SitComs Not Always a Laughing Matter
My favorite new TV comedy is “Growing Up Fisher.”
It’s the story of a blind lawyer, his 12-year-old son, a mid-teen daughter, and an ex-wife who is trying to return to her adolescent years. The show is based upon the experiences of D.J. Nash.
J.K. Simmons portrays Mel Fisher; for most of his life after he became blind at 12, he tried to make others believe he wasn’t blind. Jenna Elfman is his ex-, Joyce Fisher, who extends the role she played on the hit series, “Dharma and Greg.”
Because television is a repetitive medium, “Growing Up Fisher” has the look and feel of “The Wonder Years,” complete with a love interest for its pre-teen child.” In this newer SitCom, instead of an older Kevin Arnold (voiced by Daniel Stern) narrating the story of his younger self (portrayed by Fred Savage), it’s an older Henry Fisher, narrated by Jason Bateman, who reflects upon his own younger self, portrayed by Eli Baker.
In “Growing Up Fisher,” as in “Dharma and Greg” and “The Wonder Years,” the father/husband is conservative and strait-laced; the wife is more of a free spirit,” common in many comedies, including Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” which had a half-season run on ABC in 1970 after being a successful Broadway play and film.
The pilot of “The Wonder Years” aired on ABC following SuperBowl XXII; the pilot for “Growing Up Fisher” aired on NBC following the Olympics. Network executives counted on dragging the huge audiences into strong ratings for the neophyte comedies.
It’s not for the similarities I like “Growing Up Fisher.” Nor is it for the acting, directing, and writing, all of which are above average for a modern TV comedy. Or even because of Elvis, the Guide Dog. It’s because “Growing Up Fisher” doesn’t have an annoying laugh track.
Charley Douglass, a CBS-TV sound engineer invented the first laugh machine. Its purpose was to improve the studio audience laughs, some of which were raucous and too overbroad, some of which were far less than what the producers wanted. With the change from comedies airing live to the use of tape delay, post-production, including canned audience reaction, became critical for how the producers wanted audiences to perceive the finished product. Ever since the early 1950s, most TV comedies have used a laugh track, even when the show was “taped before a live audience.” Eventually the Douglass “Laff Box” had more than 300 different canned laughs.
Instead of developing plot and character, many TV comedies are little more than a series of one-liners stuck together by writers and producers who are too young to know and appreciate the writing of James L. Brooks, Sam Denoff, Larry Gelbart, David Isaacs, Ken Levine, Bill Persky, Carl Reiner, Gene Reynolds, and dozens of others who were craftsmen. The laugh track now shows up every one or two lines, even if the line isn’t funny. And it’s not just subtle laughter or mild chuckles. Even the lamest line gets an all-out decibel-popping presence.
The escalation of the laugh track has become the producers’ way to manipulate the audience to believe every word is a gem, every sentence uttered is golden. In the past few years, the laugh track has become invasive. On “Two and a Half Men,” a lame but popular rip-off of “Three’s Company,” and “2 Broke Girls,” both of which push sexual suggestiveness to the edge of lewdness, the laugh tracks make the shows almost unwatchable. They’re not the only ones.
At first, the insertion of canned laughter was non-intrusive. Some comedies, including “My Three Sons” and “The Brady Bunch” used less laughter; others pumped laughter at almost every line. Several comedies went without laugh tracks. NBC reluctantly dropped the laugh track mid-way through the second season on “The Monkees,” after all four actor-musicians demanded it, according to historian Paul Iverson. CBS had required “M*A*S*H” to use a laugh track, over the protests of its creators. However, as the comedy’s ratings and subsequent advertising revenue increased, CBS executives relented a bit—laugh tracks during scenes in the operating room were optional, and other laughter was toned down.
Almost none of the classic cartoons had laugh tracks; they didn’t need it—the audiences knew when and how to laugh, even if network business executives, few of whom were ever in the creative part of show business, didn’t.
Also not needing much “sweetening” are “The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” and the late night talk shows. Although all are taped a few hours before airing, live audiences provide the genuine laughter and applause, with the hosts reacting to it rather than delivering a line and waiting a couple of seconds to allow digital laughter to be inserted in post-production.
For “The Wonder Years” and “Growing Up Fisher,” which first aired more than two decades apart, the producers wisely decided that comedy, if good, will bring its own laughs; the merit of the show will rise or fall based upon writing, acting, and directing, not upon forced laughter.
[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, satirist, and author. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and effects of hydraulic horizontal fracturing.]
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