Hating on Jezebel James: the Laugh Track as Bad Object

The Return of Jezebel James faces way higher expectations than the typical sitcom. Amy Sherman-Palladino's previous show was Gilmore Girls, a series whose characters, especially the three generations of eponymous women, were among the most vivid, engaging, witty, and human on TV. For many viewers, Rory, Lorelai, and Emily were such good TV friends, and we will miss them for years and years. The thought that ASP might deliver us a new bunch of killer characters is just too exciting, especially now that GGs is gone.

Jezebel James, which premieres on Fox in the spring of 2008, is enticing us as well with actors many of us love already. Parker Posey, a comedienne from the Christopher Guest troupe, has done her adorable thing in what seems like dozens of quirky little films, of which The Daytrippers and Clockwatchers are favorites. And Lauren Ambrose is already beloved of many Six Feet Under viewers. These two play the leads; Scott Cohen, another indie film actor (Kissing Jessica Stein) and a GGs vet (Lorelai's love interest Max Medina) is a supporting player. Good enough. Unfortch, a few scenes have been online since May and no one seems to like them. Now the promo reel embedded above has surfaced and more voices are joining the chorus of disappointment.

It's way too early to give up on Jezebel James, and maybe the reason it's being held back till spring is that Fox and the producers want to tweak it. But I want to think for a minute about why people dislike the clips they have seen, which I think is pretty revealing. The consensus is that the big problem is the show's style, and in particular its traditional three-camera style with audible audience laughter punctuating the funny parts. I hesitate to call this a laugh track, because it could be actual studio audience sound. But everyone is calling it that, so that's what I'll call it, whether it's real or "canned" laughter. It doesn't really matter, because stylistically it's the same no matter the source. For many viewers, the laugh track is objectionable, an obstacle to their liking the show. And they're not afraid to say how Jezebel James can be improved: shoot it like The Office or 30 Rock and lose the laugh track. It's like the show is wearing a bad toupee, everyone knows it's a toupee, and it should just take the damn thing off already and be bald. Doesn't it know that it's much hipper now to be bald than to wear a toupee?

The laugh track is one of those things everyone is supposed to agree about. It's lame and corny to lard on fake laughter and an insult to the audience to be told when to laugh. Right? Think of the movies about TV production that have scenes in which a tasteless producer directs a technician to bump up big laughs after a certain line (The movies I'm thinking of are Manhattan and The TV Set, but there are surely others). "Now a mild chuckle. Ok! And a big guffaw!" This is always a way of expressing TV's underlying banality and phoniness, its pandering and artlesness. This idea of the laugh track is integral to the ideological positioning of TV as the idiot box, as the low art Other to cinema, literature, etc.

But is the laugh track really so bad? Television has always had a big disadvantage over cinema: the lack of a large audience in one space. Anyone who has seen a great film comedy in a theater full of appreciative spectators knows the power of the crowd's affection for a film. A film seems better when received so well. Television, for all of its appeals, lacks this power. Sure, many viewers watch in public spaces like bars and dorm common rooms and laundromats, but the typical (and stereotypical) situation of television viewing is in domestic space with the set as an electronic hearth. How many people can sit around a hearth? So the laugh track has an important function: to give the TV viewer the feeling of being surrounded by others, a feeling of community. In this respect it's not much different from applause, cheering, booing, and other forms of audible audience response.

And consider how many great television shows have used the laugh track. Is All in the Family a lesser show for having laughter on its soundtrack? Is M*A*S*H or Cheers or Seinfeld? Even if these shows' creators might have wished to do without them (M*A*S*H in particular; in the UK it apparently aired without a laugh track), a laugh track was part of our experience of all of these programs, and I don't think it diminished them particularly. I find it hard to imagine Happy Days, one of my favorite shows in childhood, without the live studio audience's interaction with the performers, in particular their lengthy applause upon Henry Winkler's entrances as the Fonz, their woo-woo-ing in response to kissing, and their hearty laughter at big punch lines. The traditional sit-com is a theatrical format, and good sit-coms exploit the aesthetic potential of the stage, including its address to a present audience.

Some people think the laugh track is "telling us when to laugh," and to be sure it might help with this function. But there are many ways in which comedies, whether on stage, in film, or on TV, tell us when to laugh. Actors pause, scripts have punch lines, music sets a tone. A laugh track is merely one device among many. It doesn't suit every kind of show. A laugh track on The Office would be detrimental to its effect of awkwardness. But shows like Scrubs and Malcolm in the Middle have no laugh track and yet tell us when to laugh in other ways, especially with their wacky music.

