I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing because I was wondering if you would like to be friends.
MD: Welcome to Episode 2 (who knew we’d make it this far?!) of Art Collision. I am your host Michael Doshier a.k.a. Johnny Darlin in musical land. And in this episode of Art Collision, I sit down with Julia Pugachevsky, creator of the web series "Life After Fat," and Kaela Garvin, co-creator of the web-series "2 Girls 1 Asian." Julia and Kaela are both friends of mine from college, but their creation and release of these series’ came as a shock to me as a friend and fan. Somehow, despite just graduating school and carrying demanding day jobs and pursuing other artistic endeavors that I did know about, these two friends of mine were suddenly releasing these seemingly massive, highly collaborative, sleek-as-hell projects that I’ve always been deeply intrigued with. Where did they find the time and the funding and the casts and the inspiration? How personal were these projects to each of them, and what were the themes they were trying to explore? I couldn’t wait to find out the answers to these questions, but even more importantly, to see what happened when placing two strangers in a room together who had undergone similar processes to deliver very different, yet equally stunning, results. With, of course, some free-flowing Blue Moon, as always.
This is Art Collision: Kaela Garvin in Conversation with Julia Pugachevsky.
MD: Today I am here with Kaela Garvin of “2 Girls 1 Asian” and Julia Pugachevsky of “Life After Fat.” Thank you both very much for joining me today. In both of your series, you’re very much exploring the idea of identity. That’s evident from just the title of either of them. I’m curious why you chose that particular identity to explore and where that came from in your psyches and minds.
JP: For me, “Life After Fat” came from – I haven’t personally lost a lot of weight, but I’ve had friends who have, and who had sort of similar experiences where it’s sort of… adjusting to this new body, and feeling like there’s this definitive “new you”, which I strongly disagree with. I think as a society we teach women especially (but men as well) that once you transform into a new person, your life will be so much better and work out. That’s sort of the core of the show – exploring that aspect of it, and finding out who you really are in this way that isn’t being perfect all the time, or being thinner or having better skin or whatever it is. It’s a matter of finding that original person in all their new forms and tying them together.
KG: That was something I really liked about your series – and it was so subtle and cool – was that, it’s not just people who are overweight or underweight or going through weight change that face body image issues. It’s everybody. You see that in all the characters in their relationships, so I thought that was really subtle and cool. We chose to focus on racial identity because me and my friend Kelly who created it, it’s something we always talk about. We’re both half-Asian and we’re usually the two People of Color in the room – if not the only ones, there may be someone else of a different race. But we are usually the only Asian people in the room. So there are a lot of micro-aggressions that go on all the time. There’s this persistent American idea that being Asian is “other” and “foreign” no matter how long you’ve been in the country. There’s also all these other crazy things that men say to Asian women online, in-person, on the street. The other day in Chelsea, there was this guy just yelling “Ni hao” at me for forever. Twice in one day! I walked past him two times and maybe he was yelling “Ni hao” at everybody, but I don’t think so! So, yeah, for us it was the obvious thing that if we’re creating avatars of ourselves going through the world, something that we connect to as friends and artists when we’re working in a room as diverse as they get, race is a thing that comes up a lot for us. So we took that and ran with it, and took it up to 100 in the series, but it was something that was real in our lives.
MD: Both shows are based in New York City – you both live in New York City and they feel like New York shows. What does that backdrop add to the show?
JP: When I started “Life After Fat,” I was around 21 so I was super into Girls. I still am; I still watch it with a more critical eye now (especially when it comes to race and inclusivity, although I think Lena Dunham has grown a lot as an artist) but when I first saw it, I was so amazed. I think because I had never seen someone who looks like Lena Dunham portrayed in a sexual way. Or, a way that’s earnest and not the punch line of a joke. And I just love the style of it – they had these friendships that were not always perfect and even catty sometimes, which I think can happen in your 20s. The people you think are your friends are perhaps your friends for the wrong reason. There was something about the grittiness of it I loved and I found kind of real at that time. During the first season of “Life After Fat,” that’s definitely true where there’s a little bit of jealousy and cattiness and everyone’s struggling to find a job. Coming out of college, in addition to any weight transformations or personal changes, you also have the change of not being supported by your parents anymore and having to make a name for yourself, having to make a life for yourself. All of that combined, being 20 in New York is maddening; it really is. It’s a struggle.
KG: Both of our series look at being a woman in New York City, going through daily life, interacting with this crazy huge metropolis which is the best place in the world but at times super “other” and scary and isolating. For us at least, it was an obvious choice – we met here, we live here. The filming it, perhaps, in one of our hometowns (Kelly is from Maryland, I’m the from San Francisco Bay Area) – we’re both from total suburbia. So the situations we find ourselves in may even be more aggravated because they’re less frequent. I think here, there’s a fast-paced thing that makes every event seem both more significant and less, depending on how your day’s been.
JP: That’s very real. I also like that you gave that nod to Hannah Horvath in your pilot. That was so good, and I was thinking the same thing. It reminds me of the opening scene of Girls where the parents are like, “We’re actually cutting you off.” It reminded me of both Girls and Broad City – in Broad City, you have them both skyping each other, and you’re both having these Skype conversations with your parents at the same time. It’s like, surreal and hilarious but also feels so, so real at the same time. Your friends are just with you in these very strange times.
KG: With our real parents messing up their lines!
MD: That was one of my questions! Those were your real parents?
