by Craig Martin
In 2009, Bazura Project co-creator Shannon Marinko produced a sitcom for Melbourne’s Channel 31 called The Invisible, Inaudible Family. In a parody of high concept marketing typical of Marinko’s prankish, cynical nerd-centric humour, the name of the sitcom pretty much describes what the show is about: a family that can neither be seen nor heard.
Marinko purportedly wrote a screenplay for his series that included all the narrative situations and punchlines. He then took his camera into a fully furnished two storey suburban home where he photographed scenes in rooms with everything but a cast. His set ups are based on shots commonly used in sitcoms filmed in front of live audiences, such as Friends, Seinfeld or Two and a Half Men. Establishing shots, pans, master shots and shot-reverse shots tend to dominate, as they do in the run-of-the-mill sitcom.
The use of shot-reverse shots indicate exchanges between characters, and editing provides a sense of the pace of the unheard dialogue. The only sound used in the series – apart from the theme music and its riff of bridging chords used to denote a new scene – is applause and laugh tracks, sometimes referred to as “canned laughter” to indicate that the laughs are inserted in post-production from preexisting stock recordings of audience laughter stored in separate “cans”.
Inger-Lise Bore identifies the laugh track as having two key functions: “one of these is to offer individual viewers a sense that ‘we’ are all watching and laughing at the program together, as a collective audience … [while] a second, related function of the laugh track is to ensure that the comedy feels like a ‘safe’ space where it is okay to laugh at people’s misfortunes or transgressions” (2011, p. 24). However, Bore also points out that there is a manipulative aspect to the laugh track insomuch as it tells us when (it is safe) to laugh and, perhaps more insidiously, that it attempts to discourage polysemic readings of the televisual text by suggesting that there is only one way to view and experience the text presented on screen (p.24). Brett Mills states that sitcoms can never successfully convince us that they are funny, but what they can do is show us, via a live audience’s response, that other people found them funny, which is considered fundamental to their success and the reason why “the key generic characteristic of the sitcom is the laugh track” (2009, p.102). Mills adds that in his interviews with industry personnel, a common view expressed by interviewees was that “laughter captured at the time of recording is a sign of ‘authenticity’ and that using canned laughter was tantamount to acknowledging that a program had failed” (p. 102).
The laugh tracks heard in The Invisible, Inaudible Family are conspicuously canned, evidenced by the way they are cut off as though by the flick of a switch, and by the repetitive use of a finite and specific set of laugh tracks. The repetition of the same bursts of laughter has an accumultively numbing effect as it becomes increasingly disingenuous, and yet it is because of this very effect that it becomes strangely absorbing and amusing, serving to validate Marinko’s project, which is to deliberately poke fun at and highlight the artificiality and contrived nature of the sitcom.
What is fascinating about Marinko’s use of the laugh track is how his manipulation of its regularity and intensity taps into our familiarity with this particular televisual form. Thus without seeing anyone or hearing any dialogue, we develop a general sense of the type of conversations taking place, based entirely on the use of the laugh track, the framing, and the pace of cuts. Thus, where there is only intermittent laughter combined with the shot/reverse shot, we can assume that some of the invisible characters are having a conversation and, most probably, one of the characters is responding with sarcasm to comments (or set ups) made by another character. This is – typically – a set up/punchline format.
Sometimes the camera will focus on a doorway before panning across the room while the laugh track bursts with spontaneous hilarity and applause, indicating that a popular character has just entered the room (in Seinfeld, this was usually Kramer bursting into Jerry’s apartment in some idiosyncratic way, or two decades earlier, Fonzi swaggering into Al’s Diner to deliver his signature, “Aaaaa!”). On other occasions, a take may be quite long while uproarious laughter is heard, suggesting that either a sight gag, a showdown, a deliberate pause to encourage laughter, or a rapid-fire string of punch lines is being performed.
By utilising a laugh track while dispensing with cast and dialogue, and only filming empty spaces, The Invisible Inaudible Family lampoons as well as reveals the artifice of the sitcom template. It also heightens our awareness of the spacial and lighting elements of mise-en-scene that indicate time of day, the function of specific spaces and settings (kitchen, lounge, bedroom, etc), and where within the space we might expect to see characters positioned were they visible. The editing likewise orients us in space, but more importantly it serves the dialogue, cutting to which ever character is speaking.
Bore, ILK. “Laughing Together?: TV Comedy Audiences and the Laugh Track”. The Velvet Light Trap 68 (2011): 24-34.
Marinko, S 2009, The Invisible, Inaudible Family, Youtube 10 June 2011. 30 June 2012, .
Mills, B, The Sitcom, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.