June 15: the death of canned laughter

I have seen, obliquely from my position on the settee, bits of two or three sitcoms on the telly this week. You note that they do not have canned laughter. Up until quite recently they were the staple of both American and British comedy. I noticed its obtrusiveness in The Big Bang Theory, I recall. Opinion generally approves of its demise. After all, why were we being told when to laugh by studio executives? This was a patronising and manipulative ideological instrument. It was invented in the 1950s in the US when a so-called Laff box with a huge range of different types of laughter from titters to belly-laughs was invented to add to the sound track of comedy shows of the moment. The type of modern comedy, in the UK particularly, has changed. Shows tend to be more tragy-comedy these days; we laugh at awkward situations; complex reactions are explored. You can see why laughter tracks can’t fit so neatly in contemporary comedy. But, you know, when you look at modern comedy, you are still being told where to laugh: through the intonations; through oblique looks to the camera in mock-documentaries like The Office. In feature films, music still tells you what to feel (the worst types are those where the music starts up even before the moving scene begins); music figures less in the sitcom. The modern sitcom is often dealing with intermediate states. You might not get many laughs. You just get some assurance about your uncertainties.


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