KG: Yeah, we did it before Aziz! (laughs) No, we skyped both of our parents in their houses in Maryland and California to film that scene and my dad was reading a paper and you can see it! You can see that he’s doing it. And one of my friends messaged me and was like, “So your dad hasn’t memorized, huh?” Sorry!
MD: Dad was not off-book. Do your parents watch the whole series?
KG: They did! Actually in the mid-season, it starts with an episode where we have period shits and we’re in the bathroom and Kelly’s farting a lot. My dad, when I went home for Christmas, he was really mad. He was like, “We only watched two minutes then we turned it off. You should really think before making material like that.” But then he was like, “Yeah, well, I don’t know, it’d be easier for me to swallow if it was like a dude doing it.” And I was like, “That’s why we’re doing it!”
JP: I so agree with that too. In the pilot of “Life After Fat” there was a joke that people always comment on. One of the girls talks about sneezing and her tampon falling out. I don’t know, it’s something that I’m so excited about when I see female web series creators, because I think that’s something we need to tackle. You know, like, why is it only in Judd Apatow movies you have guys doing gross stuff or being weird? I feel like Broad City is something that I’m very, very excited about for that reason too. Women being kind of like the guys, cause we are. There’s no rule that we can’t be this way. I think showing that vulnerability, both series’ have that in common where you’re showing women being themselves and fucking up and it’s okay and it can be cute, even.
MD: I wanted to talk about my favorite episode of each one. I’ll start with you, Julia. My favorite episode was “Brunch” largely because of the interaction between Lauren and Ellen. To me, it speaks to the existential dread most artists – at least myself – have which is worry that I’m not doing enough. In that scene, she was literally told she wasn’t doing enough. It was poignant and hard to watch, and weirdly inspiring because you could tell she was going to go out and do more.
JP: Yeah, originally Ellen was supposed to be Russian, like an Olga or something. My parents are from the Former Soviet Union. I used to take music classes at this Russian Music Academy. There’s such a difference and it can be a lot harsher. I think having parents that are Ukrainian and not American – they would always criticize other parents of my American friends, like, “What is it with this country where we tell everyone they’re good all the time. That’s sick, that’s bad.” It’s weird; I sort of grew up in between that, being a kid of immigrants. It’s always like, “if you want to do something artistic,” and my parents have always been supportive of that, but they’d say, “You have to work for it. We won’t support you if you’re going to drink and fuck around and say you’re an artist.” So, I think that’s the message with that. Lauren is someone who wants to be an actor as so many people do, but her perception of what is trying hard is not actually trying hard. This woman, she’s older and more experienced, looks at her like, “You have everything. You have all this privilege, this time, this money to actually put into something. Why aren’t you doing every tiny thing that you can when you’ve been given so much?”
MD: My favorite episode of “2 Girls 1 Asian” was the Super Musical Episode.
KG: We sort of came up with the idea while driving around in her car when she had a car in the city. She’s now in grad school back at home in Maryland, but we’d drive around and toss around ideas, which is where we came up with the whole season. We were super excited about the musical episode. For the first season, I’d churn out a draft based on an outline Kelly would give me and then we’d outline what each scene might look like. Then I’d go back and write it and she’d give me notes and we’d go back and forth and then our director and D.P. Dorian and Tyler would give us notes and rewrites. So it was very a collaborative process. The first draft of the script, though, the lyrics were not that super different. Then we realized if you want to use that music, it has to be a parody legally. So I went back and really hacked at the songs and most of those lyrics stayed which is what you hear. Then we brought on board a couple of great musicians – one is Lance Jabr, who I went to High School with. He’s back in the Bay Area now but at the time he was at NYU for grad school. And a guy I went to class with, John Franco, who is an amazing pianist. So we recorded it all in one of the actress’s apartments, actually, cause she at the time had a sound studio set up. So it was a lot of moving parts, but I loved recording it, I loved doing all the music, and Kelly and I both come from a Musical Theatre background so it was fun to be total dorks about that. It was a lot of fun to shoot, but it definitely sucked up the most budget and time out of any episode because we had to do so much for it.
MD: I want to talk about the ending of each season one of your series, how I interpreted it, allow you to expand on that or correct me if I’m wrong, and talk about the future of what these characters are going to go through in the upcoming seasons, as much as you want to say about that. I’ll start with you, Julia, the last scene of “Life After Fat” read to me as this amazing moment where our protagonist made a decision to change her life in a radical way. In her decision to approach this group of artists that inspire and challenge her and leave this guy behind that she is hanging out with – which is not something she had done at that point, she seemed very apt to hook up or date whoever made themselves available to her. It seems like her friendship drama with her roommate is out of her mind at this point and she’s committed to going to something new in her life.
JP: She’s sort of this character that has this new body but doesn’t feel attached to it yet. Partially because she never felt people liked her or accepted her for who she was before this change. She’s bouncing from guy to guy – you never know if the sex is good for her. She hooks up and does these things because she feels like they’ll validate her in some way. Regardless of if you have this backstory or not, I feel like that’s something a lot of women – myself included – go through. I’d say the early years of my 20’s were like, getting drunk and hooking up and pretending to have this emotional barrier of “I don’t care! It’s fine!” And pretending to always be the chill girl. Her exterior is that she’s not very emotional unless she’s pushed. Her brother sort of pushes her a lot and that’s the first time you see her break, really. She’s almost like, disturbingly calm. You can see it drives her friends crazy and they all worry about her. So I think this is a chance of her – seeing this beautiful thing, this Burlesque dancer, and deciding to take this chance and try it. It’s showing more vulnerability, it’s healthier, and it’s something that could promote actual self-love, which is something I want to explore. In season 2, not to spoil too much, it’ll be the first time she actually falls in love with someone and I think that will be something where she’s really exploring these emotions for the first time and allowing herself to be vulnerable in this very, very real way. That’s sort of where I want to see her character grow and really challenge her. It’s easy to be this, I don’t know, sort of like you’re floating above your body the whole time and not really interacting or reacting to things.
