Why Am I Clapping? Why Am I Laughing? Psychoanalysis of a TV Set

In the beginning there was happiness…

Smiley, the happiest brand ever, was founded by Franklin Loufrani in 1971 through a newspaper promotion to make people happy. using the logo to highlight good news, it allowed readers to see the bright side of life throughout any day. In a very short time Smiley became the most recognizable icon in the world and remains so to this day.

-Anonymous Author, Smiley Corporation History Page

Because it’s There, The Doctor says,
She is enchanted.

She has learned that short ideas repeated,
Massage the brain.

-Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives

Humor is a conformity enforcer clothed in the garb of congeniality. It focuses on others’ weaknesses, disasters, stupidities, and abnormalities.

-Howard Bloom, The Global Brain

Did you know that you’re 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with somebody else than if you’re alone…

-Site preview, Google Search: “why are we laughing”


As is said when dogs try in vain to eat our food, “The TV thinks it’s people!”

What does a box that runs on wish-fulfillment wish for? What do televisions dream of?

What are its Freudian slips? What does it tell us?

It resists analysis, firmly confining me to the couch.

It shows me sitcoms that progressed since their inception from obsession with narratives of “actual” workplaces and families into obsessive narratives about the forging of surrogate family and replacement community. Why else on The Office would Dwight be a welcomed guest at Jim and Pam’s wedding when they hate him?

It shows me Bojack Horseman. The titular protagonist, a washed up actor who starred in a fictional sitcom about a family, repeatedly meets with the actors who played his (not) family and attempts to make them behave like an actual family. He eventually gives up on this, finding another surrogate family still trapped within the fictionalizing confines of the screen.

It shows me an episode of Alf. Alf becomes obsessed with the sitcom Gilligan’s Island and deserts his fictional surrogate family on the sitcom Alf hoping to escape from his own escapist entertainment into the twin dads of Gilligan and The Skipper. In a distortion of It’s a Wonderful Life, Alf, in a dream, is told by the Gilligan’s Island characters they’ve been watching Alf on a television rigged together with coconuts hoping to escape living on Gilligan’s Island. Alf goes back to his fictional surrogate family. An infantilized Jimmy Stewart, Alf tells them he appreciates them and gives Nietzschaen affirmation to his own fictional, surrogate existence. He escapes from one television sitcom to another television sitcom and returns but never exits the television.

These are just a couple among dozens upon dozens of telefictional equivalents.

They-with slight logistical variations-are, of course, eerily reminiscent of Derrida’s reading of a Rousseau’s Confessions in Of Grammatology.

Derrida gives us a summary (in Hollywood they’d call it “a remake”, in the Met they’d call it an “icon painting”) of the Confessions wherein the lonely Rousseau describes masturbating in the otherwise empty bed of the absent prostitute, his girlfriend, the woman he affectionately refers to as “mother”. He can’t touch his absent actual mother so he supplements her always present absence with a replacement. Eventually even this supplement requires supplementation by his own erotic fantasies. All for a thing no longer there, that can’t be there.

Just like Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

“The TV thinks it’s people!” And it wants its mother.

Television presents itself in stories of its own drowning in a rising tide of supplements.

The sitcom is one of the pinnacles of what Dwight MacDonald dubbed “midcult”, what has been referred to as “fakelore”-the demographic-incepted industrial production of popular mythology. It aggressively divides the shared experiences and reference points of the child from the adult so as to most efficiently deliver advertising. Thereby it comes to commandeer the psychological space once the territory of the family.

And in its stead attempts, in all its blocky clumsiness, to grow into the experience of the family. It wants to jump on the table and eat our food. It wants to complain about what we’re having for dinner tonight. As God created man in His image, so has man created the television screen, in its image.

Television grows impatient wanting to be people and attempts to make them meet it halfway. It pushes them from the communality of the folk dance or music or tales toward the isolated space of the home, the office, the automobile. It blurs the sense of time in the night better than a bonfire and tells all the jokes.

It seizes the flow of folk culture as its own. The flow is diverted from being from the bottom up, of society out into art. It becomes the trickle down flow of art into the dreams of an occupied population.

The audience is the primary object of attention. For the television, people is the hopeful self-actualization to resolve its coming of age narrative. It is us that constitute the mirror in which television primps its hair and play-acts what it wants to be when it grows up.

 The television nervously laughs after it tells me jokes as though it really desperately wants me to like it. It’s insecure and presents itself in perfectly starched shirts, perfectly fit clothes. Its apartments always look specially cleaned as though expecting company.

“Smart” TV is the tv trying to have an earnest heart to heart with the audience about their relationship. We call this self-reflexivity. The TV calls it self-awareness.

The sitcom is defined by the laugh track and its felt absence, the drama by the musical cue.

The laugh track is one of the television’s reoccurring dreams. It wants approval. In its home, your home, it punctuates your projected dreams with its own dreams of you giving it unconditional love. The laugh track is the television’s safe-space

The original laugh track was also the first ever mellotron. One guy, Charles “Charley” Douglass, invented and owned the only one: “The Laff Box”. It looked like a tiny organ and was protected with padlocks. It had 32 sets of ten second tape loops that would be periodically switched out, able to reproduce a variety of different types of laughs at once. We might call these combinations chords.

Because this man’s business was a family business and because this box was essentially an instrument, the producers took to fighting over who got to book his son, who was very generous in his topical application of “laffs”. If the tape loops could be considered a fictional simulacra of a community he was their gregarious philosopher king, the bringer of “sweetened” dreams.

The producers would, however, avoid his wife. She was, according to insider sources, stingy with the “laffs”.

The Douglasses with their Laff Box were the mass media age’s answer to The Carter Family. They created the poststructural inverse, the pastiche of the other side of the folk song or play-the spectator response. They traveled playing “the audience” to any entertainment willing to pay them.

Somewhere in the clap, in the laff, in the cheer, sits the nervous shriek to stop.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.
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