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MESSING WITH GENRE

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I’m a fan of the laugh track.

One of my career goals is to bring the laugh track back to Australian audiences, and for it to be successful this time around. The fact that Aussie viewers tolerate a laugh track on US sitcoms, like The Big Bang Theory and Friends, but hate it on Australian television, is a mystery. In my role as a lecturer at AFTRS, I encouraged students to put a laugh track on their comedic short films, just to see how that would change the viewing experience. I even laid a laugh track onto my online lecture on sitcoms… and it worked a treat! 

How does a laugh track change the way we watch television?

Is the laugh track an out of date concept? Do we still want to imagine we’re watching a live performance, and not a sitcom? Maybe we’re all too sophisticated for laugh tracks… 

Kevin can F**k Himself raises a lot of questions about the laugh track, and what reaction it provokes from viewers. When the protagonist Allison interacts with her husband, she steps into a sitcom set: it looks so much like the living room in According to Jim; the dialogue follows the sitcom conventions we’re used to – set up line, escalation line, escalation line, climax line; and the laugh track is ominously present. It’s an idyllic, domestic life. Gosh, this show is even too polite to swear in its title. However, in other scenes, the protagonist lives her life, in a gritty, more realistic set, with different lighting, honest storytelling, and no laugh track.

This series turns the sitcom genre on its head, and messes with ours.

The funny thing is, when we hear the laugh track, we don’t laugh. It makes us really uncomfortable. We feel as trapped as Allison. 

So, laugh track, or no laugh track? Maybe this scene from Game of Thrones will help you decide. 

This manipulated clip from Friends, without the laugh track, demonstrates how essential it is for this genre. I remember hating The Office when it first came out. Maybe that’s because it didn’t compute. It messed with my expectations.

I didn’t know how to watch a comedy without instructions on when to laugh.

When I co-created Help! I’m a Teenage Outlaw, we wrote the script with the laugh track playing in our heads. In the end, the show was shot on location in Prague, which meant a laugh track wouldn’t fit, as traditionally, it’s only used in studio. We can laugh about it now, but I’ve always been disappointed by the fact the show is missing a laugh track. 

Is it time to embrace the genre blend? I mean, REALLY embrace it? It’s a clever way to give your original series a unique edge. Especially if you land on a genre bend that we’ve never seen before – like Kevin Can F** Himself, or Cop Rock.  What’s Cop Rock? 

In 1990, Stephen Bochco (creator of Hill Street Blues) created a short-lived musical TV drama. What is clever about this series, or weird, is that the performances and the script are in the style of of cop procedural. The musical element sits alongside serious dramatic story.

You will thank me for introducing you to this delicious genre blend:

Your challenge, Scripteasers? Be brave. You know the rules of the genre you’re writing for. Now, break them. Add a laugh track. See what happens. How does the story change? What reaction do you provoke from your viewers? How will you know it’s a bad idea if you’re too afraid to try it? 

Just kidding. Or am I? 

If you’d like to know when I’m running my next workshop, sign up for updates – https://screenwritingscriptease.com.au/contact/

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