originally published January 18, 2014
A few days ago I slaked my fingers through the questionable history of the television laugh track. While I have always been baffled that one studio audience’s instinctive responses to actual comedy might 1 have been slapped underneath decades-worth of other material, I had no idea there was one guy running the entire show from his garage. One guy whose job it was to make Small Wonder appear as though it was funny to someone. One guy who made us believe there was a studio audience atop bamboo bleachers on Gilligan’s Island.
A laugh track is a form of audience deception, but it’s not the only tool in the manipulative belt of the entertainment industry. And I get it – people slave for weeks or months in preparation for a performance, often to the point where the ‘funny’ disappears for them into the swampy churn of repetition and rehearsal. They don’t want all that work to simply hover in the air around their audience like an unwelcome fart.
So they’ll take a moment of hilarity-response from Milton Berle’s old show and make it sound like Happy Days never lost a step when Richie and Ralph left. And we’ll eat it up, just as audiences have done before us – back before television, when entertainment producers had to be a little more clever and a lot more clandestine with their work.
16th-century French poet and playwright Jean Daurat was the first to plunk his toe into the smoky brine of audience manipulation. Whether it was moral or deceitful is a judgment call; Jean’s artistic guts were in the lines of this play, and he wanted a good response from the ticket-holders. So he did what any desperate artist would do: he bought a bunch of his own tickets and gave them away for free. Well, for “free” meaning that the recipients had promised to supply applause.
And it worked.
It was called a claque, which is the French translation of the verb ‘clap’. In 1820 the claque went pro, as a Paris agency opened up with the sole purpose of supplying eager audience members to local shows. It was worked into a play’s budget – one simply didn’t put on a show without claqueurs in the crowd. You’d have rieurs who laughed loudly at the funny bits, pleureurs who wept when the story called for it, and commissaires who ran the claque squad at each performance, having learned the play off by heart and subsequently scripted the responses of the claqueurs.
The claque phenomenon spread to London, Vienna, New York – to every major cultural center. It became a part of the institution of theatre. It could work in reverse as well; if a claque agency hadn’t been hired for a particular play, they might demand a payoff to keep from buying up a heap of tickets and filling them with people ready to boo and heckle. What’s a piece of art without a little quality extortion?
Composer Richard Wagner yanked his opera Tannhäuser off a Paris stage because a local claque was messing with his performance. Thankfully, this practice dwindled away a century ago. Well, almost. As recently as last August the New York Times reported on a man named Roman Abramov who stacks each performance of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet with patrons-for-hire. It must create an atmosphere of genuine surrealism to hear someone laugh uproariously or yell for an encore and know that it’s entirely possible they have been paid to do so.
This sort of underhanded trickery is not found only in entertainment pages. While you’re flipping through online bargains, trying to figure out which cheese grater is going to best serve your bizarrely specific cheese-grating needs, you’ll probably use product reviews as a basis for comparison. And while the world of reviews (particularly on Amazon) are fast becoming a genre of comedic writing, for the most part people are serious and genuine with their star-allotment and critical prose.
Assuming, of course, that the writers actually exist.
Astroturfing is when a company stacks its products or services with positive reviews or thumbs-up testimonials meant to look like actual people. The Federal Trade Commission and its global counterparts have been trying to figure out how to regulate (or even if they should regulate) this practice for years. In TV commercials you’ll often see ‘Paid Actor’ in tiny white print beneath the impassioned speech of someone whose life has been (pretend) affected by the wonderful product being pitched. In short, don’t believe anything you read. Or see. Or really, to be safe, don’t believe anything at all.
Ultimately, wherever you’ll find a crowd of people you’ll find someone trying to twist that crowd of people to their own benefit. Funerals are no exception. Though today you aren’t going to see a stacked deck of weepers and eyeball-dabbers at the average wake, there was a time in history when paid mourners were a common thing. Plato critiqued them. The Ancient Greeks and Romans used them all the time. The ‘profession’ even shows up in the Bible.
Professional mourners weren’t necessarily there to beef up a bereaving throng; they helped to control and direct the participants’ responses. The vocation persisted through the Middle Ages, until the church began wagging its mighty finger at the practice. Its one lasting splatter on our cultural walls is the Latin word for “I will please”, which was used to refer to the phony paid sadness of these actors: ‘placebo’.
Like it or not, the world around us is not merely there to soak in and experience. Its inhabitants are in a constant state of actively trying to manipulate you and hopefully encourage you to part ways with a portion of your annual income for their product or experience. In the late 1950’s it was revealed that Alan Freed and a number of other prominent and famous radio DJs were taking money from record labels to ensure their songs got airplay and hopefully became hits. Nowadays kids would find that completely unsurprising, except for the part about how radio DJs were once prominent and famous.
Even when you’re watching the news, you’ll see in interviews when they cut back to the journalist, he or she is often frowning, nodding, or showing some sign of intense attention while the interviewee is speaking. Those insert shots are called ‘noddies’, and they might have been taped an hour after the interviewer has left the room or they could be recycled from old footage. Don’t believe anything you see either.
Of course, I might be saying all this in my own attempt to manipulate you into sending me money – ideally nonsequential, unmarked bills – to my home. Did it work?