That's a laugh

Of all the things I find annoying -- and, boy, there's a list that just keeps getting longer -- laugh tracks are near the top.

I've all but given up watching TV situation comedies because of the canned laughter that erupts every time a character so much as exhales. Sometimes, the laughs come from a "live studio audience" of morons, but usually the laughter and applause are generated by a machine.

One of the worst offenders is a sitcom that is, naturally, a favorite of my teen-age sons. "That '70s Show" can be pretty funny at times, especially for those of us who can remember the actual '70s and the stupid clothes we wore, but the sitcom is ruined by the loud laughter that spews after virtually every spoken line. I can recognize the show by its waves of fake laughter, even when I'm in the other end of the house, and I'm sometimes forced to hide in the bathroom until it's over.

What rankles is the feeling that sitcom producers believe that we, the television audience, are too stupid to "get" the jokes unless we hear other people laughing, too. Plus, they apparently feel they can get away with weak material if they "sweeten" the laughs with machine-made hahas.

The rest of us don't get off so easy. If we tell a joke to our coworkers and it flops, that's just too bad for us. If we try to be witty at the dinner table and we bomb, nobody's going to "sweeten" the moment. We're left struggling through a red-faced explanation of what we meant, or awkwardly identifying the "funny part" for an audience that's uninterested, impatient or outright hostile.

Perhaps we should all have our own laugh tracks and applause machines. Then we could get away with lame jokes, too, and we'd feel a lot better about ourselves. A typical office exchange could go something like this:

Bill: "Hey, Bob, are you working hard or hardly working?"


Bob: "Keeping my nose to the grindstone, Bill. How about you? Still having an affair with your secretary?"

(Chorus of laughter and knowing "Oho's.")

Bill: "Very funny, Bob. I told you not to mention that again. Guess I'm going to have to fire you now."

(Groans, sporadic laughter.)

Bob: "Don't be hasty, Bill! I've got photos to show your wife."


Bill: "Haha! You got me there, Bob. Guess I'll have to run over you in the parking lot later."

(Sustained laughter. Applause.)

Cut to the parking lot, end of the workday. Bob's bent over, petting a stray kitten.

(A chorus of "Awww's.")

A pickup truck bears down on Bob. An irate Bill is behind the wheel. Fade to black just before the collision.

(Wild laughter. Applause. Roll credits.)

See? Life could be improved immeasurably with laugh tracks and applause machines (unless you're the freshly deceased Bob). You'd always have a willing, appreciative audience. Every gag would get a laugh. Every snippet of dialogue would get a reaction. Every time you accomplished anything, you could take a bow.

Would it change the way we do things? Would we ignore our family members, who just don't "get" us, in favor of canned laughter? Would we become applause junkies, doing things twice so we could trumpet each "encore performance?" Would we run over coworkers in the parking lot for a cheap laugh?

Sure we would. And then we'd be ready for prime time.

And that's the end of this column. Ta-DA! Thank you. Thank you very much.

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