Two and a Half Mensch
Mobutu Sese Seko is a blogger and freelance copywriter and, as such, he is made of money. He supplements his income with assets embezzled from the nation of Zaire from 1965-1997. You can read more political/pop-cultural criticism and dick jokes on his website, Et tu, Mr. Destructo?
Someone linked me to a comic piece on Huffington Post the other day. Watching HuffPo attempt original comedy is pretty interesting. Their output is always the same, something like an Onion article that you forgot about or one that seemed so self-evident that their editorial staff never bothered with in the first place.
Huffpo specializes in old, obvious and earnest. Any creative spark that may be lurking must be filtered out or beaten down through oppressive over-editing. If they tried physical comedy, the end result would be manslaughter after they slowly bludgeoned a man to death with banana-cream pie tins, all the while laughing, uncomprehending mongoloids who don't understand the brute force and trauma of clumsy, obvious repetition. Naturally seeing this video at HuffPo wasn't a surprise:
What was a surprise was that they were going after Two and a Half Men. Since low-hanging fruit observations tarted up to make middlebrow audiences clap represents Huffpo's standard aim with political commentary, bagging on this show seemed like jackhammering the swollen guts of their fanbase to get them to hork up the undifferentiated mash usually fed to them. Either that or someone was updating content that day in their irony-proof shirt.
Then I watched it and was kind of surprised to see it came from CollegeHumor.com. CollegeHumor used to be a place where you could find last week's memes and funny pictures rebranded in a nakedly demographically-targeted manner. Also, boobs. Then they added the guys from Derrick Comedy and started cranking out some really sharp stuff. In 2008, their "Hockey Mom" Disney/Palin satire was spot-on and pretty much announced that they'd "arrived."
That's why this piece is confusing. Two and a Half Men sucks. Everybody knows this. It's about a child -- who doesn't love child actors? -- being raised by Ducky from Pretty in Pink and a man with the mental development of a 12-year-old. The show's dynamic relies on the kid generating premises that force Ducky to make straight-man observations, setting up the mental 12-year-old and a sassy obese woman who looks like the Venus of Willendorf sculpted out of Country Crock. Then they ridicule Ducky for being a woman or a homosexual. Also, there are hot guest star ladies who engage in fucking. Naturally, this show is the most successful comedy on TV.
Nobody really needs to point out how much it sucks, but CollegeHumor went ahead and tried too hard anyway. Two and a Half Men could have done it for them. All CollegeHumor needed to do was strip out the laugh track, maybe add some music to make all the dead air seem less weird, then make people watch the show. Here, try it on for size:
Taking out the laugh track instantly highlights everything you need to know. First, the actors have to mug and wait through the "audience" response, and just because it's an old sitcom staple doesn't make it any less terrible for acting quality. Second, all the blank space tells you how much comedy and story you're not watching. 30 Rock, The Office and all those other single-camera comedies ditched laugh tracks in recent years because the shows were/are driven by the writers. Comedy writing is an exercise in time management. Taking out a whole minute or more for the audience to hear canned laughter means throwing out any story premise that needs a full 22 minutes and also plenty of usable time that could be filled with more gags. Any writer, actor or director who's really serious about the craft of TV entertainment wants to do the most and best he or she can with every show. Filling up airtime with non-story prevents both.
With rare exception, canned laughter tells you that you're not getting the most its creators have to offer. (Or, worse, maybe you are.) After all, you're sitting through filler that wasn't mandated by a short script or just bad circumstance but is actually a standard element of every show they will ever write. What it also tells you is that their best probably isn't that good. Why? Because the laughter is already telling you something else: when the funny things happen. Laugh tracks infantilize audiences, either by making them totally passive on a signals-recognition level or by simply assuming that they are too stupid to enjoy things without prompting. People who need their audiences this helpless and soft-headed are people who aren't funny.
There are two schools of thought that defend the laugh track. The first says that laughter is contagious, and that people will laugh more when they hear others laughing. And that's certainly true some of the time, but it's also true that some people can be delighted by the comedy of a thing without laughing at it, that enjoyment isn't always vocal. Laugh tracks seek uniform reactions from unique individuals.
The second school of thought says that laugh tracks were created so that there would be downtime enabling the audience to laugh without fear of missing a following line, because missing any joke would ruin the show for people. Not only does this suggest that TV producers had never heard of the Marx Brothers, it also presumes they didn't exist. It's also insulting on two other accounts:
- Apparently Americans are too fundamentally retarded to correctively turn up the volume on their own TVs when a funny show comes on.
- Apparently every line intended to be funny actually is funny.