Get a Life: The Complete Series has among its bonus features four of the greatest words I had ever read as an option for watching a TV show: “Play Without Laugh Track”. I love television comedy, but I find the laugh track to be among the most grating of the genre’s tropes. In rare cases I can overlook it (namely How I Met Your Mother, whose laugh track is noticeably less distinct than other popular sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory), but most of the time the comedies I come back to are the ones without laugh tracks.
My favorite TV comedy of all time (Scrubs) didn’t use it; in fact, in one episode (season 4’s “My Life in Four Cameras”) they took to mocking it. For some laugh tracks may have a sentimental value, which I can understand though not relate to. Most of the time they appear to force a comedic timing onto a script that isn’t necessary. Fewer things in this world look more awkward than an actor staring at another actor, waiting to say her line after the audience’s laughter dies down. The actors are thus forced to deal with two audiences: the one in the studio, whose response can bolster or downplay the mood of the scene, and the one at home, whose viewership determines the likelihood of next season’s paycheck.
After seeing the removal of the laugh track as an option, I was off to a fantastic start with Get a Life, a show I was unfamiliar with as I was too young to remember it being on the air. But when I watched an episode without the laughter which I thought to be intrusive, I didn’t feel like I experienced a sitcom as it (in my view) it should be; instead, it felt like I had taken out an integral element of Get a Life. My gripes with laugh tracks aside, it seems to be the case that their inclusion is essential to the timing and rapport of some programs. Get a Life appears to be one of them.
This, however, is an unfortunate for a program with an MO like Get a Life‘s. During its two year tenure on FOX, it prided itself on being the edgiest of TV comedy; absurdist plotlines, crude and gallows humor abound, and a sociopathic protagonist definitely made it the antithesis of family fare like its contemporary, Full House. Since I’ve seen more daring sitcoms in my time (Arrested Development and Community, most notably), Get a Life feels hopelessly out of date, and on most counts it is.
Relative to other sitcoms that aired during 1990-1992, it certainly was on the darker side. But over time, newer media has outgrown all of the seeds planted by this show. Could Kenny have died in as many South Park episodes as he did if Chris Peterson (Chris Elliott) hadn’t died of multiple different causes like tonsillitis on Get a Life? Maybe, maybe not.
In large part that question is answered by the type of creators/showrunners/writers involved in each program. South Park, while in some senses beholden to sitcom tropes, isn’t consciously trying to embrace or distance itself from the label. It does what it does, and as Matt Parker and Trey Stone’s continued insistence on writing ultra-controversial storylines proves, they do not care at all what people think.
Conversely, the folks behind Get a Life are very much interested with the sitcom identity; it’s the basis of the show’s comedic structure. Almost every episode plays off of the kinds of cheesy storyline you’d expect the basic sitcom to tackle, albeit in absurd ways: in one episode, Chris needs a job, so he decides to go to beauty school. That basic plot outline is then expanded with Elliott’s weirdness on full-blast (a Before-and-After photoshoot turns into a bizzaro striptease). All throughout, Elliott and the cast wink at the basic sitcom formula, yet they’re also very beholden to it.
Throughout both seasons the mood oscillates between satire, goofy parody, and homage. The series never really takes the time to commit itself to one thing and, as a result, instead of coming off as a clever comedy that’s aware of its own limitations, it feels unwarrantedly smug. A show can’t consistently poke fun at the weaknesses sitcoms are prone to and then employ those same weaknesses in another script. This is why removing the laugh track actually harmed watching the show rather than helping it; overused though the device may be, it’s key to making Get a Life‘s central conceit work.
Yet credit must be given where credit is due. The audacity of Elliott in trying to put Get a Life on the air is laudable, and even though the programming that’s happened since the series finished its run is much better, there are some ways in which the show has influenced later comedies. Chris Peterson is the ultimate idiot man-child, the type of person we’d grow to love on Family Guy and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The random bits of gallows humor would later prompt the edginess that made the dark streaks on Arrested Development so memorable. In most cases these threads of influence are thin, but they’re undeniably there; Get a Life has attained a considerable cult status likely for this very reason.
As a television classic, however, Get a Life doesn’t hold up all that well. It may have led a writer or two to risk putting something unconventional on the air, but it feels more like a stepping stone to the present television landscape rather than a foundational program by which we better understand situation comedy.
For those who include themselves among the Get a Life cult (who I have undoubtedly ticked off with this review), this is undoubtedly the definitive DVD release. Like the much-missed MTV oddity Sifl and Olly, this series had only been given some bootleg incarnations on VHS; this DVD box sex marks the first time both seasons have been included in a single package.
The DVD comes with a booklet with an insightful though overly optimistic commentary by TV critic Tom Shales, who provides appropriate context for understanding why the show got as many followers as it did. The bonus features are many, including commentaries on all 35 episodes and several interviews including a Paleyfest roundtable.