Khary Francis Dr.

Stephen Sutherland Expos 20: Images and Words Revisions of Essay II 03/24/05 An Ethical Judgment: The Role of Canned Laughter in the Family Comedy Series In the essay “In Plato’s Cave” of her collection On Photography, Susan Sontag describes the act of photographing as “more than passive observing” (12). For Sontag “it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going to happen” (12). The photographer finds himself caught behind the camera, faced with a decision to intervene in the act unfolding before him or to capture the shot on film. Through his choice of non-intervention, he agrees to what is about to take place. In a more deliberate way, the genre of family-based comedy series accented with the addition of canned laughter has also introduced an aspect of non-intervention in what is being depicted on screen. But unlike the tacit encouragement suggested by photography, canned laughter directly expresses approval and encouragement of the acts portrayed. Through the family-based television comedy, images and words have taken on a new relationship; one where laughter goes to strongly convey a concrete interpretation of the images and an ethical judgment. Neil Postman says it best in the chapter entitled “Media and Epistemology” of his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In a paragraph addressing his approval of television’s “undisguised trivialities” (16) and disdain for “what [television] claims as significant” (16), Postman asserts that the medium is “most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural

conversations” (16). While Postman is more concerned with the diminished quality of cultural discourse and the backward step in “the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth” (16), I am more troubled by television’s potent power to shape reality by influencing our moral code and actions. Specifically through canned laughter, the family-based comedy has succeeded not merely in influencing the way we determine our perceptions of the world, but what those very perceptions are. As a case in point, I will take the example of Full House, a family-based television series which enjoyed popular success in the late eighties and early nineties. The show is a comedy based on the premise of a single father’s attempt to raise three daughters with the help of his best friend and late wife’s brother, Jessie. This show is among many - Family Matters, Smart Guy, Sister Sister and Home Improvement - that aired in the nineties and ran audio tracks including canned laughter. As a genre, these family-based comedies have a particular power in convincing the viewer of the reality of what is depicted on screen. By depicting family life, they portray life as it is known to most viewers. The majority of our experiences occur within the home among the people we live with. For this reason, such shows hold a particular resonance with their audience who are often able to relate with the experiences and emotional responses of the characters on screen. Though designed for viewing by the entire family, these programs often find a target audience among preteen to teenage viewers and so parcel out an appropriate amount of time to school life. Full House in particular represents a fairly accurate distribution of time spent at the home and school environment. This great similarity to everyday life increases the voyeuristic aspect implicit in all television viewing. When we switch on a T.V. we instantaneously gain access to the pretended lives of countless fictional characters. We make a deliberate choice to become voyeur and the

control we have in switching on and off the television adds to its likeness as a instrument of espionage. When considered in this manner, television becomes more than a simple means of entertainment. It is a tool of observation, behind which the viewer can monitor the lives of people he imagines to be just as human as himself. The responses of the characters to different situations and their ways of dealing with emotion all become possible in real life and so television is transformed into a teaching aid, particularly for that younger generation of viewers who are inclined to imitate the behavior they observe around them. It is this danger, of television’s becoming a serious tool of learning and representation of significant human relations that Postman feared. With this new medium for depiction of ordinary life come all the problems of manipulation that technology presents. Among the largest is the use of the collaboration of sound (in the form of canned laughter) and images to convey ethical messages. But before we can fully show how this is done in the family based comedy, we must ask what really is this laughter neatly interposed between scenes and strategically positioned after the comments and actions of characters. To whom does it belong? The simple answer is that this laughter is the response of an imaginary audience, an aspect which suggests the genre’s likening to a theatrical production. But on deeper analysis, this laughter represents much more than the response of an imaginary onstage audience. It goes to suggest to the viewer the response had by viewers just like him, connecting those watching the program from their respective corners of the globe. With the realization of this function, canned laughter raises for us a serious concern - it is completely fabricated. Neither mine, nor yours nor any viewer’s reaction is sounded when an eruption of laughter is heard in response to an event on screen, yet we are led to believe that this is the response of the collective whole. Canned laughter does not imitate the hearty chuckle of one man