MD: That’s beautiful. (laughs) I was just really moved by that! I feel the need to take a risk in my life and totally shake things up! And then, for you, Kaela, I felt that the ending of “2 Girls 1 Asian” was kind of the opposite, but just as inspiring and moving. For me, it read that they had this moment where they could radically change their lives by taking a break from their friendship, but instead the moment they decide to give that a shot, they realize they are each other’s partners.
KG: We actually rewrote most of the last episode. We shot it all in a car on the road in Sleepy Hollow, New York. We scouted out the location the night before. We were like, “Eh, this script isn’t doing it for me,” so as we were talking we started to improve a scene until we thought we had it right for the end. It was always going to be that ending, though, of them trying to walk into the wilderness with their dead car by the side of the road. But looking forward, we did three more episodes as a mid-season that aren’t tied down to any storyline. They’re basically back in Brooklyn up to their normal antics. Friends are really your lifeline, especially in New York City, so in season 2 we’re trying to figure out some of our ideas, especially now that we’re physically separated. Our series has always been ludicrously autobiographical – we’ll take what’s going on in our real lives and totally explode that into something we think is funny, I don’t know if it’s actually funny, it’s funny-ish. But we’re hoping to look into what happens – and this was an idea pitched to us in a writer’s room for the midseries – what if one of the girls goes to grad school? How do they deal with each other gaining success without the other one? Maybe not even without, but separate. And that’s something that actually happened in our real lives, and I think we’re interested in looking into that and what that means for the fictional Kaela and Kelly.
JP: Something I love about your series and am almost jealous of in a way is that they have this beautiful friendship and it’s a love story. It’s platonic, but I think you’re seeing them overcome these things together and they have conflicts within that friendship, but you can’t see one without the other. I think seeing one person succeed, especially with acting where it’s so…it can be so raw, all the emotions of pursuing an artistic career in general. Seeing one friend succeed without the other is hard, because success is so rare in general. I don’t know. I’m so moved by the friendship and I love shows where there are two women where they are so close, nice, and real with each other. They have a real genuine friendship.
KG: I think that’s why it’s so cool to see so many lady web series popping up. Institutionally, there’s not funding for women’s’ projects. I feel that in this independent arts community is where women get to shine because nobody’s giving us money.
JP: Or a chance. Women are half the population if not more, in this country at least. TV and playwriting have more space for women, but even playwriting, on Broadway you see a bunch of old white guy stuff rehashed a lot. With TV, you have Amy Schumer, you have Samantha B, you have Broad City, and you have Shonda Rhimes. You have all these women in power doing these cool things and it becomes this thing where webseries’ are getting picked up. If you are good enough, they will notice you. And I don’t feel the same way about Hollywood. And I think even where I work – I work at Buzzfeed – I love that we have so many strong women and I’m allowed to do stuff that’s content for women. I think the Internet web series realm is a really great place for female creators to thrive. For female filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers and writers – make something, put it on there, and be so good that they can’t not notice you.
KG: I think in general, artists, self-production is the way to go. It’s great that the Internet is around to publicize it. But it’s such a weird time to be an artist cause there’s so little real public funding and private funding is, you have to be commercially viable which translates into white, straight, and a dude. Which is like, so weird, that that’s…most of the world is not a straight white dude so why is that the entertainment they think makes money? They’ve shown if you make a series for Asian people or Black people or women, it’s going to do well. If it’s good.
JP: Tons of admiration for you cause you’ve done so many episodes. I was going through YouTube for "2 Girls 1 Asian", I was like “Holy shit!” They’re so long, too, with so much footage! It’s so much work, I was like, “Holy fuck, I have to get my life together!” It was so impressive and so great. I love your friendship with Kelly. It’s so cute and real.
KG: Yeah, I loved your series as well and I can’t wait to see more of it! I’m excited for season number 2!
JP: We’ve been so delayed…
KG: I feel like that’s Rule #2 of working in film. If Rule #1 is “Be Organized,” Rule #2 is “It’s fine if you’re not, cause no one else is!” Well, not really, but –
JP: It’s a beautiful mess. You have to fuck up a lot to get better. That’s the number one thing I’ve learned – you’re going to mess up two hundred times then maybe start getting a little bit better.
Thank you so much to both Julia Pugachevsky and Kaela Garvin for joining me for a cross-web-series discussion on Things Created By People’s Art Collision. Season 1 of Julia’s “Life After Fat” can be viewed in its entirety at lifeafterfatseries.com. Season 1 and the mid-season episode-thruple of Kaela Garvin and Kelly Colburn’s “2 Girls 1 Asian” is at 2girls1asian.com.
Both are moving forward with their second seasons in 2016 and have laid the groundwork – available right now for you to watch - to be exploring very enticing territory this year. Both shows come highly recommended from your loyal host here at Art Collision who would never steer you wrong.
As always, please hit me up if you are interested in being paired up with another artist and coming over to share a few drinks with me and another artist. It would truly be my pleasure and just an FYI – I ALWAYS provide the drinks, so you get to drink for free and talk about your own shit!
All original music featured in this episode - outside of the music in the web series clips - was by the amazing JULIAN, and you can find JULIAN’s work at soundcloud.com/jalapeno_boi.
