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This Show Was Filmed In Front of a Live Man With a Tape Player

I am about to write a sentence that has never before been written in the history of mankind:

Something funny happened during last week's episode of Yes, Dear.

Before you make the perfectly understandable assumption that I've gone off my medication, I should assure you that I'm talking about funny-peculiar here. I must admit, however, that the most funny-peculiar thing about this episode was that I actually thought it was kind of funny-ha-ha.

Let me explain. I don't watch Yes, Dear very often. I consider it just another in a long line of shows that hope to cash in by recycling 40-year old scripts and populating them with refugees from other crappy, failed sitcoms that were trying to do the same thing. Monday's episode was no different in that respect, being the umpteenth retelling of the "bickering parents show up for baby's birth" plot.

What was unique about Yes, Dear's rendition of this old chestnut was that they staged it as an installment of TLC's A Baby Story, complete with all the documentary-style trappings that show entails. The episode began with the cast gathering excitedly on the couch to watch the airing of a television show; coincidentally, this was something that real people all over the nation were not doing at that very moment. The characters exposited a bit about how they had been chosen to be featured on A Baby Story, made a couple of profoundly lame jokes, and then transitioned into the show-within-a-show.

Now here's the weird part. Within the environment of the documentary format, the jokes suddenly became less groan-inducing. In fact, I caught myself laughing out loud a couple of times, something I do more frequently while having my teeth drilled than during the average Yes, Dear installment.

Initially I thought that the writing staff had gotten hold of some good peyote and, when they came out of their stupor, discovered that they had accidentally written a funny script. But after a few minutes, I realized what had really happened: A Baby Story has no laugh track, so during that portion of the show, the laugh track had been banished.

Now obviously I've seen sitcoms without laugh tracks before, but this was an interesting case. Between Baby Story segments the show would transition back to the cast sitting on the couch watching the show. During these interludes the laugh track would return, and my intense disdain for the show would instantly snap back into place. Seeing sequential scenes both with and without canned laughter made it obvious that the writing in the two types of segments was equally uninspired. But what seemed like pure offal while the laugh track was chortling away merrily somehow turned tolerable as soon as it went away.

This got me thinking. At the moment I consider Scrubs to be the funniest thing on network prime time. Scrubs, of course, has no laugh track. So in comparing the relative quality of sitcoms, it's conceivable that I weigh Scrubs more heavily simply because the laugh track isn't there to annoy me. Is it possible that Scrubs is just as fetid and unpleasant as the nightly shovelful of dung offered up by The WB, but I've been duped into thinking it's better because it doesn't break up its dialogue with prerecorded guffaws?

Then I remembered Watching Ellie. And Hidden Hills. And the dozen or so other shows that have shunned the laugh track specifically because they thought it would somehow legitimize the fecal stew they'd cooked up for their scripts. And I recalled how tedious M*A*S*H became after its laugh track was trimmed down because the producers, after nearly a decade of making jokes about war, decided that war wasn't actually very funny after all. Obviously, the mere absence of the laugh track is not a guarantee of entertaining television.

So why, then, did the quality of Yes, Dear seem to improve so dramatically when the laughter stopped? I toyed with the idea that maybe it was just me. Recently, I took one of those Internet psychology tests, the results of which stated that I have many of the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. At the time, I naturally assumed that the test had simply detected the fact that I am better than everyone else.

But maybe there was some truth to it. After all, I have in the past dismissed bands, movies, or TV shows exclusively on the basis that they're popular. Perhaps I have a subconscious aversion to comedy that other people, even prerecorded ones, think is funny. My id has simply decided that it's just way too cool for that mainstream shit, as if to say, "I was into Yes, Dear before it was cool, but now it seems like they've just sold out." Good lord, am I some sort of comedy elitist, like one of those Frasier pricks?

This conclusion, however, seemed to imply that I am somehow flawed, so I dismissed it out of hand.

I finally settled on the explanation that there is a fine line between comedy and condescension, and the laugh track forcibly drags the viewer over it. The problem with applying a laugh track to Yes, Dear is that the show has all the subtlety of a turd in the company water cooler. You would have to have been pithed to not realize when one of its blatantly obvious punch-lines has been dropped on you. So the added presence of canned laughter is like having somebody elbowing you in the ribs for half an hour and saying, "Look! He was all excited about putting the baby's crib together, but when he opened the box thousands of tiny parts fell out! Isn't that fucking hilarious?!"

All of which forces me to ask the question, how many dismally bad comedies could have been half-decent comedies, if only they had resisted the urge to remind their audience that the stuff was supposed to be funny?

The answer, I suppose, is moot. A rotten egg is still a rotten egg, even if it once had the potential to be a tasty ham and cheese omelet.


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