Thursday, October 05, 2006

Seinfeld killed the "laugh track"

Not specifically eLearning-related, but it's on my mind right now.  If I tried, I could make a connection between audience/student perceptions, and the efforts of content creators to force a specific response... with disregard for an audience's/student's open and honest reaction. 
Anyway, I used to be an avid TV watcher.  From the time I got home to the time I went to bed, I was watching something -- anything.  Since I've been domesticated, my TV watching has dwindled to a few shows I make a point to Tivo.  Probably the first show I "got into", after marriage and kids, was Arrested Development... and a perennial favorite has always been The Daily Show.  Currently, I'm watching The Office and My Name is Earl, plus Sunday night's Adult Swim. I'm on-and-off with Curb Your Enthusiasm, and while it was (briefly) on, I loved the show Sons and Daughters. I'll also add that the whole family enjoys Whose Line is it Anyway? which airs a whole lot on ABC Family.
Looking through that list, I realized they all have one thing in common:  no laugh track.  Sure, The Daily Show and Whose Line have live audiences but, with the exception of Whose Line's first US season, the audience reaction is not coaxed.  If a joke fails... no one laughs.  And very often, the personality's response to the failure is the most funny thing of all.  The other shows in my list are all situational comedies,  but they don't insist, "Hey, we just made a joke. Let's make the laugh track laugh, so other people know it, too."  It becomes the TV watcher's prerogative as to whether something is funny or not.
Looking back to my youth, I used to LOVE watching "I Love Lucy" reruns.  They were/are still very funny, and since they were performed live-to-tape, the studio audience's reactions were honest... and they laughed because it was really funny.  Somewhere along the line, the TV execs decided that it wasn't enough to make the scripts ACTUALLY humorous -- they needed to inject the audience's response at every joke, whether it was funny or not.  For some reason, I want to blame "Three's Company"... while it had many funny situations, it seemed the stupid parts were eliciting the same reaction that the honestly funny parts were.  Very disingenuous.   Though, even earlier, "The Flintstones" decided that a cartoon needed a laugh track -- but I kind of appreciate the strangeness of that idea.
Throughout the 80's and 90's, the sit-com was very formulaic.  There were buddy comedies, family comedies, and ensemble comedies.  Some were really good, most were not.  But they all used the studio audience, and the laugh track, to broadcast exactly where the joke was supposed to be.  M*A*S*H was an enigma -- it started out as a fairly straight sit-com, but evolved into a deeper show... and the "audience" of the later years seemed to serve the function of just setting the tone.  Then came Seinfeld.
Seinfeld, on it's face, was straight-up, ensemble sit-com.  But somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd seasons, it become this twisted, original show... that just happened to have a laugh track.  After it ended, laugh tracks just seemed to be totally incapable of making an unfunny show funny... it really just made them pathetic.
Now, I've tried to watch some of the new sit-coms that have come out... but anytime the laughs kick in, it really irritates me.  I almost feel like the producers are taking me for an idiot, because without the laughs, I wouldn't know that a joke just occurred.  The Office doesn't do that... they play out the situations, and YOU get to decide if it works or not.
I guess I could tie it back to the recent interest in eLearning/ Learning 2.0 , or Web 2.0... the idea of a collaborative effort that doesn't FORCE the person into one direction.  Has the term "TV 2.0" been coined yet?  Or specifically "Sit-Com 2.0"?  Actually, it would be more like "1.5", since the viewer isn't actually creating the content... though, the success of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" may be an indication that a true "2.0" is coming.



Zen Twist said...

You really hit the nail on the head. My wife came home from work one day telling me that a new show came HIGHLY recommended from a friend at work: "The Big Bang Theory." I could not get past the laugh track. The show wasn't very funny, and the laugh track response was not justified for the jokes that the show was trying to convey.

The laugh track is dead... comedies like Scrubs, It's Always Sunny (as you mentioned), and the like prove that the laugh track is an out-dated and unnecessary device. If the writing is funny, leave it alone. If it's supposed to be funny, but isn't, I guess it might be time to scrap the show. Laugh tracks don't illicit any response in me, and when a show has a live audience rather than a programmed laugh-track, IT SHOWS. Even then, shows like Always Sunny don't need ANYTHING other than what they do, which is amazingly funny, cutting edge writing, and enthusiastic acting.

Dominique said...

how do you know that whose line didnt have a laugh track? i LOVE the show and have been watching a lot of it recently, but if you really pay attention to the audience, they're laughing at almost everything - and not just laughing, but like screaming. now the show is funny, but not EVERYTHING is that funny... are you sure they're not "sweetening" the audiences reactions whatsoever?

simran said...

Seinfeld is very interesting show. i always Watch Seinfeld Online.I watch its all episodes. Its all episodes are best. I like it so much.