Arts & Culture

Jews Watching TV: Why How I Met Your Mother Needs Its Laugh Track

After last week’s column, about laugh tracks’ possible negative effect on sitcoms, went up, hundreds if not three friends of mine said something to the effect of, “How about How I Met Your Mother?” Read More

By / December 6, 2011
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After last week’s column, about laugh tracks’ possible negative effect on sitcoms, went up, hundreds if not three friends of mine said something to the effect of, “How about How I Met Your Mother?” To which I responded something to the effect of, “How about it! It’s tops!” To call HIMYM the exception that proves the rule is unfair to how good it is, especially in its seventh season.

Let’s go to the tape and by tape I mean the Laughvilles measurement* of last night’s great episode:

Resulting in a Laughville score of 23.7

That is super low, if not super duper low.  It had exactly as many laugh track hits as Whitney did last week but over double the out-loud laughs and over forty (FORTY!) more funny moments.  The most obvious reason is that How I Met Your Mother is a funnier show, which it two zillion percent is, but probably the biggest cause of this disparity is How I Met Your Mother earns these jokes with its storytelling and characterization. Like most sitcoms, a majority of the laughs come from the characters acting exactly as expected or expectedly against type; however, unlike most bad sitcoms (the rest of CBS’s line-up) and some good ones (Modern Family), these characters evolve. This seems like an obvious thing to do yet it’s actually fairly dangerous for network television; if people are tuning in for the same thing as every other week and you give them something different, there will be a tension that some viewers will appreciate and many will not.

Showrunners/creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bay’s willingness to do these challenging episodes is why this season, its seventh, is its best since its first and might be the best of any sitcom this fall.  Last night’s episode subverted the show’s enduring (if not long in the tooth) framing device—future-Ted telling his kids how he met their mother—so as to best tell the story so acutely from Robin’s perspective. That makes three times this season—including also the Ducky Tie/Hibachi/Victoria episode and the Hurricane Irene episode—they’ve attempted different narrative techniques, and each was masterful in the literal sense that they displayed a mastery of the form.

It’s here that I find HIMYM an interesting contrast to Community. Both actively explore how an episode of sitcomery can be structured. Community will blow up convention while making sure to ground the characters in a classic TV sense, where HIMYM instead aspires to play around firmly within the rules of a traditional American sitcom. As a result, the laugh track, being such a TV fixture, is not only excusable on HIMYM it’s an essential part of why it’s so revolutionary. HIMYM can balance being progressive with what is necessary to get ratings and stay on the air. Last night they smartly used a fairly broad Marshall arc as relief from the very weighty Robin story, offsetting Robin’s crying with Marshall’s face of childlike wonderment/frustration.

We’re in the midst of that wonderful time of year where every new day brings a new year-end Top 10 ranking. HIMYM probably won’t make any—there is more glory in overselling the rising star than acknowledging the crafty veteran—but after these last eleven episodes it definitely should. At least, it can hang its hat on having the best Laughville rating ever recorded to date.


* As introduced last week Laughvilles measure the impact laugh track has on an episode. To come up with that number I kept track of every time there was a discrete “audience” laugh (Laugh Track = LT), every time I laughed (Real Laugh = RL), every time I thought something was funny but didn’t audibly laugh (Thought Funny =TF), and every time a joke was so bad I cringed in the face of an audience laugh (BOO). From there I created this formula: LV = 100 – (100x((2RL + 1TF – 1BOO)/LT) The lower the score the better.