What happened to the laugh track? Who gets to decide if Sherlock Holmes is gay? What does it mean to wear a baseball hat backward? Why do we clap?
These are the cultural mysteries that Slate’s new podcast Decoder Ring is hoping to solve. Each month, Slate TV critic Willa Paskin will be digging into history to find out where these habits, ideas, and objects come from, what they mean, and why they matter. The first episode, on the laugh track, debuted this week—listen now.
In this S+ Extra podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Paskin about the podcast and about her latest favorite and disappointing television shows.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: So tell us a little bit about Decoder Ring. What are you trying to “decode” in this podcast?
Willa Paskin: Well it’s gonna be a different subject every month. We started sort of thinking about it in the spirit of, like, Slate Investigations, which are these really fun and interesting written pieces that the magazine does. Like I’m kind of thinking of some good examples, but there’s one like Is Hamlet fat? or What’s that noise you hear in movies when everyone’s typing all the time, like that click-click-click-click? Do people wear their backpacks with two straps or one strap? It’s sort of a long digressive piece that examines this question you’ve been wondering about in great detail.
We wanted to capture that spirit in this show but we did also want to make sure that instead of the questions getting narrower and telescoping to something really precise, maybe getting bigger that we could talk to more interesting people and think about some big ideas.
Obviously we’ve done one episode though, so we’ll see how that goes. Every episode is a learning experience obviously. That’s the idea.
So we brainstormed a bunch of ideas and the first episode is about what happened to laugh track, and it just seemed like a great start because it has really good audio, and obviously as a TV critic, I really understand TV and so felt really comfortable with that material. That turned into this much more interesting thing than I would have even imagined before we started, even though I was already interested in it.
You profiled the man who patented a device called the laugh box which is actually a box, right?
Well, we didn’t quite profile him because he’s dead. There’s this man named Charlie Douglass who sort of invented this machine that provided laugh tracks for dozens of years. For decades, almost all early sitcoms that you can imagine having a laugh track were from him. And into the ’90s and up when shows really still had laugh tracks almost as a matter of course—the people doing it were his proteges.
So it’s weird. I had never thought about it as a piece of technology, and then as a piece of proprietary technology. I had just imagined it was something really easy to drop in. I don’t even quite know what I had thought of it. I hadn’t thought of it as a huge thing until we were doing this. We sort of look at the history of the laugh track and the Laff Box and then we tried to think about what it means and why it went out of fashion, to think a little bit about more of what is going on with it, with basically how we could have gone from not hearing it, like having the thing as background noise to actually being an irritant. What changed?
Yeah. It becomes a thing where we don’t like it, right?
Yeah. Obviously, this is a little overdetermined. I think there’s lots of people that don’t mind it still, and certainly when I watch a show that doesn’t have one, certainly like an old show like Friends, I’m not irritated to hear it. It’s totally fine. I think some people feel really neutral about it, but then a lot of people are irritated by it. And even if you’re not irritated by it, it does sort of have a cue, like it sounds like something a little bit old fashioned or sounds like it’s trying to do something different than a show that doesn’t have one. It sort of broadcasts a kind of unhipness.
Was there something that surprised you when you were making this episode and researching all this stuff?
Oh my gosh, so much stuff surprised me. I just really didn’t know how they worked. We ended up talking to all these people—we found this community, this group of hobbyists who were really obsessed with laugh tracks, and they’re obsessed with the laugh track that Charlie Douglas was making in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s.
That’s just so amazing how you can basically find people who are really interested in almost anything, to the point that one of the guys that we interviewed for the piece, Paul Iverson, you can play him a laugh track, and he’ll be like, “Oh, I know where that’s from.” He can tell you the episode of The Munsters that it first appeared in. It’s really exhaustive and really fascinating.
Instead of just being this weird thing, it’s became clear that it has this kind of emotional element, where it’s just like it is the sound of people laughing, and there’s something intimate and sweet about that. It’s not just totally like a cold anonymous thing.
Then we also talked to Tommy Schlamme, who’s the director of Sports Night, about how the laugh track was used on that show even though he didn’t want it to be, and neither did Aaron Sorkin.
I would say that there’s some audio that got cut out of it, like some of the descriptions of just how the laugh box was used. You know, they wheel it in, and there’s all these buttons, and the sound engineer is listening to the show and making and creating these laughs. It’s really far out and cool.
That’s cool. Yeah, so the show will be monthly right? What are some of the future topics that you’re looking into?
Yeah. Well we’re working on a next episode that’s about Sherlock and about fandoms and basically who gets to decide if Sherlock Holmes is gay and the history of Sherlock Holmes, like going back to the beginning of Sherlock Holmes and through to the sort of the fan culture that surrounded the most recent TV show. We’re in the middle of that and it’s really, really interesting and fascinating but we haven’t written one word of it, so I don’t actually know where it’s going.
Then we’re thinking about other subjects for coming up. There’s some ideas that we’ve been kicking around. The producer Ben Frisch is really wanting to do this episode about the cultural signification of the backwards baseball hat. I’m really interested in doing a piece that’s about what people actually think about all day, like what do people really think about when they’re not distracted, which may be hard to do and may even be boring but I’m really interested in that question.
Yeah, that’s a big, broad question then.
Totally, that one may not have an answer. Yeah, and like why do people clap is one that we have been thinking about doing. There’s a lot. I’m sort of hopeful that as we continue to make more, it becomes sort of more clear what the show is, that people will have questions for us or mysteries that they want us to solve that will be awesome and interesting and we will be so happy to think about them, you know?
Yeah, I’m sure people will start pitching their own ideas soon.
Yeah. I mean the Sherlock thing is interesting because we sort of got into it, I had wanted to do some episode about why do we—by we I mean also I—why do I care so much about fictional romances? That’s obviously like a huge question, and I am still really interested in it and I do all sorts of ridiculous things like fast-forwarding and watching YouTube cuts of relationships that I’ve been interested in on television shows.
But as soon as we started looking into that sort of fandom and shipping—which is the term for when you’re rooting for a certain romantic relationship in a show—it was just so much more heightened. It was so heightened that it became obvious that it was a much better and more enticing and precise way to frame the show, but that means we’re leaving so many other questions out that we still could address one day. We could honestly do dozens of episodes about why do people care so much about romantic relationships that we’re gonna do this one and then maybe we’ll circle back some other time about the things we’ve lost.
In its essence, it’s almost about like fandom, right? Like what do people think about and obsess about, in a way.
Yeah. I mean that’s actually how I got the question of what do people think about, which I’ve wondered before. But we were talking to a woman who is in a bunch of certain fandoms, and she was talking about writing fan fic, and I was like, “Oh, you’re thinking about this when you walk down the street.” I mean, in my life I have thought about make-believe people as I’m wasting time walking down the street. I think that’s a weird thing that actually some people do, but it did make me wonder what are people doing when they’re idle. Like you’re just with yourself and you have to occupy yourself and you can’t turn on a podcast or the TV or read something, which happens less as much because there are phones now. Like what do you do to entertain yourself? Then more broadly it’s like, well really what are you thinking about all the time when you’re done thinking about errands or whatever you have to do.
If anyone whose listening has interesting things they think about, I would love them to email me, because I will interview you and we can talk about it.
Yeah, that’d be great. I know Plus members will be interested in that for sure.
Yup. Ben Frisch, who’s the producer of Decoder Ring, as we were talking about this, and he was like, “I definitely don’t make up stories in my head. You guys are nuts.” He once the revealed that he thinks about philosophical questions and I’m like, “OK, well that’s a different kind of thing.” But that got me so excited that it’s possible that people think about really different stuff. I just want to show what that was.
Well great, I look forward to all of those episodes, but meanwhile you’re also still reviewing TV shows for Slate. What’s been great lately? What have you been really enjoying?
What have I been really enjoying? I really am like the worst person because I frequently get this question and I often fumble to answer it because I just don’t watch TV just for what I like anymore and that’s complicated. But I have actually a few shows that I have really liked recently, one that I’ve written about and one that I haven’t written about, and I don’t think I will be writing about because I think Aisha Harris is gonna write the review of it.
So the first show is Dear White People, which its second season comes to Netflix I think this week, and I just continue to find it so smart, it’s so delightful. It’s a half-hour comedy, it’s set a fictional Ivy League school about the black student body there, and it’s so clever and so smart and so really about the biggest themes of our moment, but it is also like really fun to watch and all the characters are so lovable and particular and there’s so much soap opera–y shenanigans, and it’s just very funny and really sharp. I think it’s an awesome show.
Then my critic blurb is that I also really loved Killing Eve, which is this show that’s on BBC America and stars Sandra Oh as a MI6 agent who is tracking down a female contract killer whose referred to as Villainelle, whose name we don’t know at the beginning. And though that makes it sound like it’s a really grim show, it is in fact not a really grim show and it walks this extremely fine line between being extremely fun and somehow not super exploitative despite being about all this grizzly stuff. It’s from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is the creator of Fleabag, the Amazon show that was really great. She’s so good and it’s really sharp. It’s really fascinating and it has a different tone than a lot of shows about killers have, and I sort of don’t ever like those. I’m just really fully over shows about killers at this point, and I really like this one.
So you also wrote about the end of Scandal, which just ended its long run on ABC. It kind of like lost its buzz over the years, but you looked back and you found that it was actually pretty influential, right?
Yeah. I mean I’ve thought a lot about Scandal during my tenure. It’s so interesting because it was this huge buzzy show, and then I think the truth is that it’s really hard to be a huge buzzy show, and then it’s really even harder to hold onto that buzz.
