Here's a recent joke. A man says, "A Bernie Sanders supporter warned me that if I voted for Hillary Clinton, the next cabinet will have Goldman Sachs people on it. By golly, he was right. I voted for Hillary, and the next cabinet DOES have Goldman Sachs people on it."
While that quip is mildly funny--funny enough to elicit a wry smile, or an appreciative grunt, or perhaps an ironic smirk--it's not funny enough be considered for induction into the Joke Hall of Fame (which doesn't exist, but if it did, would be located not in Cooperstown, but in the actual town of Sweet Lips, Tennessee).
Now imagine this scenario. Imagine hearing that identical quip being spoken, word for word, but at its conclusion having someone instantaneously turn on a tape-recorder playing the sound of people laughing. By virtue of hearing these make-believe people laughing in the background, does the joke automatically become "funnier"?
But that's the premise on which TV producers rely when they inject laugh-tracks into sitcoms. That's not only the premise, it's the gold standard, a device that goes all the way back to the "canned laugher" of radio comedy shows, and a device that ultimately raised its ugly head as background to TV's "I Love Lucy."
When a TV audience hears fake people laughing at the material, they're going to think the material is funnier than it is, and that they themselves should be laughing. And if enough viewers laugh, and enough people tune in, the show's ratings will climb, the sponsors will be happy, and we got ourselves a big-assed hit.
This dubious premise is based partly on "monkey see, monkey do," and partly on the dynamics of group psychology (our deep-seated longing for "approval"). At a dinner party, when people go around the table gushing in praise of the wine being served, no one wants to break rank by saying something like, "Call me fussy, but it reminds me of horse piss." Instead, we do what others do.
An actor once told me I shouldn't be so critical. He advised me to regard canned laughter the way I regard the plangent violin music played in a TV movie where the estranged mother and daughter finally reconcile, or where a previously crippled child takes his first able-bodied steps across the stage to receive his high school diploma.
No one objects to sentimental music being played during emotional moments in a drama, do they? So why object to a laugh-track in a comedy? Why object to fake laughter when a man slips on a banana peel, or has his hat blow off in a wind storm, or my favorite, when a silly man does a double-take with an overly exaggerated stupid look frozen on his face--eyes bulging, tongue hanging out, and a fake audience howling with laughter?
All of which makes us pine for those hilarious, back to back to back Thursday night NBC shows--The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation--where, as truly funny as the lines were, we weren't subjected to so much as a single manufactured chuckle.
Now, if only HBO would do the same thing with Tracy Ullman's new show. They're killing this wonderfully funny and inventive woman with one of the most distracting laugh-tracks in TV history. "Lucy, what have you done with the sheets?" Yuk, yuk, yuk.