I was watching the pilot episode of Quark, Buck Henry's short-lived seventies sci-fi spoof yesterday, and I was distracted something awful by the incessant braying of the laugh track, by the mindless guffawing of an easily amused phantom audience. It seemed not only gratingly fake but monstrous. It was as if Quark was jabbing me in the ribs every few seconds and screaming, "These are the jokes folks, and oh boy are they hilarious!"
The laugh track stood out in part because the show lacked genuine laughs. Quark is not a bad show. But its pilot is easily the weakest episode. It was trying way too hard. Like most pilots, it was burdened with clunky exposition, with the unwieldy business of introducing lots of characters and gags that would pay off later. The explosive, wall-to-wall guffawing on the laugh track of a show that was largely devoted to setting shit up felt like a flopsweat-drenched new Broadway show that insists that the audience give it a standing ovation before its first performance begins.
As a kid, I barely noticed laugh tracks. They were the rule, not an exception. Pretty much every comedy not filmed before a live studio audience had one. It was considered news if a show eschewed canned laughter. The laugh-track-free comedy was an anomaly, a freak, a ticket to critical acclaim and early cancellation, whether the pioneer/martyr was Police Squad!, Frank's Place, The Slap Maxwell Story or The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (though a quick trip to IMDB shows that Dodd lasted a robust sixty-five episodes. Damn you facts, for contradicting my argument!).
Laugh tracks were part of the grand gestalt of the classic sitcom, a regrettable but key part of their innate rhythm. Many of my favorite television shows had them, like Seinfeld and Cheers. I don't know anyone who likes laugh tracks but in a funny sitcom laughter seems natural, even if it emanates from a machine created to synthesize the rapturous approval of an invisible, imaginary audience.
In the eighties you didn't think about laugh tracks. They were part of the white noise of contemporary life. They just existed, an ambiguously necessary evil. In recent years, however, we've witnessed a seismic change in the nature of television comedy. None of the comedies I watch regularly–Flight Of The Conchords, The Office, 30 Rock, Entourage, The Simpsons, The Sarah Silverman Program, Curb Your Enthusiasm and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia–have laugh tracks.
The culture of television comedy had changed dramatically. When Lucky Louie premiered, much of the press centered on the anomaly of a half-hour series on pay cable using the traditional three-camera set-up and an apparently nitrous oxide-huffing studio audience–the laugh track's more respectable cousin–instead of a single camera. The retro trimmings were of course intentional–Louie was an homage/throwback to the Norman Lear working-class comedies of the seventies–but television had changed to such an extent that critics and audiences had trouble wrapping their minds around an edgy sitcom where every punchline was greeted by hoots and howls of laughter.
This got me thinking about my relationship with laugh tracks and television in general. As a kid, I was addicted to television. I would watch anything. I was far too painfully self-conscious to wear glasses even though I was blind as a bat, so I'd sit several inches from my cathode-ray soul mate, my eyes glazed, my mind gradually turning to mush. My dad would walk past and mutter disapprovingly, "Curing Cancer there, eh, Nathan?"
In college I used to smoke pot while worshipping the Great God of television because I thought it made watching hours and hours of television fun. Then one day I realized that I smoked pot while I suckled at the glass teat because it was the only thing that made watching television indiscriminately for hours at a time bearable.
In my early twenties I read a wonderfully cranky polemic by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves To Death. It's been a hot minute since I read it so my recollections are a little fuzzy but Postman's argument is essentially that television dissuades critical thought and independent analysis and promotes passive acceptance. Of course I'm simplifying and distorting here (I'm sure commenters can summarize Postman's ideas much more eloquently than I do here). Postman deals primarily with the way television transforms news into entertainment, substance into soundbites but I think his ideas relate to why I suddenly found Quark's laugh track so oppressive
If we do not approach it critically, television happily makes our decisions for us. The laugh track tells us what we should find funny and when. The news tells us what we should find important and relevant. FOX News goes even further and tells us how we should feel about what it tells us is important and relevant.
There is something hectoring and pushy about laugh tracks. Their mere existence on a show tells us that the show doesn't trust its audience enough to let them make their own decisions about what is and is not funny. At the same time, the absence of a laugh track can give a gloss of thoughtfulness and class to shows unworthy of it. A laugh track is just about all that's separating Entourage from Joey and Califonication finds plenty of ways to pat itself on the back for being cool and edgy and hilarious without resorting to a laugh track.
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that Postman's book changed my life. Weaning myself off television did more to improve my writing and my thinking than anything else. It freed me. It helped me think critically about television, to not just passively accept its sensory overload and questionable messages. Now when I watch television I think of it as a conversation between me and the images and ideas I'm consuming, not a one-way conduit of information.
I don't want this to be an anti-TV screed. There's lots of great television out there. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and The Soup are all wildly entertaining shows designed to get audiences to think critically about the messages they receive on other television shows.
As much as I worry about the culture of knee-jerk negativity that pervades the Internet, I like the fact that comment boards encourage critical thought as well as lemming-like groupthink. You can agree with my fuzzy, rambling, semi-incoherent sort-of arguments or you can tell me I'm pretentious and full of shit. That's your choice. In that respect laugh tracks are like Internet sock puppets. Only instead of larding a show with fake laughs I'd assume a bunch of different commenter names and write "Great post, Nathan! You're always a genius, but with this post you're even more super-geniusieser than usual! You go boy, howdy!"
I don't think the laugh track is going away anytime soon. I understand that there is a program called Two And A Half Men that tens of millions of people I don't know watch every week. But we've gotten to a point where audiences can think critically about canned laughter, that they can answer electronic guffawing with a skeptical, "No, I don't think that's funny". Yes, we can now argue in our heads with machines. But not in a crazy way or nothing.
Or we can be like Marshall McLuhan/Postman acolyte Elvis Presley, a couch potato who would shoot his television when something on it particularly displeased him or angried up the blood. That's taking the concept of the critical, skeptical viewer to its logical extreme.