Friday, 5 January 2007

The Laugh Track

I am sure every American has had this experience. Some time or another (probably many times) he or she has been watching a situation comedy when someone says something that is supposed to be a joke, and even if it is not particularly funny there is uproarious laughter. Unless that sitcom was filmed before a live studio audience, that laughter almost certainly came from a laugh track.

Laugh tracks have existed for nearly as long as network television. Despite this, their usage remains somewhat controversial to this day. The reason that they came to be used at all was quite simply to recreate the feeling of being part of a live audience. During the Golden Age of Radio (roughly the Thirties into the early Fifties), most radio shows were recorded before a live studio audience. With many early sitcoms, however, this was not always possible. To keep the laughs and guffaws familiar from the old radio comedies without shooting in front of a live audience, then, prerecorded or "canned" laughter came to be employed on TV sitcoms. Of course, even its earliest critics have argued that the true purpose of the laugh track was to cue the audience as to when to laugh, as if they were not intelligent enough to know what was funny. Proof that this may be the actual reason behind the use of laugh tracks may be seen in the fact that sometimes canned laughter would even be used on early variety shows and sitcoms that were filmed in front of live audiences. When joke did not go over well, sometimes the mild laughter of the live audience would be supplemented by prerecorded laughter--a practice known as sweetening. If the entire purpose of the laugh track was to give the illusion of filming before a live studio audience, then the use of canned laughter when a live audience was present would be needless.

Regardless, the laugh track was not without precedent. As early as the 17th century, French poet Jean Daurat offered free tickets to a performance of one of his plays in exchange for nothing more than applause. This practice reached its height in 19th century France when any theatre managers employed claques--groups of people who were paid for simply applauding performances. In the United States canned laughter was used on radio shows, although never to the extent that it would be on network television.

Indeed, it would be in on September 9, 1950 that the genie would be let out of the bottle. It was on that date that The Hank McCune Show debuted on NBC. The show ran only briefly and would probably be almost entirely forgotten were it not for the fact that it was the first sitcom to use canned laughter. It would be in 1953, however, that there would be a development which would really allow the laugh track to take off. That year a sound engineer named Charley Douglass invented the Laff Box, a device which could be played like an organ in order to produce various sorts of laughter. No one is quite sure where Douglass recorded the original laughs for his Laff Box, but it was soon in demand. In fact, the company he founded (Northridge Electronics) is still in the business of selling laugh producing machines.

If there was a Golden Age for the Laugh Track, it was probably during the Fifties and Sixties. At this point in television history, the vast majority of sitcoms were not filmed in front of live studio audiences. As a result laugh tracks were employed on the vast majority of sitcoms--from Leave to Beaver to The Brady Bunch. Laugh tracks were even used on many Hanna Barbera cartoons, not only on such primetime series as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, but also on their many Saturday morning cartoons. Even in the Sixties, however, there was still resistance to the concept among both critics and TV producers. In fact, there were some shows which did eschew the use of a laugh track even then. The Monkees featured a laugh track during its first season, but through part of the second season it was disposed of entirely. The classic TV series Batman never used a laugh track. Apparently one was used in test screenings for the show, but it met with disapproval. I rather suspect that it would have taken away from the overall campiness of the series.

The Seventies saw an even greater attack on the laugh track. As early as 1967 He and She was filmed before a live studio audience. By the Seventies this would be common practice. Shows from All in the Family to WKRP in Cincinnati were taped in front of live studio audiences. In fact, I suspect that the majority of sitcoms were taped in front of live audiences. Of course, this does not mean that the laugh track ceased to be employed entirely. Even on All in the Family canned laughter was occasionally used in combination with the studio audience. In other cases various TV producers wanted to film their sitcoms without the benefit of either laugh tracks or live studio audiences. Larry Gelbart wanted to produce M*A*S*H without a laugh track, but met with resistance from CBS. Ultimately, they compromised by not having the laugh track used during the scenes in the operating room. By the sixth season of the show, the laugh track would cease to be used entirely on the show. On the DVDs of the series, there is an option on the first six seasons to simply turn the laugh track off.