Until next time.
There’s a joke in my family that I was only made aware of recently, and it’s that I am going to wind up being like one of the sons from Step Brothers. Living with my parents well into my thirties. Unemployed. No car. Not married. The list goes on. My brother Willy P probably told the joke to my mother and she probably laughed because she thinks it’s true. Right now, at least, I think she thinks it could happen. In addition to freelancing and working in retail, I am looking for that ever-holy full-time job. And when it comes, glory will be upon us. Yet for now, everyday I must convince Mother, “Yes, I applied to many jobs today. Yes, I reached out to people on LinkedIn. No, Mother, I can’t apply to that job, I can’t afford a car. There’s only $80 in my bank account, $37,000 of which belong to my student loans.”
Sometimes I watch Full House at night. It’s not a great show, but I remember it being on in the background when I was very little – maybe three years old. Then, when I was in middle school and had the house to myself before anyone came home, I would eat a ham and cheese Hot Pocket and watch reruns. Now whenever I watch an episode I always have my computer next to me, convinced that as long as Final Draft is opened, I am still writing.
I feel like a disappointment to my parents and a broken record to my friends – I mean, how many times can you make a joke about having no money? As much as we need comedy to relieve pain and forget our woes, hearing the same joke over and over again becomes depressing. There are only so many times you can chuckle about Uncle Jesse’s hair or Kimmy Gibbler’s feet until you feel like you’re trapped in a mental institution.
So instead of remembering the good old days through corny sitcoms, occasionally I will turn to Unsolved Mysteries and visit the stories that scared me in my younger days, and to be honest, still do. That’s the thing about comedy – there’s a setup, and then a punch line, and not much else left to the imagination. But with mysteries, the story is never over until it is officially solved. When I get creeped out by something that had the same effect on me ten years ago, it’s almost like time has never changed.
For those of you who were not fortunate enough to be brought up by the school of Robert Stack, Unsolved Mysteries ran from 1987 – 2001 and brought to life the disturbing stories you heard on the news. It terrified even the most skeptic of viewers, and the opening theme certainly didn’t help. I still suffer post-traumatic stress when I hear the music followed by Stack’s spine-chilling narration reminding us that we might be able to help solve a mystery.
The show was extremely successful in finding criminals and reuniting families with their lost loved ones, or at least bringing some sort of closure involving a missing person’s whereabouts. And what separates this show from the copycats on Investigation Discovery and similar networks is that Unsolved Mysteries actually seemed dedicated to helping victims and families. What is on TV today is edited so heavily with campy special effects and overly dramatic narration and performances that it appears to be purely for entertainment, making a melodrama out of unfortunately real events. Whereas Unsolved Mysteries told the facts without flair, what you see today are basically TV movies in disguise – they have the actors smiling sinisterly into the cameras breaking the fourth wall, and each commercial break ends in some dramatic tune. Unsolved Mysteries treated each episode like a mini-documentary usually no longer than ten minutes. They interviewed eye-witnesses and loved ones and gave all sides of a story, so although they claimed at the beginning that the show “wasn’t a news broadcast,” it kind of was one, but with Robert Stack’s charm. Today, stories that would have taken Unsolved Mysteries eight minutes to tell take an hour, presumably so that networks can make advertisement money, but by the time you’re on the third commercial, you’ve already said “Screw this,” and have looked up what ultimately happened on your phone. It takes you out of the story, in contrast to how Unsolved Mysteries dragged you in and chained you to your chair. Today’s shows have no intention of bringing justice to families. They are only interested in making a profit off slightly titillating stories that happened to average people.
Coming home from school on half-days when the show was on Lifetime and being scared out of my wits, Unsolved Mysteries taught me many lessons that have shaped how I approach life, which I would like to share with you:
1. Don't use an ATM at night
There was one case about a young man named Matthew Chase who disappeared after going to an ATM to deposit a check from work. Records show that he was able to make it to the machine, but that he had attempted to take out a large sum of cash. Authorities thought this was suspicious, and when they looked at the video footage of him at the bank making the transaction, there was a man standing inches away from him. They believe that this man was Chase’s killer, and that Chase was requesting such a large amount to alert the bank of his situation. His body was discovered weeks later and his killer has never been found. This case always scared me because of what a sucky situation it was – he only had an hour left to deposit that check; that’s why he left in the middle of the night to do it. So by waiting until the last minute but also not wanting to get murdered, you risk not having any cash money. I saw this episode long before I was depositing checks, so what stuck out to me the most was how vital it is to be aware of your surroundings. One time when we were little, Willy P and I were staying at our dad’s house and we decided to walk to the corner store to get some Stewart’s. I noticed out of the corner of my eye a truck following us, but didn’t think anything of it. Allentown, NJ is one of those towns where once an out-of-towner enters, they get lost, even though it’s really just one road. I think some people get confused and think they are in Allentown, PA. That’s why I didn’t think anything of it. Then as we walked out of the store and back to our house, I noticed the truck slowly following us from behind again, stopping whenever I glanced at the driver. I said something to my brother, who at the time was still puny and eye-level with me. He got out one of the root beer bottles to use as a weapon, and even though this guy probably could have had at least had a knife or gun, he drove away. I always figured that because we were aware of his presence, we may have scared him off. Instead of going home, we went to our neighbor Pat’s house, so that if he were following us and wanted to kidnap or murder us, Pat would be the decoy. She and her boyfriend were both twice the size of us – maybe even three times, and instead of kids they just had a stupid St. Bernard that was born on September 11, 2001 and barked all the time and always got into our house somehow. It wouldn’t have been a big loss. Being aware of our surroundings definitely paid off, since we weren’t killed, and that was owed in part to Unsolved Mysteries.
