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Saturday, April 29, 2006



Sitcoms: a fact of life. I've been watching sitcoms since the Brady Bunch were busy breaking each other's noses and having allergic reactions to flea powder. And I've been listening to the accompanying laugh tracks and live studio audiences for just as long.

When I hear the term "laugh track" I immediately think of something John Waters pointed out on David Letterman years ago. The networks have been using the same recordings of laughter for so long that in all likelihood, the people you hear laughing have been dead for years. That factoid fundamentally changed the sitcom viewing experience for me. That Girl became That Girl and Those Dead People, Gilligan's Island became Dead Island and Happy Days became Dead Days. Of course, that's only true of the first two seasons of Happy Days. After that they made the leap to filming before a "live studio audience."

You can always tell when a show is filmed before a live studio audience. The actors react more, there are spontaneous rounds of applause, there are hooting responses to sexual references of any kind, but mostly there is the voice of one of the actors laid over the closing credits: "[Insert Show Title Here] was filmed before a live studio audience." My favorite of these voiceovers was performed by Isabel Sanford at the end of The Jeffersons. She sounds so proud.

I always wondered about those studio audiences, who comprised them, how they arrived there. Did they hold their favorite shows in such reverence that they felt compelled to travel to Hollywood just to witness the production process? Was the act of merely watching the shows at home somehow unfulfilling, and so required the viewer's actual participation? Or were these audiences just a bunch of Hollywood locals looking for an evening's worth of cheap entertainment? And most importantly, were all those laughs real?

My questions were answered last week when I found myself in a chilly 20th Century Fox studio along with 180 other willing participants seated in front of a row of TV show sets –the coffee shop, the living room, the kitchen, the doctor's office. There we were, the live studio audience.

What an uniquely odd experience. Having watched so much TV in my life and heard the laughter of thousands of studio audiences, I was acutely aware of our collective response to the performances on stage. In fact, I was as focused on us as I was them.

The show itself was a half hour situation comedy pilot entitled My Ex-Life produced by Richard Appel, directed by Kelsey Grammer and starring Tom Cavanagh (Ed) and Cynthia Watros. The plot was predictable. A divorced couple tries to prove how well adjusted they are. A deception is created and then foiled forcing the couple to confront their feelings in a MOS, a Hollywood acronym for "Moment of Shit," that brief part of the comedy, usually in the second to last scene in which the characters get serious, bare their souls and achieve some level of closure. This pilot actually had two MOSes, a dramatic double-whammy. The writing was tired, the 4,902nd rehashing of familiar material by familiar characters in an all too familiar setting.

But from my perch in the third row of the live studio audience, all that was irrelevant. I was there to provide laughter. My laughter. It was to be believeable, enthusiastic, and properly timed. That is your purpose as an audience member. That's why you are there. That's why they have studio audiences in the first place. That's why the show is emceed by a stand up comedian/cheerleader who keeps reminding everyone to "amp it up" and "really sell that laughter" throughout take after take after take.

Despite the material's flatness, I dutifully inserted my laughter in the appropriate spots. I noticed how I could do this without even listening that closely to the actors. I might be distracted by the acrobatic maneuvers of the key grip but I was quite capable of mindlessly contributing my giggles at the appropriate moments, kind of like how you can read a sentence when you can only see the top half of the letters.

Take after take after bloody take. The same punch line again and again. Hour after hour. A headache. Numbness alternating from left cheek to right. I think I delivered my last halfway believable guffaw towards the end of the two and half hour point. After that I kind of zoned out which gave me time to put this experience into a bigger context.

When Joe Meatball and Suzy Housecoat sit in their Barcaloungers and watch a show like Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond and they hear an audience laughing heartily at Joey's endearing naivete or Raymond's hapless pluck, the show's producers are making a statement: OTHER PEOPLE THINK THIS IS SOME FUNNY SHIT. Joe and Suzy are so conditioned to blindly comply with mainstream media's commands – "buy this," "eat that," "dress like this," "fuck like that" – their atrophied decision-making skills flacidly surrender to a zombic group response: WHY, YES. INDEED THAT IS SOME FUNNY SHIT. I BELIEVE WE'LL TUNE IN NEXT TIME TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN RAY TELLS DEBRA HE NEEDS MORE SPACE. Joe and Suzy tell their friends at work and next thing you know, Harry Smith is spending a week interviewing all the parents of all the Friends because it's the #1 rated show in the country. At that point, the show is defining what is considered funny for an entire nation.

But if we backtrack, back through the ratings, back through the Barcaloungers, back through the pilot and back to the studio audience, what we see is that the original laughter, the one that started the whole process, is fake. It's manufactured just like the sets and the scripts and the actresses' boobs and the actors' hairlines. The laughter is just one more component in the assembly line of the entertainment product. The entire enterprise is one big fantasy, one big lie.

And now, having added my fake laughter to the sounds of a tired, cold, often frustrated group of 180 strangers, I am now officially complicit in that lie.

Maybe the pilot of My Ex-Life will air. Maybe it will get picked up. Maybe it will catch on and enjoy a run long enough to lead to syndication and be rerun for years and years, becoming a part of the future pop culture of America. And maybe decades from now, someone will be watching that pilot episode and hear the laughter, my laughter and think, "Man, this is some funny shit."



At 5/01/2006 4:16 PM, Anonymous said...

I flat refuse to watch ANY sitcom that has a laugh-track. It's an insult to my intellegence.

American sitcoms generally suck anyway. I watched the British (Original) version of "The Office" and consider it much funnier than the U.S copy. The British "Coupling" was really a hoot!

Richard in Port Orchard, WA

At 5/02/2006 10:27 AM, Anonymous said...

OMG I used to get paid to do that when I lived in LA and it was the worst. Arrrgggghhh!


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