or woman but seeks to represents a chorus of chuckles, giggles or guffaws. This implies a general response and so this tool of audio technology becomes the normative response to the character’s behavior, a societal response to the show’s happenings. However, it is not merely its quality as a societal response that gives canned laughter great potency in making an ethical comment. Like Sontag’s photographic nonintervention, canned laughter conveys a sense of approval and encouragement for whatever is unfolding on screen. It undermines any sense of seriousness an act may carry and so, whenever laughter is cued in response to a characters actions, the viewer is automatically left with the impression that was has just transpired is of no grave or significant moral concern. It is because of this quality that we so often use laughter to break an uneasy silence or grave mood. Laughter is quite simply a diffuser of serious situations and to use it as a societal response as suggested in canned laughter is to say that the majority of society considers what has just transpired to be of no serious concern. Moreover, laughter implies a favor for what is being laughed at as it is a sign of happiness and contentment. To laugh at something is essentially to say “I like that. I have no problem with it…carry on!” We can now see how canned laughter becomes a potent tool in conveying a moral message. Take for example the episode of Full House entitled “The Test”. In this episode, DJ, one of the three daughters of the main protagonist, Danny, is preparing to take her SAT’s. The majority of the episode consists of a depiction of a dream had by DJ the morning before her test. The episode provides a clear segue into the dream, signifying the fictional aspect of the events within the dream in relation to DJ’s life on screen. But interestingly, the canned laugher remains a constant throughout the episode. Despite the fictional aspect of the majority of the episode,

laughter remains a tangible response to the events on screen and its ability to pass judgments is maintained. Within the dream, canned laughter is used several times to depict a response to what we might consider morally questionable behavior. Take for instance, the scene where DJ is seen in the middle of taking the test, proctored by a tight-fisted comely woman. Her uncle Jessie then enters the classroom at which point the proctor steps back, throws her hands up in fright and begs, “Please, do what you want with me, do what you want with the children” (Full House: The Test). Her initial reaction is evoked by Jessie’s appearance as his black leather jacket and stubbled cheeks suggest unkemptness typically associated with hoodlums. But after this reaction of fear, the comely proctor takes a double take at Jessie, lowers her voice and with a suggestive smile says, “Please do what you want with me”. Canned laughter immediately erupts, a response which we may consider to be normal as we recognize humor in the situation, but what does this laughter really say about the scene. What judgment does it pass as to the moral aspect of the proctor’s reaction? Here is a woman who considers herself to be in danger, but realizing the attractiveness of her perceived aggressor, chooses instead to throw herself at him. It is this sudden change in reaction that the imagined audience laughs at but what does this response say about the ethical acceptability of women readily offering themselves up to strange but attractive men. The laughter would imply that there is nothing wrong with this reaction at all. That at least, we find it comical and amusing, not at all a serious ethical concern to be addressed or talked about. While it may be argued that the events in this episode occur in a dream and cannot take on the same significance as the character’s reality, television as a medium does not allow us to subconsciously make this distinction. This is expressed in Susan Sontag’s assertion that in

photographs (or in this case of television, a stream of photographs) there is always implicit a grain of truth or reality (5). She states, “The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture” (5). At first glance this may seem only to apply to photographs and not the family-based comedy as presented through television. For the latter presents a known fabricated reality while the former typically conveys things known to exist within the world. But, there is still something about the visual medium which impresses upon its viewer a veracity and truthfulness hard to deny. This is to say, that despite our cognizance of the staged lives of the characters and even the unreality of DJ’s dream, there is something about seeing which forces us subconsciously into believing. So what does this potent power of television to convey a message mean for us today? To me the problem seems largely to lie in its effectiveness and widespread distribution as a tool of instruction. Postman asserts, “We are by now well into a second generation of children for whom television has been their first and most accessible teacher…” (78). If this is true, which casual observation will often evidence, we ought to be concerned with the ethical lessons this medium conveys. Television has become for many an alternate reality. As stated by Postman, “We do not doubt the reality of what we see on television and are largely unaware of the special angle of vision it affords” (79). Though Postman was most likely referring to television’s role in changing our epistemology, his argument also applies to its ability to influence our perceptions of moral and amoral behavior. Television has become a modern day version of Plato’s cave. Like the underlying premise of this allegory, there is currently an existing battle for the souls of men, an underlying struggle to turn them to the direction of ethical truth. Like those who sit unregenerate in Plato’s cave we are chained unknowingly to our sofas, transfixed in the subconscious belief that the

images we see in the family comedy series represent a reality. But it is not merely our belief in the reality of everyday life as presented in the family comedy that is of concern, but our willful acceptance of its postulations of moral and amoral. We are stuck in the world of ethical shadow, captivated by the images and sounds cast upon the television screen by electrode ray guns. But perhaps we should stop and ask ourselves, who’s doing the shooting.

Works Cited Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave.” On Photography. New York: Picador USA, 1977. 3-24 “The Test”. Full House. ABC Family. Cambridge. 22 Mar. 2005.

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