2. Don't partake in fighting with strangers
One major lesson I learned from Unsolved Mysteries is to not fight with strangers unless absolutely necessary. You don’t know what they are capable of and most of the time what you are fighting over is not worth it. A sad example that comes to mind is the “Texas Most Wanted” episode, which also happened to be Matthew McConaughey’s first onscreen performance ever. He is ripped in it. So hot and so much Texas. Anyway, this episode always stuck with me not only because of how disturbing it is, but it was the first time I experienced a blacked-out face – you know, when someone wants to be anonymous so they are interviewed in silhouette. This scared the hell out of 13-year-old Rachel, but I’ll elaborate on this in my following bullet point. In this episode, McConaughey plays Larry Dickens, a father who witnesses a man (real name is Edward Bell) masturbating in front of children playing in the street. He chases the guy away from the kids while his mother calls the police – but then Dickens steals his keys to try to keep him there. Bell then shoots Dickens, Dickens stumbles into his garage where Bell follows him. His mother leaves him (with the garage door opened!) to call an ambulance, and Bell returns with a rifle to finish the job. We are reminded how unpredictable strangers can be, and when avoidable, we should leave dangerous people to the professionals. Like when I am at work and a difficult, uneducated, crack-head hillbilly excuse of a woman yells at me that I am being rude for asking her to not sit on the stairs, which I only ask her not to do because I don’t want little kids to fall over her and lose their teeth as it looks is what happened to her, I let Rockefeller security know of the situation because they got my back and we have a secret handshake and they most likely are better at fighting crazies than I am.
A similar case detailed a woman who was on her way to work and behind a truck that was swerving and acting obnoxious. If someone on the road is being aggressive, try your best to avoid him or her. Very few things in this world are worth taking a bullet for, and getting to work on time is not one of them. When the woman tried to pass him, the driver blocked the road, got out of his car and shot her. The woman asked to remain anonymous, but somehow online I found out her name was Janice Katilius. I think other news sources at the time may have used her real name. I checked up on her. I like to check up on these people sometimes, make sure they’re doing okay. I act as a silent guardian, watching over them via social media and keeping them out of danger without them knowing. According to Facebook, Janice is doing well.
3. Do face your fears, no matter how dumb they are
The anonymous faces freak me out – especially if the person alters his or her voice to protect their identity and uses a really dumb fake name like “John.” I can’t explain one hundred percent why this creeps me out. When I first saw one of these interviews in the segment aforementioned, I was paralyzed the whole day, like I had seen a ghost myself. We had a half-day at school and I was home alone, so I called my mom, and she goes: “Let me get this straight. You heard a story about a guy jerking off in the street in front of little children, who then murders an innocent man trying to stop him, and you’re afraid that someone hid their face during an interview? I’m working right now. I’ll see you at 6.” For me, it goes back to this psychological fear that what you can’t identify is threatening. I could write an entire memoir about my anonymous-face-phobia, but I will say my fear was slightly put to bed – maybe tucked in but not put all the way to sleep – when I was reading about this one case, the Las Cruces Bowling Alley Massacre. In 1990 at a bowling alley in Las Cruces, New Mexico, four people were murdered at gunpoint and three others were injured. One victim “Ida,” was interviewed anonymously, but in an interview revisiting the tragedy 20 years later, she showed her face. It was interesting to see the face behind the silhouette, but was also rewarding to see how she has been able to move on by the seemingly small act of revealing her identity.
4. Don't communicate with ghosts because they don't play by human rules
If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it, especially if ghosts or demons are involved. Spiritual entities don’t play by human rules. In my opinion, the scariest paranormal case the show ever profiled was called “Tallman’s Ghost,” where a family was haunted by a demonic presence after purchasing a bunk-bed. Their kids kept getting sick, things kept getting moved, and everyone kept envisioning the house catching on fire and the family being murdered. It became so unbearable to live there that they had to move out. Now, there may be very little you can do about a haunted house or buying something that you don’t know has a negative energy to it. But if something doesn’t feel right, always trust your gut, because it will only get worse the longer you wait. For example, my dad’s house is haunted. I’ve never actually seen anything while I was wide-awake, but before my stepmother came in and started touching all my stuff without permission, my belongings were always getting moved around. In the middle of the night I can hear footsteps when I can also hear everyone snoring. My brother claims that once a door slammed right in front of him for no reason – which I believe because that entire night he wouldn’t leave my side, when normally he calls me names like “Retard with an NYU degree” and “500 pounds of bird shit” and goes his own way. Then early one morning, a woman was in my bedroom asking me if I was waking up. I told her I was going to go back to bed. A few hours later I yelled at my stepmother for being in my room, but then I realized the woman I was talking to looked nothing like her. The same thing happened a few months later when I was home sick with bronchitis. Now whenever I’m there, my bed always shakes at 1 in the morning. It doesn’t feel like it’s threatening me, but it doesn’t feel welcoming, either. There’s not really much I can do about it, since I didn’t buy a haunted bunk-bed or anything, but I do my best not to engage and simply ask to be left alone. Sometimes it works. If anything, it has really given me a liking to sleeping in the same bed as someone else, that way I don’t feel as on my own.
