12 Mar REINVENTING THE LAUGH TRACK
Laugher, being the best medicine, has never failed to attract me. Comedy holds the ability to make emotions understandable, and sitcoms attempt to use characters that feel real to examine situations so we can better understand our lives. Some sitcoms, like all forms of media, have cleared the path for normalizing discrimination and marginalization. From Mary-Kay and Johnny to Friends, sitcoms have set a precedent of focusing on those who already hold a great deal of privilege. Other sitcoms, ones that reject this precedent, have added humility and humanity to our own perceptions of ourselves. These are shows that break the mold, not the ones perpetuating the sitcom norms based in oppression surrounding race, gender, class, disability, and sexuality.
Laugh tracks were once used to sustain power dynamics that were influencing society; however they can be reinvented to include and highlight the stories that were once discarded. In a growing number of occurrences, the laugh track has been removed from sitcoms all together. This expands who’s able to see themselves in these situations, and in consequence, who’s able to find relief in laughter. In the slums of my life, I’ve binge-watched sitcoms. The laugh track convinces us that we should laugh, however there are often moments where its timing is inappropriate. The isolation that many negative feelings imbue, dissipates as I find myself laughing at scenarios immensely similar to my own. To laugh at moments on television that are reflective of my own life, is like laughing at the very situations I have experienced. Comedy helps us to understand ourselves, and sitcoms attempt to use characters that feel real to allow us to delve deeper into what we find uncomfortable or unnerving.
The 1950s marked the decade in which sitcoms were introduced to the world. Since its rise to prominence, television has allowed itself to represent various aspects of everyday society through a white, male lens. Through this view, white women became “the middle-class home maker,” while Black women were forced into even stricter roles, if given an opportunity. Asian, Indigenous, and Latina women were largely missing from the picture. These disparities in race and gender, to this day, have not been resolved. Shows such as Father Knows Best and The Honeymooners depicted the middle-class home maker trope, reinforcing societal ideals that many in the feminist movements of the 50s and 60s were working to break away from. As feminist movements gained traction, the same advancements were in television. The problem lies in how the first wave of feminism marginalized women of colour, LGBQT2S+ individuals, disabled women, impoverished women, and other groups that are continuously working today for their rights to be recognised across the world. Widely, sitcoms did not depict the equality that many were seeking. Instead, white, straight, cisgender female characters were alleviated from their stay-at-home roles, in shows like I Love Lucy, while much of the rest of the format of a sitcom remained the same.
Black women began to see some representation in the 1980s, however this does not mean that these representations were meaningful or realistic, with around 9.8% of characters on television being Black. Around this time, the prevalence of Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous characters remained significantly low. Little improvement has been made in diversity since the 1980s, while different stereotypes have come in and out of prominence on the small screen. Research on sitcoms in relation to cultural attitudes and awareness is largely centred around American culture. While Canadian culture is often very similar, the Broadcasting Act of Canada and CanCon require a certain amount of Canadian television content to be made per year. In 2015, the quota was re-designed to ensure that 50% of prime-time television is Canadian. Canadian television is not all that different from American, however, as Canadian television continues to be largely white.
Black-ish and Kim’s Convenience, powered by writers and actors who truly identify with the characters they portray, have broken the sitcom mold , that has historically relied on exploiting and perpetuating the “othering” of groups. Such shows have prioritized diversity and inclusion at every level of production, which has led to a great deal of praise from the rest of the world. In reinventing the laugh track, essentially, these sitcoms have let wider groups identify with the situations and laugh at their own faults. In many cases, the laugh-track has been completely removed. The show is thus no longer telling the audience when to laugh, nor influencing them to laugh at moments that shouldn’t be a punch linet. Not only is the audience able to personally interpret the content more than they were before, shows themselves are able to initiate more complex conversations on such issues.
The Conners acts as a test-subject in this society on whether or not a show can be redeemed from their racist past. The creator of this show, Roseanne Barr, has been famed for her deeply insensitive, racist, and xenophobic comments and actions. Since the production company has fired her from the show and Barr has relinquished her rights, her show continues as, “The Conners.” The show’s continued success either points to a sitcom’s ability to alter perspectives and biases, or how the public fails to be critical in the television they watch. While it is not my place to decide whether this show deserves its longevity, I found myself quite disappointed in their lack of recognition of Barr’s actions after her exit from the show. The show swiftly pushed their past alignment with Donald Trump under the rug, which was first implemented at Barr’s demand. While it would have been an opportunity for every character to grow and address the climate of oppression in our world, the show’s production instead exemplified a great deal of passivity in addressing their past flaws.
Many shows that were once embroiled in praise for their diversity are now rightfully viewed as lackluster. Perceptions are changing, and with that television may soon follow. Qualitative research, such as the studies I mentioned earlier, allow us to track these disparities and ensure greater change arrives. While certain social circles may praise and engage with media that includes diversity, the reality is that the percentages are staggeringly disproportionate. Sitcoms that were once famed for their representations of marginalized groups, such as Girlfriends, are now able to be criticized for their perpetuation of stereotypes and moments of misogyny, as more nuanced depictions have entered the small screen. Reinventing the laugh track will be an ongoing process as long as sitcoms are around. It is essential that they continue to evolve and enhance, as sitcoms that go against the norm have let wider groups feel represented and allowed them to laugh at relatable situations.
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