There are moments when I’m watching television that I would feel embarrassed should anybody see what I’m watching.
It’s any time I come across a comedy that has “canned laughter.”
Try an experiment some time. When watching Seinfeld or The Big Bang Theory or any comedy with pre-recorded laughter–close your eyes. All you will be able to hear is the dialogue and the “studio” laughter.
It sounds stupid! Every remark gets a big laugh.
The experiment never fails leaving me wondering, “Why did I used to watch this program?”
I have more respect for my intellect NOW–so I don’t watch any program that has canned laughter. But I USED to watch one of the worst–M.A.S.H. Try the experiment with a M.A.S.H. re-run. Close your eyes. Listen to the dialogue and then the uproarious laughter.
It feels like a disconnect. NOTHING is so funny as to warrant the uproarious laughter. A studio tech is rotating a knob.
I think I Love Lucy never got a legitimate laugh in its entire run of several decades.
Mel Brooks has said, the writers of these television comedies don’t have to work hard. They KNOW they’re going to get a laugh no matter what they put on TV. It doesn’t have to be funny–it just has to BE. As long as it’s on the air, it’s going to get laughter, pre-recorded.
Seinfeld makes fun of its own mindless episodes. One of the final shows has George trying to convince an NBC producer to put on a new program about nothing.
The producer asks, “Why would anybody watch it?”
George huffs, “Because it’s on television!”
That IS the reason so much of television IS viewed (and why I myself watched so many brainless programs): simply because “it’s on TV.”
These days, however, I’m more selective. Any show that has canned laughter, I no longer watch. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and realize that time is becoming more precious. Time WILL run out. Maybe it’s living daily with cancer. Whatever hour is available, I want to use it well.
I have found that the best comedies are the ones that have no canned laughter: In previous years there were The Wonder Years and Northern Exposure; today, Modern Family.
The writers and the producers rely on the viewers being alert enough to know when to laugh–without being prodded by a studio recording.
A viewer becomes more alert. You have to pay attention. There isn’t going to be a recording of hee-haws alerting you that something funny just happened–or more likely, something that is NOT funny but which they want you to THINK is.
When there is no canned laughter, the viewer must FIND the humor. The writers leave it for us to recognize a quip, a gesture, an irony…It means: The writers have confidence in us. There is an unspoken connection. We feel good being “in” on something.
The example that comes readily to mind isn’t from a TV comedy–but from a film. It’s called Quick Before It Melts. A research station in the Antarctic gets some new visitors–who have no idea what they’re in for.
In one scene, one of the old hands complains, All we get to eat in the cafeteria is spaghetti–all the time it’s spaghetti.
The next scene, two of the regulars are eating at a cafeteria table. We can’t see what they’re eating. All that the camera shows us is their faces, the one next to the other, facing the camera. The men are talking about a common fear at the Antarctic station: the fear of feeling so isolated, they go stir-crazy. The one man hears a strange noise. Quickly, he says to the other, “Did you hear that?”
The other says, “Yes.”
The first man says, “I guess we’re okay then.”
He lifts a fork to his mouth–it’s spaghetti. The camera instantly cuts to another scene.
The film showed us just a moment–just a blink of an eye–and left us to catch it.
That kind of connection of confidence between film and viewer makes a movie or a TV program worth the time spent watching. It feels as if we’re “in” on something. It feels worthy of our intelligence–worthy of our time. It feels like–quality.