I first got an inkling that Chandler Bing might be depressed when a friend linked me to ‘Friends (No Laugh Track Version)’ on YouTube in early 2014.
The video illustrates how Ross Geller is, without the enforced levity of added laughter, [spoiler alert] a major creep who should be in prison. Specifically, the clip shows Ross hoodwinking the unsuspecting Rachel into being his wife after lying about annulling their drunken Las Vegas marriage. As he confesses his matrimonial deviousness to Phoebe, their now-menacing conversation peppered with awkward silences in lieu of laughs, I was both confronted and intrigued by the stark tonal impact laughter — and its absence — had.
That clip was only the beginning in a rabbit-hole of similar, equally harrowing videos — if you’ve spent any decent amount of time on the Internet in the past six years, you’ll be aware that these laugh-track-less sitcom scenes are a popular genre of viral clickbait.
Other benchmarks for this burgeoning film movement include ‘Frasier — No Laugh Track: Niles Naked At Nervosa’, a harrowing portrait of a man on the edge enhanced through liberal use of Psychosexual Drone Sound Effect #3, and ‘2 Broke Girls Without Laugh Track’, an uncomfortable reminder we haven’t grown out of the gay or race jokes of the 1990s.
But time and time again I found myself returning to the seemingly endless supply of laughless Friends edits. Like a lot of people my age, I somehow knew every episode inside and out without ever having taken active steps to ‘watch’ it.
There wasn’t a single one of these deeply awkward, icky scenes I didn’t remember enjoying with laugh track included. I somehow found the group’s gentle ribbing of Joey tongue-in-cheek rather than super mean. Monica’s obsession with hygiene felt zany rather than an offensive caricature of a clinical problem. And Chandler: yikes. Here are some Bing-isms for your perusal:
—‘We swallow our feelings forever, even if we’re unhappy. Sound good?’
—‘I want to start drinking in the morning — don’t say I don’t have goals.’
—‘What must it be like to not be crippled by fear and self-loathing?’
—‘Until I was 25 I thought the only response to “I love you” was “Oh crap!”’
Like, is he okay? All of the above quotes play as jokes in the unedited show — which, to give credit where credit is due, uses live audience reactions for most of their laugh track. But stripped of this important audio detailing, they can come across as quite serious.
Whether you love them or loathe them, the ability for a laugh track to contextualise a joke as a joke does mean people are more likely to laugh out loud at it. At least, that’s what recent functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scan studies conducted by Dartmouth’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience have found when screening Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Yeah, that’s right, I’m not just obnoxiously conjecturing into the wind. That part starts in the next paragraph.
Laughter is social — and using context clues to give you a heads up that a joke is inbound or has just landed offers the permission you need to enjoy humour more. Watching these silent, austere sitcom edits, I was reminded of another context where permission to laugh felt denied.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve been in a gallery, slow-motion realised the piece of art I’m looking at is funny, and then felt the seed of a chuckle die halfway up my oesophagus as I silently, dejectedly, mosey over to the next work.
There is, unfortunately, a culture of self-seriousness specific to a fair chunk of the art world. Perhaps it’s a reaction to Western art’s need to prove itself worthy; a self-defence mechanism against perpetual funding precarity, or funding attached to the purse strings of:
—Religious leaders whose horniness for ceiling murals is at odds with their piety, their need to quash miscellaneous ‘sins of the body’ taking down ‘LOLs’ as collateral damage.
—Nuovo aristocrati whose elocution lessons bred out their mouths’ ability to ‘do’ laughter back in boarding school.
—Educational institutions that cement a perpetual cycle of seriousness by adding dry art textbooks to their syllabus, written with the kind of diluting academic detachment that could make crème brûlée taste like viscous cardboard extract.
Alternatively, reactionary art that intends to rail against bequeathments (and begging for bequeathments) has to take its opposition to ‘serious’ art seriously as well. When an artist realises they’re the voice of their generation, the burden to stick it to the man makes the very concept of ‘fun’ an afterthought. Why laugh at your art when you can suffer for it?
Of course I’m speaking in wild, uninformed and somewhat ahistorical stereotypes. Unfortunately, stereotypes are a form of shared societal preconception, and most galleries aren’t doing their bit to unpack this context when I walk in. There’s no laugh track letting me know here be jokes.
Exhibition openings, seemingly the best way to consume art because alcohol is present, couldn’t go more out of their way to discourage fun.
If you’re attending a prestige gallery opening, you’ll likely encounter a half-mummified, wealthy benefactor who looks like they might implode from the atmospheric pressure shift nearby laughter would cause. They’ll be discussing their nephew’s PhD project, obliviously blocking you from accessing the snacks table, home to a wheel of soft cheese with its own Masters in Curatorship and wafer crackers so dry they desiccate your tonsils into packing peanuts.
The alternative (alternative in every sense of the word) gallery opening does manage to escape this stuffiness. It’s in an intimate loft and/or basement, it’s welcoming to weirdos and there is always a rallying speech at the top. Of course, by virtue of it not being a stuffy, prestige gallery, the speech invariably discusses the latest arts funding cut that has decimated the small-to-medium level arts scene — so please tip generously when you grab your tinnie from the folding drinks table! It’s the more fun of the two, but the grim reminders that you’re aboard a sinking ship mean jokes always fall a little flat.