Even if the laugh track is aesthetically legitimate, as I have argued, no one can claim that it's particularly fashionable. As I have blogged previously, there is a new kind of TV comedy that I called the anti-sit-com. In place of a theatrical style, we have something that TV creators and critics love to call cinematic. Shooting is with a single camera, like a movie, they say (never mind that movies are shot with multiple cameras all the time). In place of the laugh track we get awkward silence (The Office), comical musical cues (Scrubs), and humorous voice-over narration (Arrested Development). Not constrained by shooting live in front of a studio audience, the writers now can "punch in" little scenes of fantasy or flashback.

The problem with Jezebel James seems to be that it's not this kind of show. To many people this signals failure, but Amy Sherman-Palladino isn't trying to make something like My Name is Earl; that's not her thing. She says she's trying to make something like Cheers. I say, great! Cheers was smart and verbal and clever and it never pandered. We need more shows like Cheers. But Cheers isn't what's on television today, and a show like it might not work in 2007 or 2008; if this is true, it's a pity.

Ultimately, what I think the negative reaction to these clips reveals is how thoroughly the idea of quality TV being cinematic has taken hold. Theatrical style used to be the marker of television quality, but no more. Now to seem serious and worthy, a television show has to be "like a movie." That's television's loss, and ours. I hope it won't force Amy Sherman-Palladino to choose between making the show she wants to make and making the show we think she ought to want to make.

More more more:

Wikipedia: Laugh Track

TV Party: History of the Laugh Track

WSJ on Charlie Douglass, inventor of the laugh track, upon his death in 2003

NPR's On the Media on same

Blog entry on the Jezebel James session at the TV Critics Assoc. mediafest

Pics from same


Jason Mittell said...

Mike - great comments on the declining attitudes toward the laugh track. A few related thoughts - I think another key influence on the LT-hating is The Simpsons, which has served as an ur-sitcom for a generation. Its lack of laugh track was seen as an issue back in 1990 (its closest genre ancestor The Flintstones had a LT, but was not filmed before a live studio audience...). And right now, 1-cam sitcoms with no LTs are a marker of high-class quality, even though the highly conventional 3-cam LTer 2.5 Men is still the highest rated sitcom on TV (even though I've never met anyone who admits to watching it). A similar marker of quality is film vs. videotape in studio shot shows. But I think it will only take one Cheers/Seinfeld quality 3-cam LT show to hit with audiences & change those assumptions.

As for this promo reel, I think its main problem is it feels too promo-ish, with the voiceover & punched jokes. I'm confident that the show's pacing will be more organic and assured, something that a promo like this has a hard time conveying. Great sitcoms are about characters & senses of place, not punchy jokes for promos.

The questions are will it appeal to a broader audience than GG fans, and will Fox give it a chance to build, unlike every other quality show they've ever programmed? Or might it become this year's Studio 60?

Unknown said...

There retarded laughtrack is the most frustrating thing ever. It's so obviously not a 3-camera sitcom, and yet for some reason there's a "live audience". I actually had very high hopes for this show, the commercials didn't show any laughtrack and I like the lead girl, and the other red head that was in Six Feet Under is great.

I'm watching it and the shot just started out on some pregnant lady's belly and everyone was laughing? because I mean...come on, what's funnier than a camera that starts in on a pregnant ladies BELLY!!?!?!?
I hope that the message gets through to them to get rid of the track, I don't know of any off hand but there have been shows in the past that started out without an audience and then were switched.
i could be wrong.
but either way, if this continues I'm not going to keep watching

Anonymous said...

the sitcom is my favorite form. jezebel james doesn't suck because of its laugh track, it sucks because the concept and the writing are absolutely atrocious. it is a shame that this is coming from a.s.p., but whatever, it's horrible.

Anonymous said...

I like JJ a little better than others, but I agree that it doesn't work, and I would be really surprised if it isn't canceled after a few episodes. The thing I can't get around is Parker Posey's character/performance. She needs to be likable but isn't. I wonder if she isn't meant to be a TV actress. I also don't appreciate how GimoreGirlsy the show is in too many ways, while still lacking the charming tone of GGs. And I don't mind the laugh track at all, fwiw. I'll keep watching, hoping it improves, but I doubt it will.