Don’t Tell Me What To Feel

crylaugh_StuartMilesI’ve never been a fan of sitcoms, mostly because of the “situation” part of that equation. Sitcoms rely on placing characters into ridiculous circumstances and then having them do silly things to reach a resolution. The circumstances, the resolutions, or both require the characters (and often the audience) to be completely stupid for the “plot” to work. It’s contrived and trite, and I rarely enjoy it.

Really, though, the single thing that bugs me most about sitcoms is the laugh track.

As I write this, my sister is in her room with the door open. She likes to have the TV on in the background while she works, and something like a sitcom is perfect because it doesn’t require her to follow along closely. In part that’s because she’s probably seen every episode already, but in part, it’s because the show never required much brain power to start with.

Most sitcoms have the same basic setup: a group of main characters who have different backgrounds and personalities and each week are thrust into some kind of situation that made them do some kind of over the top thing to resolve. It’s generally brainless entertainment, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

But sitting here, the only thing I can hear clearly from the TV is the show’s laugh track. And it is grating on my nerves like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like water torture, the same sound repeated over and over at almost the same intervals until I just want to scream for it to stop already.

Even more than that, though, it makes me want to yell at the TV to stop telling me when I’m supposed to laugh. I can figure out when something is actually funny without something holding up a “WELL, LAUGH!” sign in front of me. And if something isn’t funny, throwing in canned laughter isn’t going to make it funny.

In short, I don’t like emotional manipulation. Of any kind.

In romance, I see a lot of books described as “tearjerkers.” I don’t have a problem with that label, really. I know a lot of readers love a book that has them reaching for the tissues. I’ve certainly read some books that made me tear up, and I’m a tough nut to crack.

Having said that… if I’m reading a book and it feels to me like the author is trying to make me cry? All they’re likely to get out of me is an eyeroll or a huff of annoyance.

Defining what constitutes emotional manipulation in a book can be like defining obscenity: I know it when I see it. Obviously I’m not about to give examples, even if I could think of specific ones right now. But one example is “piling on”: one bad thing after another happening until it’s beyond the point of suspension of disbelief. Another would be a character reacting in a way that’s completely out of line with who we’ve been told he is. Sometimes it’s a “big misunderstanding” that could have been avoided (or could be resolved) with just a few words.

I like reading books about people and situations that feel real, even though they aren’t. But you may have heard a little adage called “truth is stranger than fiction.” To “feel real,” fiction has to make more sense than reality. Real people do weird things for no reason all the time, but in fiction, that weird thing needs to fit the story. If it doesn’t, it belongs on the cutting room floor.

Real life is easy, folks. It’s fiction that’s hard. And that’s why so many sitcoms need laugh tracks to prop them up.

So jerk tears all you want! Or laughter, or whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Just make sure you’re doing the work it takes to evoke real emotion.

Not something that has to be added in post-production.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

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