Comedy is defined as ‘any discourse or work generally intended to amuse by inducing laughter’ and sitcoms and film tend to order their audience to laugh. Sitcoms are constructed in that a character will say something ‘amusing’ and then pause while a laugh track plays. This is the audiences’ cue to laugh, the moment we are ordered to find this funny. If the laugh track were absent however, viewers would be less likely to laugh. In this clip of Friends for example, the laugh track is removed. In the episode, two characters (Rachel and Ross) got married and have no recollection of it the following morning and their friends inform them of it. Because the actors are waiting for the laugh track to pass, there are long pauses between lines and moments where they are motionless, (particularly evident when Ross and Rachel point at each other in horror). Also, what was originally a comic scene is suddenly more serious in tone.
Recent cinema however, has begun to draw attention to comedy’s tendency to tell us when to laugh. In Edward Scissorhands for example, there is a scene where Edward is undergoing an etiquette lesson from his creator. In the scene, the inventor is informing his creation about manners and common courtesy. He then moves on and begins to read poetry to him. When he gets to the ‘punch line’ of a particular, he pauses and looks at Edward, who appears confused. The inventor tells him: ‘Go ahead, smile, it’s funny’ and Edward slowly and very artificially grins. The idea of comedy as constructed is further underlined in this scene because the ‘audience’ here is artificial in that Edward is a machine built by the inventor and whose smile has thereby literally been ‘constructed’.
Another cinematic work that similarly draws attention to comedy as something carefully constructed is David Lynch’s Rabbits, a surrealist sitcom that follows the lives three humanoid rabbits in a living room reminiscent of the stereotypical ‘apartment’ sitcoms usually take place in. Their conversation is disjointed and some of the lines are punctuated by a laugh track. However, the laugh track directly challenges the sitcom formula because it intrusively plays when a character delivers a line that is not inherently funny, as if, according to the article ‘Making sense of David Lynch’, ‘to say that the audience of a sitcom will laugh regardless of what they are seeing’. Loud laughter is heard, for example, when one of the rabbits asks ‘What time is it?’ Also, the duration of the laugh track or typical ‘applause’ heard when a character enters a room is played for too long. The rabbits stand eerily still and it becomes very obvious that they are waiting for it to pass.
Therefore, the viewer’s laugh is just as constructed as the sitcom.
The first episode of Rabbits. Note how the rabbit in the suit ‘waits’ for the audience to finish their applause:
The scene from Edward Scissorhands in which the inventor literally makes Edward laugh:
For a detailed discussion on Rabbits and comedy parody, see here:
Friends. David Crane and Martha Kauffman. Warner Bros. Television, 1994-2004. Television.
Edward Scissorhands. Dir. Tim Burton. 20th Century Fox, 1990. Film.
‘Making Sense of David Lynch: A Rabbits Tale.’ The Artifice, 14 June. 2014. Accessed 13 Feb. 2015. Web.
Rabbits. Dir. David Lynch. 2002. Television.