Sunday, January 28, 2007

Laugh all you want

NBC does not have a single show with a laugh track in its current line-up.

The laugh track is slowly being replaced by hand held cameras in comedies like “The Office,” a little bit in “30 Rock,” Fox’s now-canceled “Arrested Development,” and the drama “Friday Night Lights.”

This seems like a cultural moment. It’s a shift in the language of television.

The laugh track aids imagination by location. It allows the home audience to pretend to be somewhere else: part of the studio audience, watching actors play characters. The hand held camera effect aids imagination by content. It allows the home audience to pretend to watch real footage in the comfort of their own home.

Where viewers once wanted to be taken to a magical place, they now want to see magical glimpses of the real world, even if they aren’t real.

The next step is “life tracks”: underneath hand held footage would be the sounds of other living rooms. You’d hear people opening cans of soda, whispering about the action, making out, sitting in creaky chairs, gasping at shocking moments. Maybe a phone rings.

Eventually, audiences become sophisticated enough to follow concurrent plot lines: the visual one on screen and the audio one on the life track. The characters in the living room on the life track would have story lines, possibly relating to the shows they watch. Maybe the life tracks would be different from show to show.

The DVD commentary would be maddening: show, topped by life track, topped by commentary, topped by life track commentary. Television fans would be immediately recognizable on the street: they are the ones walking around with one eye off in space, muttering to themselves, trying to unravel that thick knot of information.