Shows That Should Have Canned Laughter

Cougar Town is more enjoyable to me now than when it started, and I think I enjoy watching it more than Modern Family; it’s not nearly as well-done overall, but it has moments of crazy spontenaity that sometimes break through into something surprising, and the lowbrow goofiness of it is sometimes kind of refreshing. There is something about it that has consistently bothered me since it began, though, which is that most of the performances — and the way those performances are filmed — seem pitched all wrong for this one-camera, no-laugh-track format. Most of the acting, from Courteney Cox on down, is broad and a little loud, with bug-eyed looks and long pauses. It’s also statically staged (many scenes just have characters standing there, with no real physical component to the scene). It really feels like the acting and filming of this series was based on the 1967 handbook “How To Make a Columbia Screen Gems Sitcom: Look bug-eyed, pause a lot, and keep the cameras locked down.” And Cox, Christa Miller and other actors deliver their lines in an over-emphatic way that is familiar to anyone who’s ever watched an episode of I Dream of Jeannie or The Partridge Family; there’s nothing quite so jarring as overacting in an empty studio. (Though this doesn’t have a great deal to do with the lack of an audience; How I Met Your Mother doesn’t use an audience and has a much more lively rhythm, and many shows that do have audiences have had faster rhythms and snappier delivery. It’s just a choice some single-camera shows make for some reason.)

Which means that, while I would never say this for 30 Rock or Community or even a so-so example of the genre like The Middle, I think Cougar Town would work better with a canned laugh track. The rhythm of the show is so hobbled that the dialogue delivery practically cries out for a laugh track to improve the pacing and flow, and fill in the dead spots after each line. I figure they’ll eventually try to fill these gaps by slathering the scenes in background music, the way many shows do; but a laugh track would probably work better. That’s one of the reasons for the existence of the laugh track in the first place, that TV and radio comedy have their roots in the theatre, and it’s awkward and unnatural to have dead silence after constant pausing and emphatic delivery. The acting/directing on Cougar Town is so static and emphatic that it needs something to keep it from feeling hammy. I mean, a typical outdoor scene Cougar Town is not far from a scene like this in terms of its style, but the people in this scene have a laugh track to keep them from seeming like weird-talking space aliens.