Since then the use of the laugh track on TV shows has waned since its use in the Fifties and Sixties. In the Eighties the first season of Sledge Hammer featured a laugh track, but it was discontinued with the second season. On the DVD release of the series, the laugh track is absent even from the first season episodes. The Wonder Years and the various dramedies of the Eighties (Hooperman, Slap Maxwell, and so on) never would use laugh tracks. Today there are many American shows that do not use laugh tracks, most notably Scrubs, My Name is Earl, and the stateside version of The Office, among others. Even when shows do use laugh tracks these days, they are often more subdued than they were in the Fifties and Sixties.

Even though the laugh track has been a long established practice in the United States, I must admit that I have never cared for it. Quite frankly, I think it is a bit of an insult to the viewer's intelligence. First, I am perfectly aware that many classic sitcoms were not filmed in front of live studio audiences. For that reason it is not necessary to try to maintain any illusion that they were. Indeed, I know full well that neither The Flintstones nor The Jetsons were filmed in front of live audiences! Second, and more importantly, like most people I know what I think is funny. No amount of canned laughter is going to convince me that something I don't find funny is outright hilarious. And I find it annoying when I hear a joke on a sitcom that simply drops dead receives tons of uproarious, but canned laughter. Indeed, there are times when I have wondered if sound technicians on various shows even know when to properly use the laugh track. A case in point is the show Yes, Dear, possibly one of the least funny shows of all time. I honestly believe that on that show a character can say something as mundane as "I'm going to the store to get some milk" and receive tons of uproarious laughs via the laugh track...

Regardless of my misgivings about the laugh track, I am not sure it will ever cease to be used entirely on American television. True, its use has declined from what it was in the Sixties. True, there are many hit shows on these days that do not use laugh tracks. Unfortunately, there are still many shows that do use laugh tracks. And I'm guessing that as long as producers worry that they will have to remind viewers what is funny, they will continue to use laugh tracks.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Superman II the Richard Donner Cut

Warning: Here There Be Spoilers

With the advent of home video, there also developed a new phenomenon in which alternate versions of previously released movies would be released to video (and eventually theatres as well). Often times these alternate takes on films would simply be versions of the film released with additional footage. Other times, in the case of so called "director's cuts," they would be versions of the film that are more loyal to the director's vision than the final cut (even today, many directors do not have approval of the final cut, which usually falls to the studio). Superman II: the Richard Donner Cut falls in neither of these categories. Instead, although it shares the name of the Richard Lester movie released in 1980, it is almost an entirely new movie. Well over half of the footage in the movie has never been seen by audiences before.

As to how the "Donner Cut" of Superman II, that could take an entire book to explain in detail. To make a long story short, Superman and Superman II were being made simultaneously. Quite simply, Richard Donner was directing two movies at the same time. As the release date of Superman drew nearer, however, it was decided that Donner should concentrate on Superman and could return to Superman II after the first film was finished. Unfortunately for Donner, the tension which existed between him and the producers (Alexander and Ilya Salkind) would result in his removal from the movie. Richard Lester (most famous for The Beatles movies A Hard Days Night and Help!) was brought into replace him. Much of Superman II was then rewritten by screenwriters David & Leslie Newman, and reshot by Lester. While there remained scenes directed by Donner in the final theatrical release (nearly everything involving Lex Luthor, General Zod and his comrades' attack on the White House, and so on), the bulk of the theatrical release had been directed by Richard Lester.

For many years the footage that Richard Donner had shot was believed to be lost. When the first film, Superman was restored for its DVD release in 2001, however, several reels of footage shot by Donner for Superman II was discovered in the vaults. This would spark a campaign, largely conducted via the World Wide Web, demanding the release of the Donner version of the film. After overcoming various legal hurdles (getting the rights from Marlon Brando's estate to use the footage featuring him, negotiating with the Salkinds who owned the footage, and so on), work finally began restoring the closest thing to Richard Donner's version of Superman II that could be hoped for.

Because Richard Donner was never allowed to complete Superman II, the "Donner Cut" does use some of the footage shot by Richard Lester in order to preserve the movie's continuity. That having been said, around 80% of the "Donner Cut" is footage shot by Richard Donner. And while it has much in common with the Richard Lester version, it is also very different. Entire scenes which appear in the Lester version (such as those involving the Eiffel Tower in Paris) are absent in the Donner version. By the same token, entires scenes appear in the Donner version (such as Clark Kent's return to the Fortress of Solitude after he gave up his super powers) that do not appear in the Lester cut. Although it shares much in common with the Lester version, the Donner version is an almost completely different film.

