Canned Laughter (and other falsifications)

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Content advisory 18+ When I was a kid back in America and would watch the sit-coms on TV (which now leads me to reflect "Did I HAVE a life?"), I was always struck by the laughter that would erupt in the background every time someone said something that was supposed to be funny. Didn't matter if it actually WAS funny -- the knee-slapping merry-makers in the television studio ("coming to you all the way from NUUUUUU York City !"), or from somewhere in the back of my TV set, or the lagoons of Hell -- wherever they actually were seated-- would, as though shackled to some nervous-tic-reaction-machine, burst into howling gales of apparently irrepressible laughter.

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I don't recall whether I was intuitive enough at that age to understand the reason for it -- which was very simple: when everyone else commences laughing, it is natural for you to start laughing too. It doesn't matter at what. It's the same if you stand in the middle of the street gazing up at the sky. The next thing you know other people stop and start casting their eyes upwards as well, trying to figure out what you are looking at (which is a perfect time for you to walk away, leaving them gawking up at nothing, which was the whole idea in the first place).

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Like mob dancing, when you are at an airport or big urban station where there are a lot of people. Suddenly one person gets up and starts gyrating and swirling and swiveling, and then another and another. Soon half the station is doing it and, quite frankly, I find the overall effect rather marvelous. Street art based on human traffic.
It's contagious, like yawning.
But laughter is the Biggee. I’ve heard there is even a form of psychological treatment known as 'laughter therapy’. Apparently, depressed people (otherwise, why would they be there?) get together and somebody just starts laughing like hell. Har har, ho ho, hee hee. I don’t know but I would guess that an awkward moment of silence from the others would ensue, and then, “Yuck, yuck, hahaha, axaxax, moo haw haw” answers another, and before you know it the whole house is splitting its sides, phlegm and spit flying everywhere as the jubilant subjects chortle and cackle and piss themselves in a fruitless effort at regaining self-control. After that, they are healed of their depression.

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Well maybe.
But I confess to having a weakness for the mob dancing. The glory in it is that it all seems so SPONTANEOUS. Kind of renews your faith in people -- I mean, all those dreary souls shuffling along on automatic pilot and then, WHAM! -- the world bursts into this explosion of grace and agility and harmony. Isn't it wonderful? Right smack-dab in the middle of the sooooo serious afternoon.
Therefore -- returning to my childhood -- it was a bit of a downer when my grandmother explained that, No, these weren't real people laughing at the same moment we were watching the program on our black and white TV (though sometimes a blurb on the screen would tell us that the show had been "performed in front of a live audience") -- rather, the laughter was a recording and was designed, as I said, to entice the viewers sitting in their living rooms to laugh also. Did it matter that some of the hee hee-ing and haw haw-ing throng were already dead and in their coffins? Not a bit of it. We still heard them ho-ho-ing their asses off. That's why they called it "Canned Laughter."

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Just like the mob dance involves apparently miscellaneous performers waiting for their cue and then bouncing into action. The effect is still great, but, alas, someone behind the scenes is pulling the strings and what seemed to have been pure creation turns out to be carefully crafted choreography.
There was once a great American tennis player named Jimmy Connors who really knew how to play to the crowd and get everyone all steamed up. After hitting a winning shot at a key moment, he would start pumping his fist and snarling at the air, as if giving himself the greatest motivational speech of all time. Of course the crowd (especially at the U.S. Open in New York) ate it up like a tub of raw oysters) and Connors himself seemed to get jacked up even more and incite the crowd further, and so it went back and forth. Connors was a genius: he made the crowd part of the action, part of the drama. Superb theater -- better than most of the Broadway plays showing down the street at the same time. Of course, Connors could deliver the great shots as well.

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And so the smart-guy gurus down at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida (same place where Sharapova and her dad went years ago) decided that, in addition to instructing the kids on how to improve their tennis, they would also teach them the science of getting the crowd involved. Thus the spectacle unfolded (had you been at the academy watching) of all these strutting little tennis tykes dramatically pumping their fists at imaginary crowds, shouting savagely at the air, and, in general, preparing themselves for future magic moments at the Wimbledons of the next decade.

