About twenty or so years ago, I went with some friends to the Fine Arts Theater in downtown Chicago to see Without You, I’m Nothing, the 1990 film adaptation of Sandra Bernhard’s award-winning one-woman show, which the then-ever-present Letterman guest had performed live in the late eighties in the East Village (though this was filmed at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in L.A.). We assumed we were seeing a straight-up concert film, like Eddie Murphy’s Raw or Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, so we were puzzled when we didn’t hear laughter from the audience in the film as she did her lounge-act shtick. Then again, Bernhard was pushing the envelope: In the first “sketch,” she’s decked out in an African batik dress and headdress, a white woman essentially in blackface, minus the makeup, singing Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a chutzpadik, absurd performance that made our white liberal asses squirm (this was, of course, pre–Sarah Silverman). And yet, we wanted to laugh. It was so over the top, it was funny — it was meant to be, right? We looked around the theater — our fellow filmgoers also appeared baffled. Then, the camera pulled back and we saw why Sandra’s audience in the film wasn’t laughing. She’d been playing in an all-black club, and they were rightfully offended, irritated, and/or just plain hated her (yes, it’s staged). That’s the punchline. Which gave us permission to laugh, because Sandra Bernhard was deliberately making an ass of herself to make a larger point about race.
But it also introduced an anti-laugh track: Here we were feeling insecure about cracking up because the audience in the film were visibly annoyed. As a lifelong lover of sitcoms, I thought this was particularly ingenuous because I hate being prompted to feel something inauthentic. If we need to be told something is funny, it probably isn’t. But it’s standard for sitcoms to have canned laughter and carefully curated studio-audience cackles. In the past, we might not have noticed or remembered because, we were laughing along. Recall that I Love Lucy had a laugh track. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Cheers. Frasier. Roseanne. Seinfeld.
In fact, we’ve had them imposed on us since the fifties, when sound engineer Charley Douglass started “sweetening” the audio, inserting laughs at failed jokes, editing down yuks that went on too long, to regulate the comic beats. But what is louder than the din of disingenuous laughter when a joke isn’t funny? It’s a hand hanging in the air, waiting for the high five slap that never comes, that loud silence of one hand clapping. Bad jokes are like tripping over air currents — you’ve gotta catch your fall and keep moving.
Network sitcoms have become less reliant on laugh tracks — Parks and Recreation, Glee, Modern Family, and the new Brooklyn Nine Nine, for example, don’t use them. But these are mockumentaries,musicals, and/or single-camera shows. Laugh tracks tend to signal to an audience that they’re tucking into more conventional fare, by which I mean, a show that, as Joseph Winkler described in “A Sitcom Even a Nihilist Could Love,” features beleaguered straight-man (or woman) protagonist at work surrounded by zany colleagues, and at home, where he or she juggles a fraught relationship with an overbearing or neurotic parent, a partner or an ex (or the ever-present absence of no love life at all), and a resident smart-alecky kid. And the laughs punctuate every sentence like an exclamation point.
Turn to CBS ,a.k.a. the Chuck Lorre channel, where every sitcom is a multi-cam production jam-packed with guffaws: Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly, and now his latest, Mom, which casts Anna Faris as Christy, a very recently sober single mother, who is reunited with her lifelong-substance-abusing mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney), after the two run into each other at a 12-step meeting. Christy is working as a waitress at a white-tablecloth establishment, where she is secretly carrying on an affair with her sweet but married manager, and keeps at arm’s length the tempestuous chef whose sexploits tend toward the age-inappropriate. Her household (a set composed of a living room and kitchen that we’ve seen in nearly every network sitcom since the early seventies) is less manageable, because you can quit a job. Here we have the stock sitcom characters: her neglected, nerdy, wiser-than-he-initially-appears young son, Roscoe, who is mostly tended to by his smart big sis, Violet, 16 and pregnant — like her mother and grandmother before her — by a dopey, immature boyfriend who has essentially moved in. And then there are the household lurkers: Roscoe’s father,Baxter (Breaking Bad’s Matt Jones), a childlike aspiring dope dealer, and Bonnie, who describes a past as sordid as any crankhead or dealer we encountered on Breaking Bad.
Which is to say, there is nothing unique or subtle about Mom. And that would be bearable — humor is subjective, and in fact many critics I admire recognize the promise in this series (I suspect that has more to do with a deep abiding love of Allison Janney; I share that love). But it’s hard to get past the assault of fabricated feelings that are intended to elicit authentic ones. Because for 22 minutes, every scripted joke, every sight gag, is stifled by an aggressive guffaw that throttles you until you beg for mercy (or turn the channel) — a round of chuckles slapping you on the back as Christy shoves her clandestine lover into the bushes to hide him from Roscoe, a stream of hardy-har-hars every time we hear of another of hippie-groovy Bonnie’s past transgressions, like licking cocaine out of the carpet (“it’s no sin to be thrifty”) or cooking meth in the basement while Christy cooks dinner in the kitchen. And the poignant moments, between mother and daughter — when Violet awaits the results of her pregnancy test, or tries to decide how to proceed once she gets those results — get polluted with “awws,” in an effort to prompt us to be touched, drowning out the acting chops of the brilliant Janney and endearingly wonderful Faris, and any semblance of good writing. The show has been pre-chewed by Lorre, who has micromanaged the viewing process,robbing us of the whole sentient TV-watching experience. We don’t need to know how to react; he’s taken care of that for us in post-production.
NBC’s Sean Saves the World also uses a laugh track, and the show is as conventional as sitcoms go: The protagonist here is Sean (Sean Hayes), a harried gay single dad raising a sulky teenage girl and battling his domineering mother,played by Linda Lavin. He manages a One Kings Lane–like online housewares sales outlet, where a new, lonely, oddball owner (Thomas Lennon) is terrorizing the employees like an overlord, his misery desperately craving company. Is the show funnier than Mom? I can only say that I laughed more, and noticed the laugh track less. I attribute this to several things: The cast has sitcom veterans like Hayes and Lavin, who would seem to have an internal laugh-track metronome, able to anticipate the beats of the fake chuckles — their comic timing,pitch perfect. The laugh track is more judiciously employed, thanks to better direction by James Burrows (who was the co-creator of Cheers, and has directed everything from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to Frasier, to Will and Grace, and even a lot of Chuck Lorre productions). There’s breathing room, pauses, which allow us to take in the scene, get to know a character, laugh along (or opt out) with him or her. The writing isn’t as assured as the performances at this point. And Mom is certainly taking more risks, both with its premise and ribald humor than is Sean. But I can tune out the yuks with my own giggles because of Lavin, Hayes, and Lennon, who are truly hilarious. Still, Burrows and creator Vince Fresco should reconsider using that old sweetening device. Because fake laughter is like a fake orgasm — it’s not infectious. It’s a sign that we’re being rushed along so that it’ll be over and done with. Take the time and really make us enjoy ourselves.
Like what you’re reading? Please follow “The T.V. Age.”
(The FOLLOW button appears on the left side of our collection’s home page.)