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Will You Laugh for Me, Please

By Slavoj Zizek

On April 8, Charles R. Douglass, the inventor of "canned laughter" - the artificial laughter which accompanies comical moments in TV-series - died at 93 in Templeton, California. In the early 1950s, he developed the idea to enhance or substitute for live audience reaction on television; he then realized this idea in the guise of a keyboard machine - by pressing on different keys, it was possible to produce different kinds of laughter. First used for episodes of The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy, today, its modernized version is resent everywhere.

This overwhelming presence makes us blind for the unheard-of paradox of the "canned laughter": if we reflect a little bit upon this phenomenon, we can see that it undermines the natural presuppositions about the status of our innermost emotions. "Canned laughter" marks a true "return of the repressed," of an attitude we usually attribute to "primitives." Recall, in the traditional societies, the weird phenomenon of "weepers" (women hired to cry at funerals): a rich man can hire them to cry and mourn on his behalf while he can attend to a more lucrative business, like negotiating for the fortune of the deceased. This role can be played not only by another human being, but even by a machine, as in the case of the famous Tibetan "prayer wheels": I put a written prayer into a wheel and mechanically turn it (or, even better, link the wheel to window-mill which turns it), so that it prays for me - or, more precisely, I "objectively"pray through it, while my mind can be occupied with the dirtiest sexual thoughts...

To our surprise, Douglass' invention proved that the same "primitive" mechanism works also in our highly developed societies: when, in the evening, I come home, too exhausted to engage in a meaningful activity, I just press the TV button and watch Cheers, Friends, or another series; even if I do not laugh, but simply stare at the screen, tired after a hard days work, I nonetheless feel relieved after the show - it is as if the TV-screen was literally laughing at my place, instead of meÉ Before one gets used to "canned laughter," there is nonetheless usually a brief period of uneasiness: the first reaction to it is one of a shock, since it is difficult to accept that the machine out there can "laugh for me," there is something inherently obscene in this phenomenon. However, with time, one grows accustomed to it and the phenomenon is experienced as "natural.") This is what is so unsettling about the "canned laughter": my most intimate feelings can be radically externalized, I can literally "laugh and cry through another."

This logic holds not only for emotions, but also for beliefs. According to a well-known anthropological anecdote, the "primitives" to whom one attributed certain "superstitious beliefs," (that they descend from a fish or from a bird, for example), when directly asked about these beliefs, answered "Of course not - we're not that stupid! But I was told that some of our ancestors effectively did believe that..." - in short, they transferred their belief onto another. Are we not doing the same with our children: we go through the ritual of Santa Claus, since our children (are supposed to) believe in it and we do not want to disappoint them; they pretend to believe not to disappoint us, our belief in their naivety (and to get the presents, of course), etc. And, furthermore, is this need to find another subject who "really believes," also not that which propels us in our need to stigmatize the Other as a (religious or ethnic) fundamentalist"? In an uncanny way, some beliefs always seem to function "at a distance": it is always ANOTHER who believes, and this other who directly believes need not exist for the belief to be operative - it is enough precisely to presuppose its existence, i.e., to believe in that there is someone who really believes.

In order to account for these paradoxes, Robert Pfaller recently coined the term "interpassivity." Today, it is a commonplace to emphasize how, with new electronic media, the passive consumption of a text or a work of art is over: I no longer merely stare at the screen, I increasingly interact with it, entering into a dialogic relationship with it (from choosing the programs, through participating in debates in a Virtual Community, to directly determining the outcome of the plot in so-called "interactive narratives"). Is, however, the other side of my interacting with the object instead of just passively following the show, not the situation in which the object itself takes from me, deprives me of, my own passive reaction of satisfaction (or mourning or laughter), so that is is the object itself which "enjoys the show" instead of me, relieving me of the superego duty to enjoy myself? Almost every VCR aficionado who compulsively records hundreds of movies (myself among them), is well aware that the immediate effect of owning a VCR, is that one effectively watches less films than in the good old days of a simple TV set without a VCR; one never has time for TV, so, instead of losing a precious evening, one simply tapes the film and stores it for a future viewing (for which, of course, there is almost never time).

One should therefore turn around one of the commonplaces of the conservative cultural criticism: in contrast to the notion that the new media turn us into passive consumers who just stare blindly at the screen, one should claim that the so-called threat of the new media resides in the fact that they deprive us of our passivity, of our authentic passive experience, and thus prepare us for the mindless frenetic activity.

So, back to the deceased Charles R. Douglass: would it not be a proper funeral for him if a set of sound-machines were to accompany his coffin, generating whispering laments, while his beloved surviving relatives would enjoy a hearty meal? Perhaps, far from finding it offensive, he would appreciate the recognition of such a funeral.