I mean, you think about something like Orange is the New Black, which is probably buzzier than Scandal, but it’s hard to capture people’s attention at like season seven, even if people are still watching it. I think Scandal especially had some trouble with that just because the plot was so outlandish and so much stuff was happening all the time, and the characters became so dark and bleak and messed up that, you know, it was easy to drop out. It just kind of got more and more preposterous. Like I missed a couple episodes and I had no idea what was happening and it all just sort of seemed ridiculous anyway.
But the show is a really big deal for a lot of reasons. We know it was a big deal because it was a huge hit. It was a big deal because it sort of changed how we think about shows on social media. It sort of figured out how to use Twitter and social media to make each episode an event in a way that no show has quite managed to replicate, but it’s a really awesome and inspiring precedent for lots of shows.
Shonda Rhimes already was kind of a mogul and she had a number of shows on ABC already, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, but this was a different kind of show. It was a more ambitious and weirder and stranger show and it’s the reason she has this huge contract at Netflix now, and it’s basically kickstarted her artistic empire.
It also obviously was a show that starred a woman of color in the lead role, which hadn’t happened for decades, and I think the success of it, you can see all around us. Obviously TV is not as diverse as it should be, but it is more diverse, and I think a lot of that is because of the success of Scandal.
It also is just like a really strange and singular show with its really weird singular tone, which is that it was about these horrible people. Truly awful, just murderous, duplicitous, democracy-destroying, and it really wanted you to love them anyway, or it was really nonjudgmental about whether or not you should love them. It’s like a tone I haven’t really seen in anything else. I think it actually can often be really awkward and sort of amoral. Not immoral, but abdicating questions of morality. But that’s also really interesting.
Have there been any shows that have disappointed you recently?
Right now I’m trying not to write a review of the Starz show Bittersweet, which is a book that became a sort of surprise hit by Stephanie Danler. It’s about being a waitress at the Union Square Café—although it’s not called that—in the early aughts. The book is extremely nostalgic for a moment that I think hasn’t been lost to the sands of time and hasn’t been totally commercialized, like it hasn’t become the subject of a lot of commercial nostalgia yet. It’s like a sort of more personal nostalgia if you happened to live through the early aughts in New York City, as I did as a waitress.
Yet the show, it’s as if there’s not quite enough there exactly, and also again, I don’t know how long it’s gonna go on, but it’s probably gonna go past the book, so they’re sort of stretching it out. I wanted to like it more. I’m not even sure if I’m actually gonna review it, is how medium I feel about it, because I don’t have much to say beyond what I just said.
You also kind of said the same thing about The Handmaid’s Tale, right? Like maybe it shouldn’t have gone into this next new season?
I mean this is my bugaboo as a critic, and I’m not sure that it’s fair because I am so deluged in television. I love a show that’s half an hour; I love a show that’s six episodes long; I love a show that’s only three seasons. Those are really things that I admire and appreciate probably beyond what regular viewers do, because they just like their stories to keep going because they don’t have to watch anything they don’t want to watch.
But I think The Handmaid’s Tale is a little more philosophical, my issue with it, which is just that book ends at a certain point and it ends on this note of real ambiguity and possible darkness, and that’s life. Sometimes things that you don’t know what’s going to happen, and some things end really horribly. I’m comfortable with that’s like a real thing, and by going past that, the show I think is sort of just giving up a more kind of TV arc, which is like the possibility of an insurrection or a rebellion against this awful and brutal and sexist and misogynist and, you know, murderous theocratic regime of Gilead.
I’m of two minds about that, because I think that that could be an awesome TV story too. There’s possibility for that to be a really enticing and gripping TV show, but it is a TV show that is a lot more action-oriented, and a lot more maybe ultimately feel good even though it makes you feel so horrible in the moment than the book was.
So I sort of have to see what happens. There is some weird juxtaposition of like how hard the show is to watch, like how horrible all of the stuff is that’s happening in that world and how much dread it fills you with and how tense it is, and just like the repeated torture of all these women basically, then sort of holding out this carrot that it’s possible there gonna be able to make a change or break out. But that’s the sort of thing that one season really heightens the tension between those two vibes.
Is there anything that you’re looking forward to that’s coming up? We’re used to having reruns during summer, but now that’s all changed.
I know. I’m thinking reruns. Like isn’t that hilarious? We used to watch the same episode and it was totally fine, and people don’t really do that anymore.
I’m really looking forward to Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is this Australian show that’s based on a novel that was also turned into sort of a famous well-regarded movie that stars Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones, and I’m looking forward to that a lot.
And Kimmy Schmidt is coming back, and that’s always my summer show, because I think that’s like the only show that’s actually really, really funny. It just really makes me laugh.
I mean there’s more stuff coming. There’s the adaptation of the Patrick Melrose book is coming to Showtime starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m interested in that, although I’m not necessarily expecting to love it. There’ll be more. That’s what I’m looking at for the rest of May.
There’s always more TV to come.
Yeah, there is always more TV.