The Literary Salon

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Friday, August 08, 2008

Sit-coms, laughing, and all that

I remember having a brief discussion with a fairly intelligent classmate of mine in my final year of undergraduate studies (about 4 years ago). We were both English students, but being the omnivores that we were, we discussed other matters as well, including media studies.

My peer brought up the issue of what I would call, for lack of a better term, heterodoxical loopholes. Simply put, it is a technique used by sit-coms writers for at least the past 25 years. Writers, for whatever reason, often wished to include social commentary in some episodes. However, the way in which they did this is ambiguous at best. This is best explained through the use of some examples.

My friend used an example from the classic sit-com Cheers, during an episode of which one character (I believe the one portrayed by the then attractive Kirstie Alley) utters enlightened remarks on the rights of homosexuals, which, given that this was the early 1980s, would have been heterodoxy. Such remarks on a popular sit-com would be perceived as progressive and enlightened. However, there is a catch: the character uttering such sentiments is often of questionable constitution. The character is often a likeable member of the regular cast, but one whom we, the audience, never take very seriously.

I have culled but two more examples, the second of which I saw last night:

On the popular kids/teen show Saved by the Bell, we have the militant feminist Jessie Spanos, who is portrayed as undoubtedly the most intelligent of the group. Especially in later episodes, she is often seen advancing a feminist agenda bemoaning sexist attitudes in just about everything--in other words, a hyperfeminist. Keep in mind that this program aired during the very early 1990s, when feminism was only beginning to enter the mainstream. Though the writers might be lauded for including socially relevant commentary in a program, especially one aimed at viewers ages 10-16, the viewpoint of the show itself is ambiguous. Though Jessie champions women's rights, etc, her character is not one we take very seriously: she is portrayed, despite her native intelligence, as somewhat extreme and crazy. Thus, we never really take her very seriously. The question, then, is: what is the program actually promoting? Is it genuinely espousing feminist ideas, or, given the questionable character of their mouthpiece, is it subtly mocking those very ideas?

Last night I watched an old episode of Seinfeld (online, of course), called "The Bris." In it, distant friends of Jerry and Elaine have a baby, and they wish to have him circumcised. The only voice of dissent on the matter is Kramer, whose arguments against circumcision are, to any reasonable person, irrefragable. He argues that it is a barbaric practice, and that the argument that "it's tradition" simply does not hold water: after all, sacrificing virgins to appease a god used to be tradition, but we do not do that anymore (this is Kramer's actual example, though one can easily think of dozens more).

Kramer's arguments are sound, but it is not a little curious that the mouthpiece of these ideas is not Jerry, not Elaine, not even George, but the likeable yet kooky and unstable neighbour, Kramer. Does this compromise the otherwise sound arguments against circumcision? That is a matter of debate, but it is a very clever way of creating an heterodoxial loophole. One can argue that the character who utters such ideas is irrelevant, that the ideas stand on their own. Conversely, one can argue that, by pretending to advance such ideas, the program (given the context) actually implicitly mocks such arguments. Thus, dissent, no matter how intelligent, is always already compromised.

One can invoke Mikhail Bakhtin here: are these sitcoms genuinely polyphonic or monologic disguised as polyphony?


This brings me to another related idea I have been thinking of for some time: the laugh track. I haven't done much research apart from quickly searching some databases, so I cannot say whether this has been written on, though I would be genuinely surprised if no one had already done so.

I am thinking here of what I would call the ideology of the laugh track. The laugh track's main purpose is, of course, to tell the audience when to laugh, which seems fairly innocent. I don't want to sound like a neo-Marxist, but I can't help but think of Althusser's ideological state apparatuses. To simplify my argument, I claim that the laugh tracks, by telling you when to laugh, also tell you implicitly to accept or reject certain ideas/ideologies. Thus, to use the previous example: if Kramer's cogent remarks are followed by a laugh track, that signals the audience to follow the collective laughter and ridicule the ideas just presented. If you happen to disagree, then you are immediately considered an outcast. It seems odd that the laugh track was a capitalist, not a communist, invention.

The question of whether or not media influences behaviour remains hotly contested. However, I find myself agreeing with the findings of Gerbner et al from (if memory serves) the late 1980s. They did not believe for one second that if a child witnessed a murder on TV that he would then go and kill his friend. However, Gerbner's study, the first and so far only longitudinal one on the subject, found that exposure to certain programming over a long period of time, especially during one's formative years, can indeed influence ideology, if not behaviour.

These are just scraps of ideas I thought I would jot down. Maybe I will turn them into something one day.

By the way, it's funny how odd sit-coms can be without the laugh track. I remember seeing some episodes of MASH when I was younger that didn't, for whatever reason, include the laugh track. It seemed palpably eerie, much like walking down a deserted downtown street that is usually bustling.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:03 p.m.  

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