Laugh Out Loud

July 30, 2010

If you want to get a sense of television’s monolithic past, watch an episode of the 1950s American family show Leave it to Beaver. Gleaming white, pristine—it looks like it was carved out of marble—the show exemplified an ideal of a suburban middle-class family. Just about as opposite to The Real Housewives of New Jersey as you can get.

I can’t imagine that many viewers could actually relate to Beaver. The show didn’t aspire to reveal what was really going on in American households. Today we love anything that disturbs the status quo; we are unified in being dysfunctional. There is no better reminder of this than our bizarre and often inappropriate sense of humor. Rob Walker recently wrote an interesting article about the viral nature of funny online memes like Sad Keanu, and how that is influencing mass media, rather than the other way around. One of Walker’s main points is that more and more, the Internet and television are reflections of what our culture is, rather than projections of what it should be.

The consumer’s relationship to television was greatly changed when video came around in the 1960s. This could be thought of as the start of “personalized television,” the legacy of TiVO, Vimeo, YouTube, and all those ROFL memes. Video cameras and play-back recorders encouraged people to think about their relationship to media as active rather than passive. Though media companies were at first resistant to the idea that consumers be given a participatory role, this has now become a major selling point. Video was just the beginning of the hype over user-generated content.

There’s pretty universal mooning over YouTube. Attempts to aggregate all the ways individuals interact with YouTube is probably impossible—one of its attractions. For instance, type in “Benny Hill” on YouTube and you’ll find countless videos setting this familiar theme to, well, just about anything (see video above), with the idea that this transforms everything from horror films to maudlin melodrama into comedy. It isn’t new technology that’s exciting so much as what that technology enables, and while this might not change the world, it does have the power to mess up sanitized cultural signifiers. The whole concept behind the LOL response to viral humor is a kind of revolt against the canned laugh track of rarified TV; the liberation of the laugh could be one of the most important things to happen in culture recently.

1.Ed H
August 11, 2010 12:39 AM
"It looks like it was carved out of marble." Genius!

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