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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Jumping the Laugh Track

August 17, 2001|HOWARD ROSENBERG

NBC's new summer sketch series, "The Downer Channel," surfaced last month with some fluff that included "noises that can drive you crazy." One was nails clawing a blackboard, another leaf blowers. I'd add a third.

Laugh tracks.

This is like complaining about profound dumbness, of course. You can't fight it, you don't dare join it, so you grimace and suffer, hoping it will go away. It won't. Comedies with laugh tracks or electronically sweetened laughter came in with the flying reptiles of television's Jurassic era and will still be here, heehawing at peeling wallpaper, long after the rest of us are pushing up daisies.

The industry rationale for these sound effects is that viewers are more likely to laugh if part of a community of mirth, an artificially induced town meeting of thundering yuks that cues responses the way some movies deploy sad music to signal when it's appropriate to sob. It's the old herd mentality: If others are laughing, it must be funny.

You and I are too smart for this, though. Why just the other night, I heard myself guffawing loudly at HBO's "Sex and the City," a maverick comedy that dares to be laugh-trackless. I looked around and found no one in the room urging me to laugh or laughing to set an example so that I would laugh, too. No one was goosing me with a cattle prod or pinching the corners of my Play-Doh mouth into a smile.

Yes, I'm mighty proud to announce that in the solitude of my little work space, I had found humor on my own.

Just the other day I came across something by a neuroscientist claiming that hearty laughter is not possible without a social connection between the giver of the humor and the recipient. Say what? I knew he was wrong when I roared at his hypothesis, and I'd never met him.

I mention it in conjunction with this happy news: A whopping six of 16 new comedies in prime time this fall do not have laugh tracks. Yup, when it comes to figuring out when to laugh or not laugh at these shows, you're on your own. I'm fairly certain you can handle it.

Stow the giddiness, though. This is not the first time laugh-trackless comedies have arrived in a bunch, so don't embrace them as the unstoppable surge that finally breaks the dam. If anything, they're a small dent. After all, about 80% of prime time's holdover comedies run with canned laughter of some type, whether fully electronic or sweetened hilarity from studio audiences.

Some of this flows from habit--the decadent tradition of "Honey, I'm home" setting off howls--the rest from prime time's tonnage of comedies headed by former club comics. Contrasting with Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld and a few others who went from being comics to TV comedy stars, most are stand-up performers whose styles demand writing for push-button responses, their shows becoming extensions of their acts by stringing together jokes instead of going for situational humor.

It doesn't have to be that way, ladies and germs. The star of "The Bernie Mac Show" is a stand-up comic, yet the highly original pilot for his new Fox comedy is the antithesis of one-linerdom in chronicling his adventures as a "tough-love" uncle to his sister's kids. As a bonus, no canned laughs.

Now I have to admit that even I, the great enlightened one, cannot always detect laughs without assistance. Take the pilot episode for the WB's laugh-tracked new "Men, Women & Dogs," which opens with a male chef preparing food in a chic cafe while ogling a gorgeous babe seated at a table. When her date departs, the chef beams.

Only when I heard waves of laughter did I realize this was funny.

Or take (please!) the pilot for NBC's new "Inside Schwartz," whose bachelor hero is under the sheets with his girlfriend when he says, "I love you," and she replies, "I think we should see other people."

Before the laugh track, I had no clue.

Yet seriously, is it a coincidence that the funniest new fall comedies have no laugh tracks? In fact, canned rim shots would smother some of their humor, which needs room to breathe.

Before leaving for work in the first "Danny" on CBS, Daniel Stern's character asks his retired dad, played by Robert Prosky, how he plans to spend his day. "I thought I'd figure out the e-mail, see what that's about," he replies. Delivered by Prosky with earnest wonder, it's a grand line that conveys with gentle, unmannered wit the gap dividing generations when it comes to home computer use that the younger crowd takes for granted.

Catching up with that message takes about half a beat, though, during which instantaneous laughter would squelch it.

That also applies to the WB's weirdly funny new comedy, "Maybe It's Me," whose angst-ridden 15-year-old protagonist writes in her private journal: "Today, I did something so terrible. It's almost biblical. I denied my mother three times."

As in Peter denying Christ, a slender windpipe of subtle humor that a laugh track would crush.

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