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The Laugh Track Effect

I was watching Community this weekend and was reminded how often conversations on racism, transphobia or homophobia, even when painted with a negative light have “the laugh track”.

Ken Jeong in Blackface on Community’s Dungeons & Dragons episode.
Ken Jeong in Blackface on Community’s Dungeons & Dragons episode.

The laugh track is an audio recording consisting of laughter (and other audience reactions) usually used as a separate soundtrack for comedy productions. The laugh track may contain live audience reactions or artificial laughter (canned laughter or fake laughter) made to be inserted into the show, or a combination of the two.

Even without the actual laugh track present a lot of scenes are set up expecting a laugh or to be perceived as comical. The intent is to keep up the charade that this isn’t how real people talk, this is an exaggerated persona, no one is this racist, homophobic, transphobic or obtuse in real life. The reality is people are and these scenes give them permission to continue to be. The example above with character Benjamin Chang in Blackface was acknowledged and met with disdain but not entirely dismissed by the rest of the cast members.


Robert Downey Jr. in Blackface for Tropic Thunder. Steve Carell says the N word multiple times in the Office episode Diversity Day. Tyler Perry dressed as the character Madea which is a caricature of Black women.
Robert Downey Jr. in Blackface for Tropic Thunder. Steve Carell says the N word multiple times in the Office episode Diversity Day. Tyler Perry dressed as the character Madea which is a caricature of Black women.

There are several examples of this in media. These constant examples cause people to be desensitized to these images and become conditioned to subconsciously expect a laugh track/punchline when later exposed to these topics in other settings. We see this when White people are uncomfortable and angry during conversations about police brutality, the horrific history of enslaved people in America and the active genocide of Black people in America. We also see it with conversations around transgender rights.


“Being self aware of the fact that you’re doing something offensive doesn't automatically excuse that thing.”- Dara Starr Tucker

These scenes, characters and films make it harder and harder for these behaviors (Blackface, misogynoir, colorism, transphobia, anti-Blackness, etc.) to be labeled as harmful and for those being harmed not to be dismissed or gaslit. It should also be noted that a lot of these underlying behaviors (gaslighting, manipulation, rejection of accountability, stunted emotional maturity, etc.) and narcissism go hand in hand. Harmful behavior does not need to be framed as comical and it most certainly does not need a laugh track.

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