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Not real emotion, mind you, but Pretend emotion. Choreography. Or, to use the fabulous exhortations of American job interviewer coaches, the ways and means of "Selling Yourself."
Fake? Yeah, I think so. Really phony. But does it matter to a World of Surfaces (the one on which we live our lives) where Appearance often tends to mean more than Reality; where Style often supersedes Substance, and where Image is Everything?
A century ago, my favorite poet William Butler Yeats, penned these short but insightful lines:


‘PUT off that mask of burning gold

With emerald eyes.’

‘O no, my dear, you make so bold

To find if hearts be wild and wise,

And yet not cold.’

‘I would but find what’s there to find,

Love or deceit.’

‘It was the mask engaged your mind,

And after set your heart to beat,

Not what’s behind.’

‘But lest you are my enemy,

I must enquire.’

‘O no, my dear, let all that be,

What matter, so there is but fire

In you, in me?’

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So, in his inimitable lyrical way, the poet describes how we really DO spread ourselves, like a kind of gel or secret tanning lotion -- or in many cases simply cheap peanut butter -- out upon the surfaces of things, like moths to glass windows when the room inside is glowing, indeed like Spider Man himself, dexterously scaling the sheer sides of the tallest buildings. OK, Spider Man is for real, but it’s the outer rim of the skyscraper that grabs his attention, not what is inside. What is inside is irrelevant: please, a voice tells us (full of servile cunning) show us the facade and not the dreary cloakrooms of the mind, the glittering smile and not the glowering soul that fills the cobwebbed inner human rooms...

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Among men and women (or any combo you like) in their endless jostle and jousting, so many of the potentially meaningful exchanges are merely fake -- so it often seems -- and not because it HAS to be, but rather as if by some unspoken agreement it just IS, and, anyway, do we covet the sensuality of the mask any the less simply because an empty vessel or even a conventional ghost dwells behind it? The totally cosmetic man or woman : he with botex, hair-follicle replacement, viagra, and maybe even a penile implant; she with artificial hair, eyes, lips, breasts, hips, fingernails, liposuction -- and both products of the solarium -- both faking their orgasms (he being too tired to connect himself to the job; she, because he does not arouse her), and both of them trying to get off by fantasizing about someone else at the office or an image merely glimpsed in the window of a passing train....

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...and yet on FaceBook they both look very happy, alone and together…
---are they really so UNhappy?
I think they are happy this way.
It reminds me of the photo-shoots that occur after weddings. The couples, airbrushed to a new level, always look so much better than in real life. Or is it that the artist preparing the keepsake album is simply able to locate, beyond the bare bones and jaws and cheeks of the newlyweds, some beautiful potential that maybe, throughout long years of commonplace matrimony, may flash to the surface like the ghost of electricity just once or twice, like sunrise on a ship at sea or a stranger’s smile on a bridge that ushers forth out of the twilight for no reason?

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And maybe they ARE happy. Or maybe they have never asked themselves -- perhaps better that way. Or maybe Happiness is just the idea that they/we choose from among other sentiments, because so often when we look back, long after all the surface experiences have been filmed, recorded, set in frames, and put on the mantelpiece to gather dust -- it is to those we return when the stage-players of our moments are long gone -- to the years or to the grave -- and we look back and allow past illusions to swallow us whole again, like a train dipping down into a black tunnel -- and suddenly everything we pretended somehow seems to have been real after all. The partial truth and even the bald-faced lie conspire to reform the illusions and reaffirm as genuine all that they once aspired to be.

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Just as we too often found ourselves as actors in moments that were never true and building futures that would never take place, so we, implacable, undaunted architects that we are, finally set about conjuring up a YESTERDAY in which some of our dreams actually came to pass in the manner we first visualized them.
At sundown, satisfied with our creation, we stop in a cafe and get slightly tipsy.

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Then, as we walk along on windy autumn streets, watching young people on their evening promenades wearing the bright, tight sweaters that are preludes to the naked warmth they will soon share in rooms now beyond us, we will say: We wore those uniforms once ourselves; we say: Yes, that was happiness. That was when we were really and truly Happy.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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