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Heard the one about the TV laugh track?

The funniest thing I ever saw is a scene in an old 1940s short subject starring Leon Errol. Errol, as you remember, was a wizened, wobbly-legged, little bald-headed guy, who always looked as if his wife had just slugged him and he had downed a snort of gin to dull the pain. The scene is a hoity-toity, social gathering of stuffy society swells in a posh mansion. A big-bosomed rich dame is peering over her pince-nez in the midst of a flutter of social equals beneath a grand staircase. Leon, well into the punch, swaying like a sailboat in a squall, balancing a huge piece of whipped-cream-topped cake in one hand, is teetering at the top of the stairs.

"Madame," says a gentleman, "may I escort you to the cake?"

"No, thank you," she sneers. "I'm having mine brrrought to me."

At which, Leon's plate tips and ...

At 10 years old, my philosophy of humor was well-honed by Jack Benny, "Amos 'n' Andy," Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy, and Fred Allen on Sunday night.

The Leon Errol scene is funny for the same reason the Marx Brothers or the 1960s British Beyond the Fringe is funny -- because they are subversive. They puncture pretense.

When Groucho offers a quarter to the stuffed-shirt millionaire, or when the Fringe's Anglican clergyman spins out a homily on "My brother Esau is an hairy man" -- thus mocking every irrelevant sermon ever heard -- we know there is order in the universe, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In recent months I have turned to TV to make me laugh. Last semester, I polled my freshman communications class, to whom I had taken a liking because they did not all drop the course in the first week, on which TV shows I should watch if I wanted to laugh. They advised, by a big majority, "Seinfeld" and "Friends." Then "Frasier," "Mad About You," and "The Simpsons." Two said "Saturday Night Live," but one added, "four years ago."

So I have done my best, surfing around night after night for something to laugh at. And also something to assign my class for the "humor" week in the syllabus.

Because its syndication has spewed it all over the cable dial, I've hit about six "Seinfelds," -- a sitcom about a standup comic and three friends who keep bursting into his New York apartment as if New York apartments were open to anyone who wants to burst in. In an attempt to explain "Seinfeld's" mysterious popularity, some critics have compared it to Abbott and Costello, others to Mickey Mouse (Kramer is Goofy), while others emphasize its "about-nothingness."

In a barely coherent ONBC interview with Charles Grodin, Jerry Seinfeld attributed his success to his ability to "hang out till no one else is left." My colleague at Commonweal, Frank McConnell, sees "Seinfeld" as another contemporary incarnation of Jane Austen, as a Jungian projection of our dealings with the world.

But is the show funny? No. In one rare, truly hilarious skit, two of the guys kidnap a little dog whose barking is annoying Seinfeld's ex-girlfriend, Elaine, and deposit the mutt at the tip of Long Island. In a marvelous parody of all the Lassie movies, this crummy cur scampers hundreds of miles home to go yip-yip-yip under Elaine's window again.

But most of the scripts are about -- and here, unfortunately, is the key to the show's staying power -- relationships and nothing more: If George's girl becomes friends with Elaine, this will inject her into George's other circle; the towel-room attendant at the health club is attracted to Jerry and pursues him, but when the attendant drowns, will Jerry give him mouth-to-mouth?; Kramer has passed a hag of defective condoms to George who is always lusting to score -- and then his girlfriend misses her period.

How are we to react to the dilemma of a woman possibly made pregnant by George's running-gag lust? In the world of sitcoms, the laugh track tells us this is a hilarious situation. Laugh. Ha-ha, ha-ha, whoooop. Ha-ha. Today's network producers, not trusting the material to work for itself, pipe in ha-ha signals to cue us to the alleged punch lines and hold us till the commercials.

The transition from radio to TV was as radical as that from silent black-and-white movies to the talkies and Technicolor of the 1930s. Groucho's quiz show format, considered witty in the '50s, now seems transparently artificial. The great Jack Benny's show is diluted by the obligatory guest star, Bob Hope, who was not witty 50 years ago and is less so now.

As "Frasier's" Kelsey Grammer demonstrated in a TV salute to Jack Benny last November, Benny not only survived the transition to TV, he improved. The classic radio bit where the mugger sticks a gun in Jack's ribs and demands, "Your money or your life," and Jack pauses endless seconds to respond, "I'm thinking it over," is even funnier when we see that Jack is being mugged in the rain, shivering, his collar turned up, water streaming down his face.

As John O'Connor wrote in The New York Times, "In a world where vulgarity and coarseness define so many comic acts, watching Mr. Benny is nothing less than astonishing."

"Amos 'n Andy" -- though Colin Powell, who enjoyed them every week, never guessing he was wrong to do so, and I will be hauled before the Multicultural Thought Police for saying so -- stands up marvelously.

That old scalawag George "Kingfish" Stephens intercepts the mail of his Knights of the Mystic Lodge fraternity brother, Andy, and finds that Andy has an 1877 nickel for which a collector will give trim $250. Kingfish steals the coin from Andy by posing as a medical doctor who will give Andy a physical which requires him to take off his pants -- so Kingfish can go through his pockets. When Kingfish mistakenly deposits the precious coin in a pay phone, he cons Andy into vandalizing the phone booth. When both are arrested and dragged before the judge, Kingfish dumps all the blame on his lodge brother.

These men are hilariously foolish and corrupt, not because they are black but because they are human. "Amos 'n'Andy," while it lasted, brought blacks and whites into the same universe in ways the politically correct people, who never heard or saw the show, could never understand.

Speaking of "vulgarity and coarseness," I didn't catch the C-SPAN replays of Don Imus' gags about Bill Clinton's sex life, but I have logged some research hours watching stand-ups on the cable Comedy Channel, where a high percentage of the gags are about sex, crime, New York, divorce, penises, condoms, religion and race.

There you can find a Southern blonde woman named Brett Butler, of"Grace Under Fire" fame, whose "f***" is bleeped out of her monologue about eight times every three minutes. Bill Clinton, she says, reminds her of "the guy you meet at a bar whose every word is a lie, but you don't want to go home by yourself." You ask him if he's married, and he says, "Funny you should ask, but I want to (bleep) you anyway."

Like most stand-ups, Brett has a store-house of "religious" ticklers. Including one about the Christmas crib in the mall where the Christmas tree falls and "decapitates the baby Jesus" whose head rolls over into J.C. Penney's. This, she says by way of punch line, is the origin of the term "Holy Roller."

Looking for laughs can wear you down. I click back and forth between Jay Leno (gags on the Los Angeles marathon, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Princess Di) and David Letterman (the HBO movie about Letterman, Bob Dole's age, Newt Gingrich, essays by kindergarten children on what they would do if they were Letterman for a day), and I'm turned off by how much of the shows' impact and manic energy are artificially generated by arm waves that signal drum rolls, the studio audience whipped into a screaming, whooping frenzy, fawning announcers and sychophantic bandleaders.

Which doesn't leave me much I can assign to my writing class on humor. My general rule in assigning "popular" culture has always been to assign not something the class will "like" but something they should like, if they knew the "classics" -- like "A Night at the Opera."

I think I'll reach back to the Laurel and Hardy film, "Swiss Miss," the one where Stan has to outwit a Saint Bernard dog to get that little keg of brandy from around the dog's neck. The one where Stan and Ollie are told to maneuver a piano across a swinging rope bridge over an Alpine chasm and when they're halfway across meet a gorilla coming from the other side.
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Title Annotation:lack of humor in television programs
Author:Schroth, Raymond A.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 26, 1996
Words:1452
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