TV

The sound and the fury

Sitcoms added canned laughter to make sure we knew when to laugh at poorly written jokes that the studio audience didn't laugh at, if there indeed was one. Now reality shows have their own version of that.
October 1, 2010

When reality TV burst onto the broadcast TV stage a decade ago, it became immediately popular in part because it offered an alternative to what television had generally become: stale.

Sitcoms were copying each other rampantly – remember all of the Friends clones? – and there seemed to be a dearth of originality or creativity. Non-fiction filled in a void, and helped shake the slumbering beast that TV had become.

As reality TV has matured, unscripted TV has found its groove, but the laziness that impacted sitcoms and drama is starting to creep in. It’s happening in various ways, as corners are cut by soft-scripting what’s supposed to be genuine and organic. In other cases, editing together full sentences from fragments is a step used to compensate for weaknesses elsewhere.

There’s also another particularly egregious and increasingly irritating development: the use of sound effects and orchestration for emphasis.

Call it reality TV’s laugh track.

Sitcoms added canned laughter to make sure we knew when to laugh at poorly written jokes that the studio audience didn’t laugh at, if there indeed was one. Now reality shows have their own version of that.

It usually comes from a cymbal, and whether it’s part of an original score or a pre-recorded sound effect, those constant clangs have one purpose, and that’s to alert viewers to something that should already be very obvious. For example, if cast member A says something mean about cast member B, we’ll see cast member B and hear a cymbal clang to make sure we noticed.

This use of sound effects is everywhere, from the Food Network to Animal Planet, from CBS to Fox. To varying degrees, you’ll hear reality TV’s laugh track on all kinds of shows. Survivor and Big Brother both use it, as do MasterChef and Chopped. The sounds are used to illustrate skepticism, shock, surprise, amusement and other emotions.

The more they’re used, the more egregious they become. Food Network’s Chopped, for example, is a great competition series, but for some reason, we hear this ‘laugh track’ non-stop during the judging. A judge compliments a competitor’s food and we’ll see another competitor’s face and hear a cymbal clang, so we’re aware that something good about their competitor means bad news for them.

If every part of the machine – from casting to production to editing – is working well, viewers will draw their own conclusions and reactions from a show. They don’t need to be explicitly told when to feel something. They should just feel it.

As sitcoms came back to life, they took new forms, including imitating documentaries and non-fiction TV (see The Office and others). Along with the multi-camera format, the laugh track disappeared from the very best sitcoms as producers found ways to tell stories that didn’t have to insult their audiences in the process. As reality TV enters its teens, it’s time for some similar reinvention.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes realityblurred.com and writes TV criticism for MSNBC.com.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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