In Helen Razer’s recent examination of the history of the laugh track for The Saturday Paper -
– which is something of a must-read, if only for the part where she says:
It is not so much that the laughter is immediately infectious – psychological studies indicate that a laugh track or an enhanced “live” track, such as that used to augment sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience, does not prompt viewers to laugh.
Then two paragraphs later:
The value of a joke, then, is determined by the inhuman mechanism of a laugh market and our laughter, heretofore a spontaneous physical reaction, becomes labour. Comedy becomes less a matter of jokes than it is of biopolitics. Just as a prisoner is required to undertake certain physical actions at certain times of the day, any poor sod doomed by habit to watch the immensely unfunny The Big Bang Theory is led by the culture’s wardens to chuckle at nothing.
Prompting us to wonder if anyone – editors, the publisher, Razer herself – read over her story before publishing it, because last time we checked it’s hard to see how the “chuckle wardens” of the laugh track could lead anyone to do anything considering she just said a laugh track does not even prompt viewers to laugh, let alone “chuckle at nothing”, c’mon people this kind of garbled rambling garbage is just the kind of shit we need to-
Ahem. Sorry about that.
Anyway, in that article she also writes this:
This nation’s most artful comedy in years is Josh Thomas’s heartbreaking Please Like Me, whose sad-funny season finale this week was made possible by a production team that would not even pitch the show as comedy let alone remind audiences of the constraints of the genre by the use of enhanced or artificial laughter.
Please Like Me wasn’t pitched as a comedy? Somebody should have told the ABC, as we went back into our archives and found this press release from 2012 with “COMEDY” stamped all over it:
JOSH THOMAS show goes into production for ABC1
Filming starts today on the new comedy series PLEASE LIKE ME, written by and starring comedian Josh Thomas (Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation). PLEASE LIKE ME will be shot on location in Melbourne and will air on ABC 1 later this year.
Inspired by Josh’s award-winning stand-up comedy, PLEASE LIKE ME is a 6 x 30 series about growing up quickly, and about realising that your parents are not heroes, but dopes with no idea what’s going on – just like you.
Award-winning stand-up comedian Josh Thomas is the Generation Y team captain on Network Ten’s Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation. He has appeared on The 7PM Project, Good News Week, Rove, ABC TV Q&A, and as host of the 2011 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala. In 2010, he was nominated for a TV Week Logie Award for Most Popular New Male Talent and won the GQ Comedian of the Year Award. He was the curator of the Inaugural Brisbane International Comedy Festival.
Josh Thomas says ”I feel a little bit guilty about all of these very talented people running around doing all this work because of what I typed up on my laptop late at night whilst drinking wine and probably also watching Hairspray.”
As well as writing the series, Josh Thomas stars in PLEASE LIKE ME as Josh, alongside his cavoodle, John. The series also stars Debra Lawrance (Home & Away) as Mum, David Roberts (Offspring) as Dad, Judi Farr (Unfolding Florence) as Aunty Peg and Caitlin Stasey (Tomorrow When The War Began, Neighbours).
ABC Head of Comedy Debbie Lee says “We’re so happy to be bringing Josh’s world to ABC TV in what promises to be such a funny and surprising series. PLEASE LIKE ME will show Josh’s talents in a whole new light.”
>Producer Todd Abbott says “We’re thrilled that the ABC have been such staunch supporters of this project, and that we’re going into production while it’s almost feasible for Josh Thomas to play a 20-year-old.
“The scripts that he has written have attracted a top-shelf crew and a dream cast.”
PLEASE LIKE ME is directed by AACTA and AFI award-winner Matthew Saville (The Slap, Cloudstreet, We Can Be Heroes) and produced by respected comedy producer Todd Abbott (Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey, Rove, The Dream with Roy & H.G.). Executive Producers are Todd Abbott, Kevin Whyte, Josh Thomas, Debbie Lee.
Heaven forbid we suggest that Thomas and everyone associated with Please Like Me – including its many fans in the media – were more than happy to call it a comedy right up until the moment they noticed people weren’t laughing.
Or, going by the ratings this season, watching: no-one seems to have made public the ratings for the last few episodes that we can find, which tells us it wasn’t in the top 20 digital channel shows. Considering the massive amount of promotion it received, that can’t be a good look.
On the positive side, with series three of Please Like Me already locked in thanks to the show being bought and paid for by US cable network Pivot, there’s a strong chance it’ll be shown on ABC1 whether the ABC likes it or not:
As a longer-term measure, the ABC is expected to closely explore shutting down multi-channel ABC2 and moving its youth-focused content to its main channel or online catch-up service iView.
Still, more comedy on ABC1 is always good news as far as we’re concerned… oh right, Please Like Me isn’t a comedy, is it? Razer’s incoherent drivel highlights a perpetual problem with this kind of dramedy: it’s not funny enough to be a comedy, not good enough as a drama to stand as a drama, and largely supported by people who lack both a sense of humour and even a rudimentary idea of how comedy works.
[for example, the real reason why Please Like Me doesn't have a laugh track, above and beyond stylistic reasons - a laugh track would make it extremely difficult to claim it was a drama, for starters - is that, by being a single camera sitcom (that is, one filmed like a drama, and in contrast to traditional three camera sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends, which are filmed in front of a studio audience), there's simply no plausible place for the laughter to be coming from. Single camera sitcoms don't have laugh tracks because there's no audience there to be laughing (or not): Razer's article about "oh no, laugh tracks are coming back, what does this mean for our culture, damn you capitalism" totally ignores the fact that what she's really talking about is a drift back to three camera, studio-based sitcoms and away from the single-camera format that shows like Larry Sanders originated and later efforts like Scrubs popularised.]
As a result, Please Like Me ends up being praised simply for what it is: it’s about young people living in the inner-city, Thomas is playing a gay character that isn’t a stereotype, it combines jokes with drama to make both stand out against the other, it takes a thoughtful approach to the subject of mental illness. All this is true as far as it goes; unfortunately most of the discussion around this season hasn’t reached the point of “is any of this any good?”
We’ve probably said way too much about Please Like Me this year, so we’ll cut this one short. Suffice to say, for us combining comedy and drama isn’t some kind of magic act that conceals the fact that neither the drama or the comedy were good enough to stand on their own. Mix in a lot of sloppy writing, erratic characterisation, an emphasis on “funny lines” rather than actual jokes, and an approach to drama largely built on “people dying is sad”, and you have an effort that, to be honest, we’d rather forget.
So we’ll probably be writing more snark about it any day now.