Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Honest To God, Plays!

I finally read one too many bitches about laugh tracks in TV sitcoms, and, I have to say something.

This particular bitch came from somebody named Adam Hoff, who, based on the one blog post I read, is an interesting writer who decided to do a Top 10 Power Ranking of new fall TV shows (perhaps an intriguing idea, if Onebee.com weren't doing its annual Fall TV gauntlet, next to which any television writing on the internet is going to look unfortunately amateurish). I don't know anything about Mr. Hoff, but, the fact that he listed "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" at number one means we can conclude that he's doubtless a patchouli-smelling dreadlocked hippie in a "Free Mumia" t-shirt whose screensaver is either the logo for a band he'll abandon in disgust once three other people have heard of it or an image of George W. Bush with a Hitler moustache.

(I kid; I'm sure he's fine. "Studio 60" just isn't turning out to be that great a show unless you're convinced we're all living in Salem, Massachusetts)

He listed "The Class" at number seven, and while I can't imagine "The Class" is any good whatsoever, I haven't actually seen an episode so I can't say for sure (well, I can, but, I'm being nice). But, here's what he said that got me going:

We've obviously become spoiled by the likes of "The Office," "Arrested Development," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and "Scrubs," because many of us absolutely cannot tolerate a laugh track. It makes you want to gouge your eyes out with a spoon.

I guess what has continued to amaze me is that people who seem to be -- or claim to be -- savvy about TV constantly miss the point here. There's a big difference between a traditional multi-camera sitcom and a single camera show. A quick tutorial for those who don't know (or need to be reminded):

Multi-camera sitcoms (from "The Honeymooners" to "Everybody Loves Raymond") are performed on a stage in front of a live audience. They're essentially filmed plays. Other examples include "Friends," "Frasier" and "All in the Family."

Single camera shows (from "Doogie Howser, MD" to "My Name is Earl") are essentially like movies. They are movies, in fact; half-hour ones. Other examples include "The Wonder Years" and "Malcolm in the Middle."

The problem with laugh tracks comes from shoving them into shows that have no live studio audience. ABC tried this with "SportsNight" for a while, and people complained about how much they don't like laugh tracks, when really what they don't like are laugh tracks on single camera shows. And for good reason; it's weird to hear laugher coming from nowhere. When you watch "M*A*S*H" or an early episode of "SportsNight," it's bizarre to hear disembodied laugher after a joke, just like it would be if you rented "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

On the other hand, multi-camera shows like "Frasier" or "Friends" are conceived to be presented before a crowd, and, when you watch them, you essentially join the live studio audience. If it's jarring to hear laugher coming from nowhere while watching a single camera show, imagine the converse: going to a theater and watching a performance of an hilarious play with yourself as the only audience member. That would be very weird as well. Watching a show like "Frasier" without an audience would be like watching a televised baseball game being played in an empty stadium; it would feel weird to you.

Anyway, I guess people who don't know any better (but really should) kind of got confused when single camera sitcoms like "Scrubs," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Arrested Development" came along and were really good just when multi-camera sitcoms started to really stink ("Yes, Dear," "According to Jim," anything NBC's put out since 1997). Conventional wisdom held that the traditional sitcom was dead, when in reality there just weren't any good ones ("Everybody Loves Raymond" being determinedly un-hip, and thus easy for a lot of people to ignore despite its greatness). So, in a sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc leap of fallacious logic, it was surmised that laugh track=bad sitcom and no laugh track=good sitcom.

(then there's the small sub-issue of "sweetening" laugh tracks for multi-camera sitcoms, using added, pre-recorded laughs to make it seem like the live studio audience really thought that Ted Danson's remarks on "Becker" were funny. Which I suppose is annoying, but, if you work on "Becker," that the heck else are you going to do? You know?)

Anyway. The point is: the only issue people really have with laugh tracks is that they're jarring when used with single camera shows. People who complain about laugh tracks seemed too dumb to realize this, and that got me annoyed enough that I had to clear things up. So there. Saying the laugh track on a multi-camera show makes you "want to gouge your eyes out like a spoon" would be like saying that you can't watch a comedic play with a full audience because of all that distracting laugher around you. That's absurd.

Good show--a very nice explanation of something people always screw up. I'm also not sure what the single-camera freaks do with the fact that after with The Office, How I Met Your Mother is the next best sitcom going. (I don't count HBO shows, which I've never watched for a variety of reasons.)
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