Of course, I suppose that the question on the minds of many is, "Is it a better movie than the Lester version?" I don't know that this is a question that I, as both movie fan and a comic book fan, can answer. That having been said, there are things that I like much better about Donner's version of Superman II than Lester's version. I think the relationship between Clark and Lois is much better developed in this movie, much of this because they are allowed more intimate moments together. Indeed, the means through which Lois discovers Clark is Superman in the "Donner Cut" is more convincing than that in the "Lester Cut (in which Clark stumbles on a bearskin rug into a burning fireplace, unharmed)." Although just a screen test, it looks as good as a completed scene.

Another way in which the "Donner Cut" is superior to the "Lester Cut" is that the scenes with Brando have been restored, with the side effect of correcting what has always been regarded as one of the biggest plot holes in an otherwise good film. In the Lester version, there is no explanation as to how Clark Kent got his powers back. We simply see Clark, having struggled to return to the Fortress of Solitude, picking up a mysterious, glowing, green crystal there. With the Brando footage restored in the Donner version, not only does Clark pick up the green crystal, but the following scene between Clark and the hologram of his birth father Jor-El lets us know just how he became Superman again.

The "Donner Cut" also outshines the "Lester Cut" in the battle between Superman and the rogue Kryptonians in Metropolis. In Donner's version, the fight scene is much darker and more dynamic. Gone are Lester's little touches of humour in the battle, making it seem more like the life and death struggle it should be. In fact, my only caveat with Donner's version of the fight is when Superman crashes into the torch of the Statue of Liberty. While a very cool scene, since childhood I have known that the Statue of Liberty is in Gotham City, not Metropolis. For me, it would be like any other film placing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York City rather than in Cleveland.

Of course, there are also ways in which I feel the Lester version is superior to the "Donner Cut." In the "Lester cut," when Superman arrives outside the Daily Planet building, he utters the classic line, "General, would you care to step outside?" In the Donner version, we get a much, much weaker line--Superman says to General Zod, "Don't you believe in freedom of the press?" Even worse is the ending of the "Donner Cut"--the ending originally intended for Superman II. Quite simply, Superman reverses time in order to undo all the wrong that has been done. When it was decided that the ending of Superman needed a more exciting ending, the trick of reversing time was then used in that film instead. I must say I didn't like the time reversal trick in Superman and I don't like it any better in Superman II. Quite simply, Superman being able to turn back time effectively robs any story involving him of any dramatic tension. After all, Superman can simply turn back time to solve any problems that may arise. People can say what they will about Lester's "magic," amnesia inducing kiss--in my humble opinion it is much preferable to something (namely, reversing time) which robs a story of all its dramatic integrity. Why couldn't Clark simply hypnotise Lois (he did it in the comic books as early as 1941).

As I said earlier, I think comparisons between the "Donner Cut" and the "Lester Cut" may be unfair. And, to be honest, I really cannot say myself which one is superior. That having been said, I do know that if one took the best elements from both and edited them together, it could well be the perfect movie. At any rate, the "Donner Cut" of Superman II is well worth seeing. Not only is it interesting to see a completely different version of a well known film released over twenty five years ago, but Donner's version of Superman II is a very good film in its own right.

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Another Golden Age Comic Book Artist Dies

Last month saw the passing of Green Lantern creator Martin Nodell. Now another Golden Age comic book artist has passed on. Hardin "Jack" Burnley, who worked on both Superman and Batman as well as co-creating Starman with Gardner Fox, died on December 19 at the age of 95.

Burnley started his career as an artist with King Features Syndicate in 1929. He was the youngest artist ever to have his own syndicated feature. At the time most of his work involved drawing cartoons for the sports sections of newspapers. Among others, he provided work for journalist Damon Runyon. It was in 1940 that he first started working for National Comics (later to become DC Comics). He provided the cover for World’s Fair Comics #2, 1940, which was the first time that Superman and Batman were ever featured together in an illustration. He also illustrated chapters of some of the Justice Society of America's adventures in All Star Comics. Burnley was the first artist to illustrate both Superman and Batman besides their creators. For many years he also illustrated the Superman and Batman newspapers strips.