Whichever class of gallery you’ve been invited to, no opening would be complete without a total lack of adequate seating, so blood pools in my feet and away from the part of my brain that feels emotion.
And god forbid, despite all this, you do laugh, fighting through the claustrophobic contract of etiquette that feels specific to galleries and libraries and not much else. Your laughter will be met with passive aggressive silence — or worse still, its own echo, so reverberant are the polished concrete floors and chalk-white walls of the “““““““space”””””””.
The issue is that many people confuse not taking something seriously with not respecting it — but often, taking something too seriously disrespects the very real effort artists have made to make you laugh. More so, taking art too seriously disrespects yourself, as you stifle genuine reaction and replace it with joyless approval. This IS art, you think, mistaking observation for emotion.
Is it so surprising that, despite the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) ground floor housing a regular flow of blockbuster exhibits (who doesn’t love Van Gogh?), I inevitably find myself on Level 3 to soak in some capital ‘d’ Design?
Design is art that demands to be recontextualised into the real world. The sheer utility of something as simple as a chair — the unifying theme for the NGV’s Creating The Contemporary Chair exhibit (March–October 2017) — demands you imagine these artworks in someone’s home, instead of an imposing grayscale fortress.
You could easily convince me that Thomas Heatherwick’s Spun chair (2010) was a sculptural piece, a blown up spinning top making a point about youth or perspective or something. Knowing it’s a chair, however, all I can visualise is someone trying to sit in it (i.e. falling off of it). In forcing me to contextualise it out of a gallery and into a living room, the comedic tension between form and function, comfort and chaos, allows me the freedom to smirk.
But that’s work that I’m doing. And if taking art out of an art gallery is a necessary step for me to enjoy myself, then surely that speaks more to a problem with galleries than anything else?
What can art spaces actively do to meet us halfway? Certainly, the proper curation of comedy is a step in the right direction. Any stand-up will tell you that comedy is cumulative, and a lacklustre set early on can cause a crowd to lose faith in the night, with seasoned comics having to swim upstream to win crowds back with jokes that on a ‘funnier’ night would have them in stitches.
It’s not an impossible step, especially not for the NGV — you may need to head to Federation Square’s ‘NGV Australia’ appendage to see for yourself. Every Brilliant Eye: Australian Art Of The 1990s* (June–Oct 2017) is a masterclass in the curation of comedic context. In particular, the clever placement of footage depicting DAMP Collective’s infamous Punchline (1999) installation-cum-performance art anarchy helps inform the whole experience of the exhibition.
Filmed at Gertrude Contemporary, Punchline depicts a straightforward opening night for an innocuous installation that slowly descends into farce. On the night, a number of carefully rehearsed audience plants disrupted the composure of the gallery: speeches were interrupted, arguments and lovers’ spats broke out in the crowd, fights started, art was irreparably damaged. It is, in its own beautifully manic way, the laugh track to the whole exhibition.
If the function of a laugh track is to create the illusion of being in a crowd of happy people when you’re really alone in your living room, then Punchline creates the illusion that you’re among a crowd of people tearing apart the suffocating civility of a gallery — when really, you’re just in a gallery. It’s not enough of a brainwash to get you to start destroying art too (I hope) but it reminds you that a gallery is just a room, artists are just people and laughter is not a crime.
Under this new light, other pieces throughout Every Brilliant Eye are allowed to shine to their full comic potential. Leigh’s cartoonish Pregnant tutu head (1992) bodysuit stands tall on its clownishly large shoes, an eruption of delicate tutu emerging from the broad neckline of the engorged, mud-coloured bodice. Perhaps the funniest part of Pregnant tutu head is that the name of this grotesquely campy golem is so matter-of-fact in its simplicity, wilfully defying the enormous expectation we place on art to deliver serious depth and cleverness. ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ ‘Pregnant tutu head’.
Likewise, the plush absurdity of Kathy Temin’s Duck-rabbit problem (1991) sculpture is allowed to feel downright ridiculous, in the best way possible. The decapitated head of a soft toy that looks like a duck from one angle and a rabbit from another, the piece plays with ideas of binary interpretation and its failings. Very art, right? But the piece is also about two metres long, and its aggressive claim of space within the exhibition is so joyfully antithetical to its twee squishiness.
It’s these kinds of pieces that reward art goers who are open to laughing at art, rather than simply interpreting it. But is this level of openness something we must learn ourselves, or something galleries should stop teaching us to supress?
After all, the ‘art world’ clings to its stereotype of self-seriousness much more than individual artists or individual works of art. Art can indeed be funny, despite the dour presence of the metaphorical anti-laugh-track (an audio clip of one person crying, perhaps?).
Next time you’re in the general vicinity of some art you suspect contains humour, do me a favour: laugh. Even when galleries and schools and government funding bodies tell you to take it a little more seriously, laugh.
Laugh because, even in a crowd of people cackling at Chandler Bing’s sad-sack life, one person had to be the first, right?
Alistair Baldwin is a screenwriter, arts commentator and comedian, based in Melbourne but loyal only to Perth.