5. Don't hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers
Unfortunately, the United States isn’t Sweden or Norway where everyone is happy and trustworthy. We don’t have free healthcare or education and people are generally a lot more enthusiastic about killing strangers. It seems pretty obvious not to get into the car of someone you do not know. But let’s say I’m in a really good mood, and that one day I miraculously have the money to own a car. Unsolved Mysteries taught me not to take a chance on that hitchhiker who has a really convincing story where he’s just got to make it to this one place really fast. In the segment profiling the murder of Dorothy Donovan, her son, Charles Holden had picked up a hitchhiker who claimed he needed to see his sister because she was giving birth. Holden agreed to give this man a ride, but when the stranger became violent and left the truck for a brief moment, Holden was able to speed away. As he was arriving home, he noticed the stranger lurking around his home. He then called the police and when they arrived, they found his mother stabbed to death. I was always curious in this case whether or not the killer (who in 2006 forensic evidence confirmed was a man named Gilbert Cannon) had stolen Holden’s wallet and knew of his address or had just by some bizarre coincidence broken into the same house. I could never find any information about the bizarre outcome other than that Cannon claimed he was high and went into her house because it was the only one he found without a light on. Either way, when you open your car door, you open yourself up to a world of weirdos.
6. Don't have an affair (but also don't live in a small town)
I’m not very good at dating, and I think part of that is because as a teenager, I was afraid the person I might date might have another significant other, who might get jealous and then might try to kill me. In the case of the “Circleville Letter Writer,” a woman named Mary Gillespie and other town residents of Circleville, Ohio began to receive threatening anonymous letters detailing their personal lives. Gillespie was targeted for allegedly having an affair with a school official (that was according to her, untrue). A booby-trap had been set up along her bus route, and after receiving a threatening phone call, her husband Ron stormed out of the house, only to be found dead in his car. Mary’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour was accused of being the murderer because it was his gun used to set the booby-trap, though he maintained his innocence. When the letters continued to be sent while he was in solitary confinement, they finally released him.
The writer sent a letter to Unsolved Mysteries when the segment first broadcasted in 1994, warning them not to get involved. People stopped receiving letters around the mid-‘90s, but Ron Gillespie is dead, Paul Freshour (recently deceased) spent ten years of his life in jail for a crime he was clearly not guilty of, and hundreds of people lived for decades in fear. Whether or not any of the allegations were actually true, this case always made me want to be a faithful girlfriend, in the event someone wanted to hold anything over my head. It also made me realize that in small towns people are way into others’ businesses and that’s not how I would like to raise my at-the-moment-non-existent children.
7. Be smart about one-night-stands
Some of you are out there and having one-night-stands, but without Unsolved Mysteries, you might be unsafe. In the segment called “Burning Bed” (of no relation to the Farrah Fawcett made-for-TV-movie) we learn about Megan Curl, who was tied to her bed and set on fire by a man who she had brought back to her apartment after a night of dancing. As horrific as this incident was, it inspired me to come up with a checklist for bringing back a guest of any sort to my place of residence:
- Have I met this person more than once?
- Have I had more than two drinks & if I have, is this something I would do without two drinks?
- Are my roommates home?
- If I do not have roommates, does at least one person know my whereabouts?
- Does this person seem weird? (Now, if everybody could answer this question correctly, no one would ever get murdered, but again, trust your gut.)
- Do I have an exit strategy if things go wrong?
Megan did have a neighbor-friend looking out for her, but sadly this was not enough. When dealing with strangers in your home, one can never be too cautious in taking the necessary steps to not being murdered. And not getting pregnant. And not getting AIDS. Use protection. If someone’s face makes you want to throw up when you are kissing it, it is okay to say no. It is also okay to never have sex.
I owe my life to Unsolved Mysteries; without it, I may have been too cocky to partake in dangerous activities, and I maybe would have died prematurely or worse, have been stuck in an unhappy marriage living in the Midwest. Here I have some tidbits that I have gathered from multiple episodes, where I don’t have a personal anecdote for them at the moment, but my story is still yet to be written.
- Don’t become a prostitute; you can always just become a dancer.
- Don’t play with a Ouija board.
- Drugs, sex, and money are at the heart of many crimes so choose your actions wisely.
- We don’t have reason to be afraid of UFOs just yet, although Roswell is pretty scary.
- People can still be reunited and justice can still be served even when all hope is lost.
It seems kind of weird to be nostalgic about a show that profiles the darkness in humanity, but I think it’s a way to connect the past to the present and acknowledge that we are the same person all throughout our relatively short lives. The families who are missing loved ones never forget them, but they learn how to cope. The victims of murders are so much more than just what their final moments were – they were people who, like us, sometimes thought too long about whether they should make dinner or get takeout, or if a T-shirt could go one more day without being washed. And it helps me realize that the down-on-her-luck 23-year-old Rachel is still the awkward teenager who is afraid of a creepy show on Lifetime, and will one day be the retired old lady annoyed that after decades, it is still unavailable to stream anywhere online.
Set-up - joke – punch line - hahahaha.
Laughter has always been the natural psychological derivative to humor, but in the age of television, in which entertainment has divvied up all content producing shows into two categories - comedy and drama (and the now emerging “dramedy,” an amalgam of the two) - audiences are acutely instructed to understand what is funny, or at least, what is meant to come across as “funny.” Comedy comes in all shapes and sizes – it’s broad slap stick, it’s muted intellectual humor, it’s situational, it’s conversational – but the recent trend (in terms of critically acclaimed modern television, which often appears to be mutually exclusive to what is commercially successful) is an evolution into single camera, often “mockumentary” type series. The overarching “comedy” signifier would more accurately be broken into two, with the advent of single-cam constructing the great sitcom divide, leaving modern multi-cam shows (think Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld in their heydays compared to Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls) appearing antiquated and contrived. But more so than the filming devices employed in the production of modern sitcoms, this divide has created a shrewd awareness on behalf of critics and audiences alike when it comes to the ways in which laughter is prompted. Of course, I am speaking of the laugh track and the polarization it has created in a television landscape that both embraces and resists it.
Traditionally, laugh tracks were heralded into the world of sitcom as a means to counter the fundamental complication of television viewing: creating a theater-like, communal experience in the home. The laugh track itself dates back to the 1940s, when sound engineer Charley Douglass forever changed the relation of constructed humor to forced laughter with his attempt at compensating for the non-theater experience of television through the creation of the “laff box.” Douglass built a two-and-a-half foot high device that looked like a mix of an organ and a typewriter (pictured below).
Its keys, when connected to the laugh recordings, created a range of responses for any joke, big or small. One key produced a woman's laughter, another a child's; a mix would create big laughs, a single would create a minor one. Douglass even went so far as to update his device every few years or so, mixing and matching different laughs, retiring old and introducing new, to keep up with audiences. And so, the entertainment industry was granted a device that would “sweeten” a show with built-in laughter, whether comically deserved or not. Soon after it’s debut on The Hank McCune Show in 1956, the laugh track became a crutch television comedies could rest upon and a staple in the industry. There was of course the common disclaimer “this show was filmed before a live studio audience” that seems to circumvent the use of the “fake” laughs the track provides, but even in these cases, as evidenced by older shows Happy Days and The Mary Tyler Moore Show as well as the newer Two and a Half Men, the live, “real”1 giggles and chuckles are enhanced with canned ones.
The overwhelming current of laugh tracks throughout the ‘60s and well into the ‘90s was no grand experiment either; psychology researchers jumped on the phenomenon and verified that laugh tracks increase audience laughter and the audience’s rating of humorousness of the presented comedy material. Bill Kelley, a psychology professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the brain’s response to humor, validates the popularity of using a laugh track: “We're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people.” By hearing others laugh -- even if it's prerecorded -- the cause will encourage the likewise effect. A 1974 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people were more likely to laugh at jokes that were followed by canned laughter. The scariest element of this confirmation is the concept that the sound of laughter itself can evoke infectious laughter – that you don’t need a joke at all. Because laughter exists in two entities – as an expression of emotion and as a decidedly social signal - the addition of the laugh track complicates whether this reaction to humor is entirely self-determined or whether modern audiences have become “programmed” in their responses to what passes as a joke.
Throughout the years, critics have lamented the provided “safety net” as well as pointed out the insulting factor to viewers that comes with the laugh track. Karal Ann Marling, a professor of American studies and art history at the University of Minnesota, voiced concerns about the sitcom staple: “Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium. I mean, anything can be passed off as hilariously funny, if you've got people laughing like maniacs in the background.” Marling offers a popular opinion, “let me be the laugh track.”
At the turn of the century, something happened in the relationship between audience viewer and laugh track in that the latter was suddenly (after existing on some of the most popular and critically acclaimed series of the previous television era) a symbol of the unsophisticated show or sitcom. Comedies came along like The Office, Arrested Development, Modern Family, the animated Simpsons and South Park, all managing to have large followings, positive critical response applauding the more subtle, clever humor as a departure from easy jokes, huge cultural cache, and the ability to still garner laughter without ever forcing the canned laughs on viewers.
This new age has signaled a shift in both the way showrunners create their shows as well as how viewers consume the material. And this shift has been able to find its footing through the transition to single-cam; by departing entirely from the structure in which laugh tracks were the norm, sitcoms have been able to change the way to tell a joke. This new age of television highlights humor in details, in editing, in long-running jokes that would not have worked if not for the deviation from multi-cam form. Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development commented on this new innovation: “When you don't have a laugh track, you can make the clothes funny. We can make a sign funny. We can make the way somebody walks funny. The makeup can be funny.”
One of the greatest advantages of ditching the laugh track is the ability to write the script in which flow is not interrupted and space (read: time) is not given to the recorded laughs. Shows like 30 Rock and Community often have lightning-fast pace, jokes flying, landing and then a new joke suddenly piles on, that makes episodes of these series have more room for funny material, despite being the same length as an episode of Big Bang Theory. 22 minutes can now be filled to the brim with jokes both large and small.
But make no mistake – the laugh track is far from extinct. Its presence on many network shows seems as vital as the incorporation of music and editing. The most popular show on television – with the highest paid stars – Big Bang Theory makes no effort to hide its loud, constant recorded laughs. The canned laughter works like clockwork, coming after the same repetitive character quirks – Sheldon does not understand social conventions, Raj cannot speak in front of women, Penny cannot communicate on the same intellectual level as the others. Every episode’s script is a Mad Libs of the one before, just replacing the one-liners and punchlines with new material – but the “humor” behind the writing stays exactly the same. Or How I Met Your Mother, a show that ran 9 seasons, each one not filmed in front of a studio audience and each episode of every season containing consistent streams of recorded laughter.
