why you have the Simpsons, Family Guy, and the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

    As for the weakness of conventional sitcoms, their main downfall is their over reliance on the oneliner. How can it be that in the sitcom universe every charcter is constantly able to hurl witty incites ate each other? Furthermore they are usually mean spirited, embarrassing barbs that would normally start arguements or end friendships. But, in this world, the oneliner is given and immeadiately forgotten. Quality comedies like Seinfled succeed because the humor does not rely on the oneliner. What generates the most humor are the characters and SITUATIONS. Even if a cruel or off-the wall oneliner is uttered, it is usually addressed or justified by the unsavory or eccentric nature of the characters. The elements of a sitcom must be consistant and plausable in the context of the reality of a given show. To put it another way, If you intend to have a show with some heartfelt moments, the humor should be more realistic. That is part of the reason why the humor in Friends fails and but succeeds in Freaks and Geeks. Consistantcy of universe.

    Why is there a laugh track on the freaking Flinstones?

  27. Fyodor, when Reason bashes boomers and frobs snobs, I’m not being told what to think — I’m being given the opportunity to share and reinforce my long-standing irrational personal prejudices.

    There’s a difference!

    Plus it’s fun!

  28. I believe I was the first one to mention the lack of a laugh track (on Arrested Development) in the previous story… I never claimed that this in and of itself was the mark of a good sitcom, but I’m thinking it might be a necessary condition.

    One reason why I like AD’s lack of a laugh track is that the jokes come thicker and faster without the unnatural pauses. Good sitcoms like Seinfeld (which has laughter, but not a fake laugh track) usually find a way to get through the laughter without stopping the action. Bad ones just have the characters stare at each other until the guffaws die down, then deliver the next zinger.

  29. PS to Ken Schultz: I think your observation about AD’s joke-timing is wrong. Lots of jokes come in mid-action, and there is not enough time to laugh at them without missing the next (funny) thing that’s being said. Sometimes doors slam, but they are followed instantly by some new character talking — in other words, you don’t get the multi-second pause that a laugh track would provide. It’s almost hard to laugh while watching AD, because I’ll miss things — that’s one reason why I’m more apt to watch it from a recording, so I can get my chuckles and then back up to what I missed.

  30. Good sitcoms like Seinfeld (which has laughter, but not a fake laugh track)

    Are you sure about this? I never looked into it, but the show didn’t seem to be taped in front of an audience and never claimed to have been done live, and the laughter itself always sounded like classic canned.

  31. Seinfeld was definitely taped in front of an audience, though many of its short scenes were shot without one.

  32. “Being wary of what other people tell you to think is one thing. Embracing people who do the exact same thing in the name of anti-elitism is another.” – fyodor

    True, true…

    “when Reason bashes boomers and frobs snobs, I’m not being told what to think — I’m being given the opportunity to share and reinforce my long-standing irrational personal prejudices. There’s a difference! Plus it’s fun!” – Lazlo Nibble

    Even truer… And I make no bones about it! (Tho I think there’s plenty of rational reasons to snub snobs and excoriate elitists.)

  33. It’s almost hard to laugh while watching AD, because I’ll miss things

    Very true… there’s more “stuff” packed into an episode of “Arrested Development” than in more conventional sitcoms. *Not* that this in itself makes it better (although it is better than probably all the other sitcoms on the air right now). What it all boils down to is writing. For example, the first eight seasons of “Roseanne” were about as conventional as it gets, yet it was one of the best-written, and funniest, shows on the air.

  34. “Filmed in front of a live audience” tells less than half the story. Since the seventies, the biggest trend in canned laughter has been “sweetening,” where anemic audience reactions are punched up with pre-recorded effects.

    And if the audience has an anemic reaction, that’s really saying something: If you’ve ever been to a studio taping, you know they have these laff-brownshirts who pump and cajole the audience (which has frequently been softened up already by a pre-show standup comedian) to laugh harder and louder. There are also professional laughers who site in the crowd hoping to get a wave of laughter going. (Supposedly you can make a pretty good career if you’re a good laugher.) It’s remarkably effective, and if the audience still isn’t laughing after all that, well, the material must be seriously weak.

  35. Lazlo Nibble,

    Yeah, stupidity can be fun. But it’s still stupid.

    Lazlo and rob,

    All I’m saying is that anti-snob snobbery is every bit as snobbish as the elitism it’s dissing. If it makes you smile, fine. Just don’t pretend it’s really any better. It might make me smile if I weren’t aware of how stupid it was. And calling laugh tracks democratic and criticism of them anti-American is plain ridiculous.

  36. Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, the funniest comedy shows ever, used laugh tracks. I rest my case.

  37. Just for the record, I’m watchin’ Seinfeld right now–it’s the sponge episode–and if that isn’t a laugh track, I’ll make a donation to the local government employee union.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.