“Fake news” and morality go together like lamb and tuna fish, and it’s the quintessential example of the TV industry exploiting our economically vulnerable citizens.
For those that don’t watch television anymore, “fake news” found a niche in the mainstream media through milestone efforts from influential hosts like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and (most recently) John Oliver.
Stewart and Colbert’s segments worked cyclically—witty gags and quick-hitting video montages aside, that kind of satire has a way of self-reflexively exhorting our inhibitions. Is the effectiveness of satire justified merely because an audience agrees with them?
Colbert and Stewart use comedy as relief from the news. Oliver uses comedy as incitement for the news.
Colbert and Stewart develop their news stories to make people laugh. John Oliver makes people laugh to develop his news stories.
There’s no denying The Colbert Report and Late Night with Jon Stewart fall into the category of comedy, but what about Last Week Tonight With John Oliver?
News or comedy?
In news journalism, one must assume the responsibilities and standards of a journalist—something no comedy writer is eager to do.
But the more and more you look at it, the more and more Last Week Tonight looks, sounds, and feels like real news.
He is following in the tradition of our finest journalists: to help us understand the hidden systems of power and injustice in the world around us. The significance of the show’s popularity goes far beyond its praiseworthy comedy and commercial-free format.
John Oliver serves as more than just another parody news cycle using laughter as a tool to get a point across.
Or does he?
When asked about his HBO news/satire program in an interview, Oliver responded, “It’s not journalism, it’s comedy—it’s comedy first, and it’s comedy second.”
Oliver and his staff continue to deny that they are anything other than a premium-cable comedy show.
Oliver is a master of long form comedic journalism; but did you ever wonder how Oliver is able to tackle complex and unheralded issues without making an audience feel naive or unintelligent?
Out of all of the tricks in Oliver’s bag, one sticks out like a sore thumb. And once you hear it, your outlook on the show will never be the same.
Welcome to the laugh track.
Before recordings, radio and television, all performances were live. This meant that an actor always had the benefit of a crowds reaction to drive their performance. Not to mention the audience reaped the benefits of that energy, too.
In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, radio and television engineers began candy-coating audience reactions by mixing them to sound more appropriate. It became a huge trend in the industry when Charlie Douglas invented the original laugh box. It looked like a type-writer but contained 320 different laughs and other audience noises. The noises were grouped into 32 loops of tape each activated by a single key.
These days, laugh tracks are run digitally and contain an abundance of sounds. We’ve all heard the distinctive laughs over and over on various sitcoms.
You have to hate them, but do they work?
Watching a sitcom without the laugh track makes you quickly realize that the jokes really aren’t that funny. You’re just laughing along with an invisible crowd. Here’s a perfect example of what a sitcom would sound/look like with the laugh track removed.
Some theorize we feel social pressure to conform to the group, so were basically laughing at other people to fit in.
And what better medium for conforming an audience than a show about the nightly news?
Critics have debated whether or not Last Week Tonight actually uses a laugh track since they have a live audience.
Just listen to the following clip from one of his segments (jump to 1:56):
So whether or not you believe a laugh track is being used is really beside the point.
The point is, Oliver uses a laugh track to command our attention and further his point.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Laughing in response to hearing laughter is involuntary. In 2006, researchers at the University College London used fMRI to discover that human vocal sound activated part of the brain called the premotor cortical region which primes our facial muscles to react.
So Oliver basically found a way to take long, nuanced explanations of politics and policy and make them relevant through consistent laughter — leaving our brains with no choice but to fully engage with every segment.
Last Week Tonight has shifted the landscape of delivering the news, but it wouldn’t have happened without the laugh track.
Unfortunately, the laugh track exemplifies the TV industry’s exploitation of our economically vulnerable citizens. And while the show’s intentions are righteous, the ends don’t always justify the means.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver helps the world understand the hidden systems of power and injustice in the world around us. But because of one comedic tool, the show can only truly be categorized as a comedy.
So if you’re looking to point a finger, look no further than the laugh track.
But make sure to watch that finger; you don’t want to hit the wrong button and end up like Rush Limbaugh.
(Featured Photo courtesy of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver)