July 18th 2020

The comedy is over

By now everyone must have seen the versions of comedy shows with the laugh track edited out. The removal of the laughter doesn't just reveal the artificial nature of television and how it conscripts the viewer into laughing along; by subverting key conversational conventions, it reveals some of the myriad and subtle ways humans communicate with one another:

Although the show's conversation is ostensibly between two people, the viewer serves as a silent third actor through which they — and therefore we — are meant to laugh along with. Then, when this third character is forcibly muted, viewers not only have to endure the stilted gaps, they also sense an uncanny loss of familiarity by losing their 'own' part in the script.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in other art forms. In Garfield Minus Garfield, the forced negative spaces that these pauses introduce are discomfiting, almost to the level of performance art:

But when the technique is applied to other TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory, it is unsettling in entirely different ways, exposing the dysfunctional relationships and the adorkable mysogny at the heart of the show:

Once you start to look for it, the ur-elements of the audience, response and timing in the way we communicate are everywhere, from the gaps we leave so that others instinctively know when you have finished speaking, to the myriad of ways you can edit a film. These components are always present, it is only when one of them is taken away that they become more apparent. Today, the small delays added by videoconferencing adds an uncanny awkwardness to many of our everyday interactions too. It is said that "comedy is tragedy plus timing", so it is unsurprising that Zoom's undermining of timing leads, by this simple calculus of human interactions, to feelings of... tragedy.

Leaving aside the usual comments about Pavlovian conditioning and the shows that are the exceptions, complaints against canned laughter are the domain of the pub bore. I will therefore only add two brief remarks. First, rather than being cynically added to artificially inflate the lack of 'real' comedy, laugh tracks were initially added to replicate the live audience of existing shows. In other words, without a laugh track, these new shows might have ironically appeared almost as eerie as the fan edits cited above are today.

Secondly, although laugh tracks are described as "false", this is not entirely correct. After all, someone did actually laugh, even if it was for an entirey different joke. In his Simulacra and Simulation, cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard might have poetically identified canned laughter as a "reflection of a profound reality", rather than an outright falsehood. One day, when this laughter becomes entirely algorithmically generated, Baudrillard would describe it as "an order of sorcery", placing it metaphysically on the same level as the entirely pumpkin-free Pumpkin Spiced Latte.

For a variety of reasons I recently decided to try interacting with various social media platforms in new ways. One way of loosening my addiction to this pornography of the amygdala was to hide the number of replies, 'likes' and related numbers:

The effect of installing this extension was immediate. I caught my eyes darting to where the numbers had been and realised I had been subconsciously looking for the input — and perhaps even the outright validation — of the masses. To be sure, these numbers can be relevant and sometimes useful, but they do implicitly involve delegating part of your responsibility of thinking for yourself to the vox populi, or the Greek chorus of the 21st century.

Like many of you reading this, I am sure I told myself that the number of 'likes' has no bearing on whether I should agree with something, but hiding the numbers reveals much of this might have been a convenient fiction; as an entire century of discoveries in behavioural economics has demonstrated, all the pleasingly-satisfying arguments for rational free-market economics stand no chance against our inherent buggy mammalian brains.

Tying a few things together, when attempting to doomscroll through social media without these numbers, I realised that social media without the scorecard of engagement is almost exactly like watching these shows without the laugh track.

Without the number of 'retweets', the lazy prompts to remind you exactly when, how and for how much to respond are removed, and replaced with the same stilted silences of those edited scenes from Friends. At times, the existential loneliness of Garfield Minus Garfield creeps in too, and there is more than enough of the dysfunctional, validation-seeking and parasocial 'conversations' of The Big Bang Theory. Most of all, the whole exercise permits a certain level of detached, critical analysis, allowing one to observe that the platforms often feel like a pre-written script with your 'friends' cast as actors, all perpetuated on the heady fumes of rows INSERT-ed into a database on the other side of the world.

I'm not quite sure how this will affect my usage of the platforms, and any time spent away from these sites may mean fewer online connections at a time when we all need them the most. But as the Karal Marling, professor at the University of Minnesota wrote about artificial audiences: "Let me be the laugh track."