Tell me when to laugh
I remember the first time I was exposed to The Office. Intimate and raw “documentary” style footage inspired humor by exposing awkward reactions and stupidity. Awkwardness and irony are the two dominating styles of comedy utilized in this century. Sitcoms using laugh track are still prevalent, as in the case of the increasingly popular How I Met Your Mother. Yet, more often than not, I’m attracted to comedy that experiments with different forms of humour that aren’t spoon-fed to the audience.
Arrested Development is an example of a successful sitcom that didn’t need to rely on joke set-ups and payoffs for the humor to be extracted. Humour was instead derived from everything from the narrator, Ron Howard, to the puns, deprecation and irony. Sarcasm and wit dominate shows; from H. Jon Benjamin in Archer to Cam in Modern Family, audiences don’t need to be told when to laugh.
This is not to say that sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother don’t succeed at what they’re aiming for, simply that the current state of humour is largely based around rambling awkwardness, confident machismo (read: Will Farrell) and intelligent sarcasm. Our culture is obsessed with self-awareness (i.e. Community) so anyone attempting to be genuinely happy comes across as phony. Reflection as a form of self-deprecation is an easy way to get a laugh — Seth Rogan has successfully built a career on making fun of himself and laughing awkwardly to appear charming. The objective is an aim to be real by addressing the audience so the producers/actors are in on the joke with the audience, such as on Community.
When I watch a show with a laugh track and I hear the “audience” in the background splitting their sides to a middling joke, the immersion can be broken. MSNBC Studies show that people are more likely to laugh when there is the presence of the laugh track, as a form of “peer pressure,” but when you’re sitting alone at home, failing to “get” a joke may completely break the immersion that the show is attempting in the first place.
To contrast this, a show like Archer continues to move at a blistering pace, never slowing down to allow time for the laugh track, so if the joke is missed, there’s no time to criticize. Programs without “help” also force better dialogue, relying less on punch lines than those with. This is not to suggest that we abolish the sincere form of the “classic” sitcom, because it still proves to be working; but we should welcome the new and diverse techniques of getting a laugh.