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You can laugh … now

Chris Allen | Thursday, January 21, 2010

 Despite the fact that he hails from the farthest reaches of North Dakota and resembles any number of different Muppets, Chuck Klosterman is my favorite popular author.

Klosterman’s pop culture essays are often so abstract that they leave me puzzled, confused, but ultimately unaffected. However, in his latest book, “Eating the Dinosaur,” Klosterman’s essay railing against laugh tracks in sitcoms left me absolutely furious. I imagine it is something like how turn-of-the-century carnivores must have felt after reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” even if the subject is slightly less grisly and dangerous to my personal health.
Klosterman’s words were on my mind when I sat down to watch Monday’s episode of “The Big Bang Theory” (a sitcom with a laugh track) with my roommates. Is there any convention of media that is as obnoxiously stupid as a sound recording that tells viewers when they should laugh? Halfway through the episode, I found myself uncontrollably laughing at a joke that left my roommates silent, which is not abnormal, as I am a bigger fan of the show than they. However, the joke also was not accompanied by canned laughter indicating that viewers were supposed to be laughing. For all intents and purposes, I could have been the only person in the world who was laughing at the joke. My laughter had alienated me not only from my roommates but also from social convention.
Why should I have felt this way? Amusement is — like sadness, anger, nervousness or jealousy — a very personal matter, which different people will feel varying degrees of. It is that fact which makes a laugh track so inane. The laugh track supposes that we are too stupid to enjoy the product on our own, so it provides an obnoxious cue to when the Hollywood honchos feel we should be laughing. Imagine this phenomenon in other facets of life. The sound of a sobbing woman is piped into your dorm room whenever a beloved character dies on “Grey’s Anatomy” or during the climax of the latest showing of “The Notebook.” The artificial sound of chattering teeth in the latest “Friday the 13th” movie makes sure to let you know that the threat of mutilation by a deranged killer should in fact make you nervous. The loudspeakers at Notre Dame Stadium give us a cue to when we should boo (although the “1812 Overture” did in fact serve this very purpose towards the end of last season. Ignore the last example). These examples would be met with overwhelming ridicule. So why do we allow laugh tracks to continue to condescend to us?
I say we put a stop to it immediately. Thankfully, the laugh track has begun a slow, gradual death. The best sitcoms on TV already have forsaken the laugh track (think “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and more and more each year follow suit. It’s time to can canned laughter.