I Am Not Your Laugh-Track

There is no rule that says we all have to be funny, except perhaps for the nebulous norms defined by television sit-coms in which no burst of interaction is complete without a punchline -- or at least a laugh-track fill.

This is not a frivolous analogy. On the contrary, I believe that the television sit-com has become an all too influential factor in the way some people model their behaviour.

Emotional tension is an anathema to a sit-com. Where other storytelling genres attempt to cultivate and strategically wield emotional tension (often across several acts, as is common in police dramas and soaps), in a sit-com it is diffused as quickly as possible by a joke.

A mother may feel aghast that her children are apparently in danger, for example, only if the punchline is the father's exaggerated apathy; letting the audience meditate on the mother's worry for more than a split second is forbidden, because it may lead to their feeling uncomfortable.

The father's punchline may either be actual (in that it is funny) or virtual (in that it follows a familiar joke pattern without necessarily being funny itself). In either case the tension's conclusion is heralded by the sound of pre-recorded chuckling.

As a consequence, many members of today's television bred culture feel the need to make an attempt at humour on par with the pace of sit-coms -- that is, a joke every couple of exchanges, and at least one joke per moment of emotional tension. And, while this would be intolerable enough if most of the people in the world had comedic skills on par with the banal lugies hawked by most teleplay writers, the unfortunate reality is much, much worse.

Unless the other person in the conversation willingly plays the part of the laugh-track, they run the risk of one moment of emotional tension leading to several, or even a profound mood swing on the part of their interlocutor for not playing nice and conforming to the pattern.

This is why we are forced to make at least a windy, appreciative sort of half-snicker when people say things like, "Don't go there, girlfriend!" or "Is that your final answer?" or "You're just like a soup Nazi!"

If you don't think you play this game, try withholding your "social laugh" for a week. Refuse to be a laugh-track for near- and far-miss wit. Not only will you find your life cluttered with more awkward silences, but your colleagues and neighbours may start to view you with a certain suspicion: no matter how neutral or even friendly your expression, the reaction of non-laughter is almost universally interpreted as disdain.

The expectation that you'll deliver social laughter is not mitigated in any way by the quality of the comedic material. In fact, when someone makes a joke they know to be lackluster they may not expect you to laugh at the telling, but they will when they explain their own frank assessment of the joke's calibre. This is, of course, because their own insecurity has created a moment of emotional tension, which can only be popped with the validation of non-derisive laughter.

Via the conscious or unconscious manipulation of these moments of emotional tension, some idiots have even come under the mistaken impression that they are actually quite talented in a comedic sense, judging by the titters they receive. These are the worst kinds of scoundrels, because they're sure that any time you don't respond favourably to their material it can only be because you hold something against them personally.

Most people in the world aren't gifted comedically.

This is why we hold the real nobility of the genre in such high esteem -- in sharp contrast to the wit of your media-parroting neighbour, say, or the a clerk's post-office sardony. But it isn't just because those few beloved are actually funny -- no, it's also because they don't foist those damnable moments of unfunniness upon us, a gun pointing at our head demanding we fulfill the role of an affirming soundbyte.

"Yeah, ha ha," we wheeze, rather than run against the grain. "Ha ha."

I am not a laugh-track; you are not funny. Find another way to sooth your jangled ego, my stupid friend.

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