[3 May 2011]
For most of his career, from his early TV work on Freaks and Geeks through his recent films like The Green Hornet, Seth Rogen has distinguished himself by playing the everyman, the character with whom we can all associate—even when that character is an alien, a cop or a blob-monster. He’s often the lovable loser or the unlikely hero. Rogen posses a trait—in real life as well as on screen—that colors each of his characters with the distinct Rogenitude that makes him so personable: He laughs.
He laughs as the endearing stoner in Knocked Up and as the gooey, blue creature in Monsters vs. Aliens. With James Franco, he giggles over Pineapple Express, and as stand-up comedian Ira Write, he laughs all the way through the movie Funny People. It’s his signature. And although the Rogen laugh has, as he becomes a more mainstream star, somewhat dissipated from his films, it remains part of him and his persona.
Watch any interview with him and you’ll immediately recognize his signature chortle. I saw Rogen, then promoting his mall-cop comedy Observe and Report, at a 2009 taping of The Daily Show, and he laughed through the whole interview. His good humor seemed genuine and sweet, and those five minutes were more enjoyable than that whole movie (in which he never even giggled). Rogen was having a great time, and by being so close to a laugh which seemed so personal, we in the audience felt the joy along with him.
Still, some people find it annoying. National Public Radio’s Linda Holmes has described his laugh as “tiresome”, “affected” and “kind of off-putting”. It tends to dominate both his TV appearances and his movies, and I admit that if the Daily Show interview had last 15 minutes instead of five, Rogen’s constant snickering would have been hard to watch.
Yet in his films, his gargling, sonorous laugh has a function. It doesn’t just augment characters like Cal in The 40 Year Old Virgin, it also helps us enjoy the film in a unique way. As part of a role, the laugh blends into the dialogs and scenes of the film as a whole. By responding to the jokes in his movies, Rogen creates an auditory cue for the viewer, essentially telling us when to laugh. It’s a system that’s become so ingrained in entertainment that we don’t we notice it happening.
There are two other events like this that we have all experienced. One is when a comedian pauses for laughter and the other is the laugh-track on a TV sit-com. Both events offer the viewer the same type of phonic signifiers, and both, because they are inherent to the way we enjoy comedy, fade out of consciousness the way Rogen’s laugh does.
In the first example, the stand-up comic pauses, and this pause is filled by laughter. This is a structured system, and one that certainly developed organically. Laughter is part of the show and the comedian is obliged to stop talking momentarily and then resume when the audience is finished laughing. But, that original system has evolved so that it’s now ingrained into the structure of the comedian’s set, rather than the structure of the live-comedy experience. This is demonstrated at any bad or poorly attended comedy show. When a joke bombs, the comedian still pauses—even when the pause only gets filled with silence or whispers or waitresses taking drink orders. It’s surely a painful experience for both the performer and the spectator.
Since in this new set-up the pause happens before the laugh rather than because of the laugh, the pause-for-laughs actually signals the end of a joke. Because we have come to expect these pauses, we know instinctively that a joke is over once we hear the pause. The comedian has completed his move, and now it’s our turn to react.
Likewise, the laugh-track is also an auditory-signal. However, it works in a slightly different way. In television, the laugh-track fills in the pauses automatically. The actors break their dialog momentarily and the “audience” inserts sound. In sit-coms—generally unlike in stand-up comedy shows—not every line of script is part of a joke, and so the laugh-track signals to the viewer which lines are the funny ones. The track not only says when one joke is over, it actually tells us what is and isn’t (supposed to be) funny, as well as the degrees of hilarity, with big jokes receiving a longer and louder reception than less important ones.
Essentially, this is what happens when Rogen laughs in his movies. This time, instead of the coming from an anonymous and unseen audience, the laugh-track comes from one of the film’s present characters. Like the comedic pause and the laugh-in-a-box, Rogen signals what is and isn’t funny. For example, in Knocked Up, Leslie Mann’s character thinks that her husband, played by Paul Rudd, is cheating on her, so she follows him one night hoping to catch him at his supposed lover’s house.
Instead, she finds him at a fantasy baseball draft with his friends, where she confronts him for lying to her. Mann storms out of the house and Rudd chases after, prompting a guy at the draft to shout “Don’t let the door hit you in the vagina on the way out!” The scene is tense, the characters too surprised to react, and the joke doesn’t land.
Seth Rogen in Funny People
A minute later Rogen’s Ben says to Katherine Heigl’s Allison “Did you hear what that guy said?” and then repeats the quip and chuckles. Even though he’s just repeating a weak joke, Rogen’s little response and laugh is much funnier than the original line. Rogen has transformed a stale joke into a solid punch line.
