4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Is Charlie Brown a counterculture icon?

Let’s investigate the history of the laugh track

Bare tree, unadorned humor.
Bare tree, unadorned humor.

Dear Hipster:

Immanuel Kant famously proposed that people should be treated as “ends in themselves,” not as a means to an end. As a corollary of that principle, people are supposed to help themselves and others achieve their own ends. Of course, you have heard the old chestnut about how the end justifies the means, right? I want to explore those ideas in relation to counterculture, which is where you come in, because hipsters are counterculture figures. Specifically, is counterculture and end in and of itself, or is it a means to some other end?

— Taylor

Although history is filled with hipsters and other counterculture figures who embraced the idea of counterculture as an end in itself, stepping outside the mainstream has always been a means to a noble end. Since it’s summer, I will use a Christmas-themed pop culture simile to drive the point home. However, before I start talking about Charlie Brown, let me ask you this: do you know the true story of TV laugh tracks? I bet that you, like most faithful sitcom fans, assume the laugh track has benign origins related to the superficial but understandable purpose of tricking viewers into thinking a show is funnier than it is. You’d be wrong, because in reality, the history of the laugh track is neither simple nor benign.

As to its complexity: up until the 1980s, all laugh tracks were the work of one production company. The handful of sound engineers who provided canned laughter would carefully tailor the laughter to reflect the comedy on screen. This leads to the more sinister question of why did we have laugh tracks in the first place? The answer, horrifyingly, is that, for about forty years, TV executives believed viewers would not know the difference between a comedy and a drama unless producers employed a laugh track to instruct people on what was funny. This combination of facts is among the weirdest and most bitingly cynical things I know about the history of popular entertainment. So badly mistrusting humanity that you can’t credit them the ability to distinguish between serious and jocular... it boggles the mind!

Now that you know how entrenched the culture of laugh tracks is in Hollywood comedy, you can really appreciate how monumentally countercultural it was for A Charlie Brown Christmas to eschew the laugh track. The 1965 special, which has become an iconic piece of sardonic humor that has even the most detached hipster tipping his hat in respect, famously refused demands from CBS to add a laugh track so viewers wouldn’t miss a punchline. If you’ve ever seen the movie, or read the Peanuts comic strip, you know easy punchlines are emphatically not part of the formula. There’s a reason that, when I was a little kid, I didn’t think Peanuts was all that funny, while now I think it’s hilarious. The challenge of picking out jokes is a big part of the sardonic humor, and you can imagine how badly a laugh track would have cheapened the entire experience. The show’s creators knew that, and they ignored conventional wisdom because they wanted to do something new and out-of-the-blue; something that would have people scratching their heads and questioning what they thought they knew about life, humor, and the holidays. Playing it safe by doing what everybody else did would never have gotten them where they wanted to be, so breaking the “rules” was an effective means of getting to an important end. Hipster Immanuel Kant would certainly have approved.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

MetlBar Creamery & Café not just ice cream for breakfast

Boozy ice cream maker brings Southern brunch to North Park
Bare tree, unadorned humor.
Bare tree, unadorned humor.

Dear Hipster:

Immanuel Kant famously proposed that people should be treated as “ends in themselves,” not as a means to an end. As a corollary of that principle, people are supposed to help themselves and others achieve their own ends. Of course, you have heard the old chestnut about how the end justifies the means, right? I want to explore those ideas in relation to counterculture, which is where you come in, because hipsters are counterculture figures. Specifically, is counterculture and end in and of itself, or is it a means to some other end?

— Taylor

Although history is filled with hipsters and other counterculture figures who embraced the idea of counterculture as an end in itself, stepping outside the mainstream has always been a means to a noble end. Since it’s summer, I will use a Christmas-themed pop culture simile to drive the point home. However, before I start talking about Charlie Brown, let me ask you this: do you know the true story of TV laugh tracks? I bet that you, like most faithful sitcom fans, assume the laugh track has benign origins related to the superficial but understandable purpose of tricking viewers into thinking a show is funnier than it is. You’d be wrong, because in reality, the history of the laugh track is neither simple nor benign.

As to its complexity: up until the 1980s, all laugh tracks were the work of one production company. The handful of sound engineers who provided canned laughter would carefully tailor the laughter to reflect the comedy on screen. This leads to the more sinister question of why did we have laugh tracks in the first place? The answer, horrifyingly, is that, for about forty years, TV executives believed viewers would not know the difference between a comedy and a drama unless producers employed a laugh track to instruct people on what was funny. This combination of facts is among the weirdest and most bitingly cynical things I know about the history of popular entertainment. So badly mistrusting humanity that you can’t credit them the ability to distinguish between serious and jocular... it boggles the mind!

Now that you know how entrenched the culture of laugh tracks is in Hollywood comedy, you can really appreciate how monumentally countercultural it was for A Charlie Brown Christmas to eschew the laugh track. The 1965 special, which has become an iconic piece of sardonic humor that has even the most detached hipster tipping his hat in respect, famously refused demands from CBS to add a laugh track so viewers wouldn’t miss a punchline. If you’ve ever seen the movie, or read the Peanuts comic strip, you know easy punchlines are emphatically not part of the formula. There’s a reason that, when I was a little kid, I didn’t think Peanuts was all that funny, while now I think it’s hilarious. The challenge of picking out jokes is a big part of the sardonic humor, and you can imagine how badly a laugh track would have cheapened the entire experience. The show’s creators knew that, and they ignored conventional wisdom because they wanted to do something new and out-of-the-blue; something that would have people scratching their heads and questioning what they thought they knew about life, humor, and the holidays. Playing it safe by doing what everybody else did would never have gotten them where they wanted to be, so breaking the “rules” was an effective means of getting to an important end. Hipster Immanuel Kant would certainly have approved.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Slammed down by the bullring

Dragged down to the bottom
Next Article

Walt Whitman: a prelude to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

One of the first poets to utilize free verse
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Art Reviews — W.S. Di Piero's eye on exhibits Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Best Buys — San Diego shopping Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits City Lights — News and politics Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Famous Former Neighbors — Next-door celebs Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Here's the Deal — Chad Deal's watering holes Just Announced — The scoop on shows Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Of Note — Concert picks Out & About — What's Happening Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Pour Over — Grab a cup Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Sports — Athletics without gush Street Style — San Diego streets have style Suit Up — Fashion tips for dudes Theater Reviews — Local productions Theater antireviews — Narrow your search Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Waterfront — All things ocean Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close