The Way-Back Machine Presents: Ooh…I Hear Laughter in a Can Walking Hand in Hand with the One I Love…
*sung to the tune of Sedaka’s Laughter in the Rain.
Random assault fire comedian Dennis Miller used to have a talk show which apparently aired for a lot longer than I remember. In the early part of its run, I was fortunate to spend some time as a live studio audience member. During this time of my life I worked various jobs leaving me ample opportunities to wander the streets of Los Angeles in search of television programs in dire need for a “live” studio audience. These shows were often shot on studio lots situated in more “colorful” and generally impoverish neighborhoods – definitely ripe for class analysis, but on another day and for another blog post – and unless it was high tourist season, studio audience pickings were quite slim.
The first time I was tasked with the job of laughing and applauding on cue, I was on Hollywood Blvd – back when it was still quite seedy, even in the daytime – buying plastic shoes and goth band tees when I happened past a storefront. By night I seem to remember it being the place where one could get a five minute “clearing” from a Scientology rep, but by day, well many a Fox show seemed to use the spot to recruit top notch chuckle hounds. Or maybe it was a little closer to the McDonald’s off Highland/Hollywood, which never seemed to stock napkins. [canned laughter]
I mentioned that off season audience recruitment presented challenges, but I didn’t explain exactly what those challenges were. Most shows were film during the most “workies” part of the day, which meant generally speaking people with the time and inclination to be recruited for studio audience duties, probably found themselves considering the possibilities of a career in Heating/Air Condition Repair as described by various retired MLB vets, while awaiting the return from commercial break to hear the outcome of a civil dispute on The People’s Court. This is less of an indictment of the audience itself and more a jab at daytime programmers who clearly have some problematic ideas as it relates to the ambitions and potential of their audience.
But I digress.
My first day of sitting in the studio audience proved quite illuminating; I never realized how small, shabby and generally unglamorous most sets are. Thanks to HDTV, you don’t need to be a second shift worker wandering around Hollywood Blvd to fully experience the kindergarten class play stage design and glitter glamour of the average chat fest set. I also didn’t realize – thanks to the demographics of this particular live studio audience – most of Miller’s humor just didn’t garner laughs or wild applause.
Nevertheless night after night, I would settle in to watch the very shows I had nearly fallen asleep while taping to see how the whole thing looked on television. Each night I was floored by the transformation. Jokes I recall being greeted with the appreciation of a fart in church suddenly enjoyed riotous laughter; mediocre guests – we’re talking the Robert Wuhls of the world – whose entrance wouldn’t so much as earn a nervous cough, now made their way to stage greeted with thunderous applause.
Full House clip sans laugh track:
Generally speaking, placing the adjective “canned” in front of any noun rarely denotes the presence of a high quality product. [canned laughter] Many folks feel comfortable scoffing at canned chicken, spaghetti, apologies and ham, while the most egregious example of a noun modified by “canned” – laughter – barely registers as offensive.
Rocky Balboa trailer with a laff track:
I won’t lie, I laffed like whoa and you know I love me some Balboasaurus!
Laughter, as described by Merriam-Webster1:
- to show emotion (as mirth, joy, or scorn) with a chuckle or explosive vocal sound b : to find amusement or pleasure in something c : to become amused or derisive
The late Charles Douglass, a sound engineer, is credited with introducing the world of television to counterfeit chuckles. In the olden days – back when comedic performances actually had to be funny – one did not require the artifice of spam laughter. When our houses started to get bigger and our dreams far more time consuming, television show producers were not convinced of our ability to laugh at their scripted humor.
I find the practice of canned laughter – the wonderbra of comedy – highly offensive, yet the concept itself tends to make like giggle. Essays about the business of manufactured chuckles yielded more authentic laughs from me than the jokes on 80% of the shows featuring the technology. The idea that television producers seriously believe laughs can be scheduled like teeth cleanings is well – funny. It takes a lot of cheek to blame the audience when your jokes bombs!
The nature of filming before a studio audience also contributes to the paucity of authentic laughter. Maybe the first three takes of a pratfall might result in a smattering of laughter, but after the fifth time the audience sees example #284 of Charles not being in charge – over the course of an hour – yeah, it’s just not going to be funny anymore. This is quite the blow, considering it wasn’t funny back when it was fresh from the package either. One thing that always annoyed me about laugh tracks was their use when the show’s characters were clearly NOT in a studio, but outside doing something where one would be quite unnerved to find a collection of unseen strangers – possibly situated in some bushes or up in a tree – laughing at their every word, deed or reversal of fortune. [canned laughter]
Many shows were chased off the air because they dared to resist the tyranny of the laugh track. Shows that did dance to the laff box, often felt pressured to do so, fearing repercussions and possible cancellation. M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart wanted his television adaptation of Altman’s film devoid counterfeit chuckles, “Just like the actual Korean War.”2. [canned "awww"] How dare he! Are there shows which utilized prefabbed yuks that were funny? Of course. Barney Miller and Golden Girls are two examples. There are countless others, which is why the whole business is so offensive. Audiences can be trusted! If you’re tickling our ribs, we’ll let you know!
I find nothing humorous about the use of artifice to turn something subjective – humor – into something objective. If your jokes don’t get the yuks, you need better jokes or maybe an audience open to your brand of humor. You don’t need a machine containing the aged sounds of humor most likely captured from the time of Kubrick’s bone wielding monkeys with the goal of shaming audiences into appreciating a joke they just don’t find amusing. [canned laughter]
Growing up, I was confused by shows like Dallas, which often caused my parents to laugh, but did not feature canned chuckles. On the other hand, La Mommie could go an entire episode of Mork and Mindy and barely smile; that thing was all about the laugh track. When I asked her why she didn’t laugh at Mork and Mindy, she pursed her lips and said, “Because it’s not funny.”
1 – laugh. (2010). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
Retrieved May 18, 2010, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/laugh
2 Review of M*A*S*H . Thankfully the DVD comes with a choice of canned or free range laughter.