One reason the Lincoln Project has made such a splash with its series of rapid-response attack ads against President Trump is that the savvy Republican operatives behind the ads know how to utilize tropes from nonpolitical television genres. They clearly understand that the language of political communication is now inextricably entwined with the language of entertainment.
This was most clearly illustrated when the Lincoln Project quickly pounced with a derisive anti-Trump ad evoking “Seinfeld,‘' one of the most popular and influential comedies in television history, after the president appeared with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday'' on July 19.
In that sit-down, Trump boasted of his mental acuity, citing as proof the fact that he passed a cognitive test. That test, it turned out, was a simple 10-minute assessment that is meant to uncover signs of the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia. It involves, among other things, identifying drawings of elephants, lions, and camels.
The Lincoln Project ad begins with the familiar red-letters-on-a-yellow-oval logo of “Seinfeld,‘' repurposed to spell out “Trumpfeld.‘' A few notes akin to the distinctive “Seinfeld'' theme are heard, and then comes footage of Trump’s conversation with Wallace — with a few additions.
Whether he is denouncing as “fake'' the polls that show him behind Joe Biden or extolling his own brainpower, Trump’s every utterance is punctuated by a laugh track, The canned yuks serve as aural cues, delivering a message that what the president is saying is literally laughable. Between the “Seinfeld'‘ allusions, the editing of reaction shots for maximum comedic oomph, and especially the laugh track, the ad essentially turns the Trump-Wallace interview into a sitcom.
Where the laugh track does not work, ironically enough, and never has, is on actual sitcoms.
Laugh tracks are a plague on television and always have been, a grating elbow to the ribs — “Isn’t this funny?‘' — that actively undermine the comedy. That’s why many of the best contemporary sitcoms do without them, though mediocre ones still employ them. A once-ubiquitous device, the laugh track is a grating, noxious presence even on classic, genuinely funny sitcoms.
In a way, laugh tracks paved the way for the deeply weird experiment now underway at Fenway Park and other Major League Baseball stadiums in this strange summer. With the stands empty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Sox are playing ball to the accompaniment of prerecorded, piped-in crowd noise, which ranges from a steady fake murmur to eruptive fake cheers.
I know this much: If laugh tracks could somehow be excised from all TV comedies, past, present, and, heaven forfend, future, very real cheers would ring out all across the land.