In comic book fandom, however, Jack Burnley is perhaps best known for having created Starman with writer Gardner Fox. Starman was Ted Knight, who invented a gravity rod which gave him a number of different abilities. He first appeared in Adventure Comics #61, April 1941. For a time he was also a member of the Justice Society of America. The character met with only a little success during the Golden Age ceasing to appear in print in 1944. When the Justice Society of America was revived in the Sixties, however, so was the original Starman. Over the years he would appear with the group several times. Eventually he would be a regular character in the Starman comic book of the Nineties, in which his son took over the mantle of Starman.

In 1947 Burnley left comic books to return to illustrating for newspapers. He worked for both the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph and the San Francisco News. He retired in 1976.

Burnley was one of the best artists of the Golden Age. To a large degree he was responsible for Superman as we know him today. Having come from the field of sports illustration, Burnley was among the first comic book artists, if not the first, to actually pay attention to musculature in his illustrations. He gave both Superman and Batman more muscles than their original artists (Joe Schuster, who co-created Superman, and Bob Kane, who co-created Batman) had. His style would prove influential on future generations of comic book artists. Until the Silver Age most superheroes would be absolutely musclebound. As both the co-creator of Starman and one of the first artists to actually detail muscle structure in his illustrations, he certainly had an impact.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Sometimes I Really Hate New Year's Day

I really have to admit that, even as a child, I was not particularly fond of New Year's Day. In many respects, it seems to me to be a drab day with nothing to really make it special beyond being the first day of the year.

As a child much of the reason I disliked New Year's Day was that it was the last day of Christmas vacation, meaning that the next day would mean I would have to go back to school. Like many children, I did not particularly care for school and would have really preferred a few more days off. Of course, it also marked the end of the holidays. We would usually take down our tree and our lights on January 1 or January 2. Even then other people would take theirs down even earlier. After January 1 there would be no more Christmas trees, no more lights, no more holly and mistletoe--at least not until after Thanksgiving, which was literally months away. While I no longer go to school, I still dislike New Year's Day as the end of the holidays.

Of course, another problem I had with New Year's Day as a child was that overall it was a drab day. Growing up we only received four channels and it seemed as if nothing was on television for the entirety of the day. Oh, I would watch the Tournament of Roses Parade of a morning, although I must admit that even as a kid it was a tad dull. The afternoon was filled with college football, which really didn't interest me unless Mizzou was playing. At night there would be little more on television than reruns. Today I have cable, but there still doesn't seem to be very much on television. One would think that on the night of New Year's Day, the networks have some sort of special programming--some Hollywood blockbuster, at least. Unfortunately, they don't. The cable channels do have marathons today, but I must confess I have already seen the majority of episodes of Monk and Law and Order.

As an adult I must also confess that much of my dislike of New Year's Day also stems from the number of New Year's Days I have spent hungover. While I did not do so the past few years, there was a time like many when I would spend New Year's Eve drinking heavily. As a result I would often awaken the next day with a hangover that would take all day to recover from. I eventually concluded this was not the best way to open the New Year.

I must also admit that I dislike New Year's Day because it is the beginning of January. For me January is one of the blandest months of the year. Nothing much really goes on during all month. And while the month is sometimes marked by snow, which I must admit to enjoying provided we don't get too much, in Missouri it is more often marked by ice storms. Of course, with ice storms nearly everything comes to a halt, not to mention that there have been a few times we have been without power.

I have often thought that we here in the United States should develop some sort of special traditions for New Year's Day, some different way of celebrating it instead of watching parades and football games, and recovering from hangovers. As it is, I feel as if we end the holidays with a whimper rather than a bang. I think that the Scots may well have the right idea. December 31 marks Hogmanay, a celebration beginning the night of December 31 and lasting through the morning of January 1 or sometimes January 2, which is observed as a bank holiday in Scotland. Not only are the holidays ended with a bang, but people are even given a day to recover from the celebration!

At any rate, I'll probably spend the day doing a little of nothing. And tomorrow I'll take down our Yuletide celebrations. I must admit I won't be happy about it, but then there is always next year.