In that instance, Rogen’s response acted in the same way the laugh-track does, eliciting an audience’s response. Yet, the audience is rarely aware of this. Because it has been a TV establishment for as long as we’ve all been viewers, it’s something that we are used to. It was even used in cartoon shows. Remember Scooby Doo, Where are You? and The Flintstones? The canned laugh is so much a part of our TV watching experience that, at some point, we came to expect it, even on shows that would be impossible to do in front of a live-audience. It’s so ordinary that we gloss over it, and interestingly, often over the jokes themselves.
When we watch a show, do we ever laugh as hard as the imaginary sit-com audience does? The audience always laughs harder, sometimes screaming or cheering with joy. Unlike our real laughs, the laugh-track is an internal, rather than external reaction. Because of this, the TV show can been seen as enjoying itself.
Similarly, in his films, Rogen is clearly enjoying himself. One can see—at least it seems—that Rogen thinks the jokes (jokes he often writes himself) are funny, and so he reacts to them, although not as Rogen, but as his fictional characters. In sit-coms, the disembodied laughter is the audio-embodiment of enjoyment. Since we rarely laugh as much as the show itself, what ends up happening is that the show rhetorically laughs for us. We give our laughter over to the show itself, and likewise over to Rogen when watching Knocked Up. He assumes the active role of distinguishing jokes and then laughing for us, enjoying on our behalf.
In doing this, Rogen assumes our responsibilities within the joke teller-joke receiver dialog, and as a byproduct, we get to feel satisfied by a joke’s completion. Rogen’s laugh signals that a complex interaction has been completed properly. We naturally expect that structure to operate as it should, according to the rules we have intuited. Just like a movie, we expect that a joke will have a logical beginning, middle and end. By laughing, Rogen demonstrates that a dialog is complete. The maneuver has functioned correctly, and we are satisfied that a process has been completed.
Before the joke lands, there is a sense of insecurity, or tension. If the punch line of a joke is a release, then the set-up of a joke is the build-up of that tension. In the Seth-Rogen-laugh-track system, we expect the joke to follow the rules, but we can’t be sure that it will until the very end. As a joke begins, one recognizes the event’s cues and signs. Tension rises in the joke-receiver, because it is on them to “get” the joke.
Kurt Vonnegut referred to jokes as mousetraps, thus, the set-up is the literal setting of the trap, with the punch line (which a comedian hopes will “kill”) held under the spring-loaded pressure of the device. Once the joke begins, our worry begins. In his paper on the mechanisms of joke in The Believer, Chris Bachelder rightly states that “the joke creates anxiety, a heightened sense of awareness and tension. The joke is a threat. There is, superficially, the real worry that we might not get it, that we might be made to look foolish.” (“The Dead Chipmunk: An Interrogation into the Mechanisms of Jokes”, The Beliver.com, February 2011)
In movies, there are two separate fears: first, that we are misinterpreting the signals telling us what is and isn’t a joke, and second, that if it is a joke, we won’t get it. Both will “make us look foolish”, make us the butt of someone else’s joke (the rest of the theater audience’s joke, perhaps). The tension can only be resolved once the trap has snapped shut. Luckily, we have someone inside the movie to set-off the trap for us. Just like the laugh-track, Rogen can explain the emotional state of certain lines using his auditory signal.
Then why don’t Holmes and other critics like Rogen’s stoner persona? Are they just people who don’t like to be told what is and isn’t funny? Probably not. The relationship that is created when a movie enjoys for us –- a relationship that we, as viewers, are not all that used to, unlike with television –- breaks the unconscious bond that we’ve had with laugh-tracks for as long as we’ve been watching TV, revealing the system of laughs as a system.
The same thing happens when a TV show that doesn’t have a laugh-track suddenly adds one to make a joke. “Scrubs” and Family Guy are just two examples of programs that have done this. The fake-laughter makes the viewer recognize the ridiculousness of the laugh-track, which has become the punch line of the joke rather than the response to the punch line. The viewer understands that the laughs are actually fake, and therefore absurd, in their relationship to a prerecorded program. But Rogen laughs without that displacing ironic intent, and his boyish giggles really do start to feel affected and off-putting. Like with the fake-laugh-track, it feels added and false. But without irony, it’s doesn’t feel very funny.
Regardless of our personal feelings, Rogen’s laugh has a function that is different from its original intent. We don’t have to find the jokes funny to understand the symbolic structure, just as we don’t have to laugh during a comic’s pause if we don’t like his bit and don’t need to enjoy a sit-com, even when it’s enjoying for us. As he matures as an actor, Rogen will grow beyond his boyish giggle, leaving the laugh-track for when his early films are shown on television. But the laugh of Roan and Rogen the real-person seem inseparable, his chuckle as much a part of him as his deep voice and curly hair, and when we watch him on TV and see his real-life interviews, we will undoubtedly have a reaction to the sound—a reaction that will involve us on different levels, whether we realize it or not.