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Media Literacy – Who’s Really Laughing?

We all have weaknesses, right? As a proponent of family media, there are times when I know I’m wading in muddy waters—especially with my friends Fred and Barney.

I blame my Flintstone addiction on the years I was forced to watch them in various television stations where I was employed. But since leaving my seat in the control room, I still have the occasional craving for a dose of dippy-doodleitus (you other stone-aholics will know what I mean). So when I discovered a Flintstone marathon on a retro cartoon channel the other day, I petitioned my family to come and join me.

Soon I was engrossed in the episode where Fred and Barney take Pebbles to the wrestling match. But something was missing. Had I become too sophisticated? Was I suddenly able to see this show for what it truly was… a chauvinistic icon of repressed societal values at the dawn of the cold war?

My lack of enjoyment had a profound psychological impact that tormented me until the next morning when I began researching this article. I discovered the Cartoon Network (which owns Boomerang, the channel I was watching) has decided to air the Flintstones without the obnoxious laugh track that has always been an integral part of Bedrock life.

I was relived know I wasn’t maturing too rapidly! Yet I was shocked at how the missing guffaws created such a different tone. Barney Rubble was no longer the Emmy quality actor I once thought he was!

My experience is a perfect illustration of how electronic entertainment imbeds cues for our minds to latch onto—often without us even acknowledging they are there. Understanding why such elements are used gives us greater control over how media affects us.

Those fake laughs date back to around 1950 and a little known TV program called “The Hank McCune Show.” Broadcast by NBC, the dubbed in yuk-yuks caught on like wildfire. By the 1960’s, no show was funny without them. (An easy read at this web page will fill you in on the history of the laugh track.)

Today we’ve been hearing canned hee-haws on comedies for so long it seems like a burger without the special sauce when they’re gone. Yet it is really a subliminal attempt to convince us that what we are watching is truly hilarious.

For young viewers just developing a sense of humor, this auditory prompt has a powerful effect. When your daughter watches a program on television, a joke that may have gone over her head is suddenly brought to the forefront with a rollicking chorus. Now she knows what she has just seen is funny, and reciting it at school tomorrow should make her the hit of the class.

While something as simple as the laugh track may not seem to be a major threat, this artificial media ingredient does have the power to manipulate the perception of the audience. Young viewers with limited knowledge and critical thinking capabilities will be influenced the most.

What is reassuring is how quickly children can be taught to recognize these cues. All you need to do is sit down together and watch a couple of half-hour comedies with the intention of listening for them. Have a child keep track of how many “laughs” they hear and which performer gets the biggest chuckles. Ask them how many jokes made them giggle as hard as the “studio” audience?

Your youngsters will likely derive a great sense of empowerment as they hone their media deconstruction skills. The only downside to this crash course is they are also more likely to become very vocal and interactive as they watch television. Have patience when they want the world to know that they know a gag didn’t deserve a laugh. After all, it’s a family room and not a movie theater.

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