Some critics and fans found the track a strange addition to a show that relied on crisp editing and a complex fast pace for subtle jokes to land, but the creators stuck by it. “We like the laugh track. I don't know how else to say it. It feels right. I get a little tired of the dusty old equation that single cam = daring and original and multicam = lazy and uninspired. I find that facile. I look at the White Stripes as an inspiration. Yes, they played old songs... but they found exciting new ways to play them. On our best days that's what we've tried to be.” So maybe it’s as simple as “we like it, get over it if you don’t”; or perhaps, the narrative on which the show was based – friends in the city looking for love – functioned on such a derivative level of so many other sitcoms to come before it (Friends is obviously the go-to example) and the jokes crafted by the show’s comedy writers needed the cushion of the track to ensure viewers would believe the show to be funny. And perhaps, maybe, the laugh track on a modern sitcom that plays in similar fashion to the single-cam ones without it would stand out from the lot as unique. I don’t know, perhaps.
In terms of popularity, it’s clear we are not witnessing the death of Douglass’s invention. The truth is that even in this “Golden Age” of television, comedies without laugh tracks fare worse than those that choose to employ the old trope. So indeed, those 14 million people tuning in for Big Bang Theory in comparison to the million or so tuned in to each episode of Community’s final season on NBC, believe that the communal experience the laugh track creates still matters. Comedies like Louie and Always Sunny in Philadelphia might be deconstructing the formula of “classic sitcom” but CK’s and the Sunny crew’s viewerships pale in comparison to less critically acclaimed shows like the departed Two and a Half Men and even the new Charlie Sheen vehicle Anger Management.
And just as we insist that cord-cutting is a reality and more viewers will relocate solely to Netflix, the numbers prove that more people are watching traditional television in the last few years than in the recent past; our proclamations against the laugh track might be all talk, no substance as well. The numbers can speak for themselves, and they say the laugh track continues to keep audiences comfortable in between punch lines, just as it always has.
On the wholly other end of the spectrum, one television reviewer, not concerned with commercial popularity of shows, critiqued: “Laugh tracks are the deathly shrieks that bellow in the background of television sitcoms in an attempt to turn a malignant punch line into something a little more benign. They are false advertisements, telling the people, 'This is good,' when what’s hidden underneath is bad.” Now, while this is an over-generalization of the trope, many modern audiences would agree that the track is no longer a necessity to “getting” humor on television. But we must take into consideration something else: the laugh track on a multi-cam sitcom feels fake to modern audiences (or so cry certain critics), but television series and the stories we consume through this medium are indeed fictional in and of themselves. On a mutli-camera show – take older Friends or newer 2 Broke Girls – the comedy lies in jokes that are born from contrived plots and situations. The seams of construction are obvious, but there’s also something honest in their presentation.
The actors are in hair, makeup, full costume. They are positioned intentionally; they look and sound rehearsed. Live studio audience or not, the players stand on their mark, under intense lighting that accompanies television production, and then the jokes are set up, the actor with the punch line will hit their cue with a premeditated delivery, and then of course, pausing for laughter. The entirety of the form, from script to shooting to presentation, is a constructed media product, so perhaps the manufactured laughs simply align with the illusion of reality that is the sitcom.
Modern television viewers who might be accustomed to single-cam can find watching a multi-cam show to be slightly jarring. Most new single-cam sitcoms, notably 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Girls, are shot as small films, eliminating any sign of fabricated performance “boosting realism, by inserting multiple distancing layers (editing, music, specific camera lenses, etc.) between the viewer and the actor.” The absence of the laugh track in addition to these other elements mark all that appears on our screens as “real” and the jokes can hit their mark in a way that makes the humor feel less broad and more grounded. But this in essence – the appearance of reality – can be interpreted as more of an artificial construction than the laugh track itself. One entertainment reporter put it, “The live studio audience, a set that is very obviously a set, or even a laugh track, as simple and stupid and taken for granted as it is, are subtle and powerful tools that shape our viewing experience. An agreement between the actors, the set and the audience is loud and clear: We’re putting on a show for your entertainment. For 21 minutes we experience, in the teeniest-tiniest way, the essence of comic theater.”
In any case, laugh tracks are polarizing, whether it’s viewers feeling as if they are treated as unintelligent enough to understand the humor on their own or whether it’s critics believing that the trope allows shows to mask mediocre comedy writing. Laughter itself is an expression of relief, one that is related to alleviating anxieties concerning culture, status, politics, what have you. Laughter is an equalizer in which the public can unilaterally interpret humor and let out a positive vocal response. It’s cathartic, it’ exhilarating, but it may be becoming more of a forced social construction than an innate desire. Television has always taught “morality” lessons, tales that reassert hegemony, stories that make a statement for social issues concerning race, feminism, and almost every cultural movement. But canned laughter teaches audiences something too; it can either act as an intermediary from show writer to television viewer – instructing them on how to watch an episode and connecting them to the material – reaffirming the faux-reality of fictional sitcoms or can insult and disturb the entire construction. Laugh tracks, still in very active use though it may not seem like it, will continue to be employed as long as audiences are laughing along to it. And in the meantime, the single-cam, mockumentary-type sitcoms might come to be a passing trend in which audiences feel disturbed and isolated by silence – especially as television becomes an entirely individual experience with new mediums, such as Netflix and Hulu, allowing viewers to be one-on-one with their show and craving the sound of laughter. If there’s one thing that’s certain in the debacle presented by the prerecorded tracks, it’s that laughter is physically, undeniably infectious.
Use of quotes because it would be outrageous to accept even the audience laughter as entirely authentic given the extreme laughter coercion techniques employed by television productions. (Back)
Sara is currently a senior at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study concentrating in Media Theory and Entertainment Criticism. She will soon be moving on to the next phase of life: unemployment. To stay tuned for her inevitably self-deprecating descent, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.