Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Guffaws, chuckles, or titters? Decoder Ring reveals the hidden artistry and human hand behind TV laugh tracks

Photo: Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank ( Getty Images)
PodmassPodmassIn Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at podmass@avclub.com.

ABG – AsianBossGirl
Does Your Personality Fit My Vagina?


Melody Cheng, Helen Wu, and Janet Wang get together every week to discuss their careers, personal lives, and everything else modern Asian-American women experience. This week is all about first dates: dos and don’ts, dealbreakers, the best and worst places to meet, and more. The trio share real-life stories about first dates in a natural and conversational way that makes it feel like you’re just gabbing with a group of girlfriends. While going step by step through each moment of a first date, whether it’s meeting for coffee or a fancy dinner, the hosts offer up some great hacks for disaster scenarios, like what to do if you forgot to put on deodorant or how to avoid farting in front of your date. Cheng, Wu, and Wang have such a variety of encounters and responses that it’s easy to relate to at least one instance of the inevitably awkward interactions that come from intimately getting to know a stranger. [Brianna Wellen]

Dead Horse Horror
Franchise Frenzy / Prom Night


The new podcast Dead Horse Horror is helmed by Daily Grindhouse scribe Nathan Smith as well as co-hosts Chris Smith, R.J. Telhorst, and Kent Sylvester. Each episode features this cabal of horror fans discussing what they watched that week and all the latest news on movies that go bump in the night. The hot topic this week is the impending Halloween reboot coming this October from Blumhouse and the rumored California test screening that apparently left audiences less than terrified by the latest interpretation of John Carpenter’s iconic boogeyman. (The hosts aren’t buying it, though.) The meat of this week’s episode is a series rundown of the Prom Night franchise. What began as a Halloween knockoff in 1980—complete with a performance from Jamie Lee Curtis—quickly shifted gears into an Elm Street–inspired tale of supernatural revenge with its 1987 sequel. An in-depth discussion of the series follows (skipping the 2008 remake), wrapping up with Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil. Sure to appeal to anyone who came up in the golden age of direct-to-video and late-night cable horror. [Mike Vanderbilt]

Decoder Ring
The Laff Box


If every episode of Decoder Ring, the new Slate podcast from TV critic Willa Paskin, is as detailed, affectionate, and engaging as this one, it’ll rightly become a hit in a real damn hurry. The concept is simple: Paskin explores a specific question or artifact from the pop cultural landscape, putting it in context, examining its history, and asking what it means and why it matters. Up first: the laugh track. In under half an hour, Paskin covers a lot of ground, from the origins of “the Laff Box” to its demise, reviewing the technical way it was produced and the substitutes we might use in its absence. Paskin interviews a historian about the inventor, Charles Douglass, a mechanical engineer whose device led to those cascading laughs of yesteryear; she talks with director Thomas Schlamme about the gradual shrinking of the laugh track on Sports Night; and she speaks with the creators of the revived One Day At A Time about the stigma around laugh tracks and the appeal of the “live studio audience.” It’s an episode that’s personal and historical, like falling down a Wikipedia wormhole while having a fascinating conversation—an auspicious beginning, to say the least. [Allison Shoemaker]

Eat This, Not That!
Ballpark Food Fight!


Humans make more than 300 food decisions every day. With so many options to choose from and considerations to make, Eat This, Not That! is here to help listeners “learn how to make better choices and eat all of [their] favorite foods guilt-free.” Hosts Jon Hammond and Meghan Murphy avoid an off-putting self-help tone by focusing on inherently fun topics, like this week’s examination of ballpark food. Investigating the first-ever Major League Baseball FoodFest, the podcast sends scouts to taste a selection of the “innovative, creative, delectable, and in some cases outrageous dishes” offered by each of the MLB’s 30 teams. With each team participating in what Eat This, Not That! has deemed a “full-fledged food fight,” standout contenders include Coors Field’s Rocky Mountain oysters—that is, deep-fried bull testicles—and Safeco Field’s toasted grasshoppers. Give it a listen to discover what mouthwatering munchies your local ballpark has waiting for you. [Becca James]

In The Dark
July 16, 1996


Four people were murdered in July 1996 in a family-owned furniture store in a small Mississippi town called Winona. One year later Curtis Flowers was convicted of the crime but then appealed the conviction, a pattern that repeated itself five more times over the next 21 years. Flowers is currently on death row, but maintains his innocence. Madeleine Baran investigates the case, exploring flaws in the criminal justice system, how politics influence convictions, and the racial divide between those on either end of the law. Baran interviews victims’ family members, residents of the small town, people who knew Flowers, attorneys who worked on the case, and anyone else willing to talk about the ongoing story. The only person she isn’t able to speak with is Flowers himself, which not only puts the audience in the same position as the six different juries who heard his case, but also provides a unique perspective in a podcast genre often defined by the bias of the host’s relationship with the main subject (e.g., Sarah Koenig and Adnan Syed). The case is riveting enough on its own, but the emotional weight of vulnerable interview subjects and well-timed musical cues make this podcast exceptional. [Brianna Wellen]

Seincast: A Seinfeld Podcast
The Frogger


Seincast: A Seinfeld Podcast is heading into the home stretch as the hosts wind down the show’s final season on NBC. With five more episodes to go, “The Frogger” is on the agenda this week, featuring George Costanza attempting to preserve his high score on the titular arcade game from his high school hangout. This week’s show is very George-centric, with host Matt recounting his viewing of Jason Alexander’s current one-man show. Chock-full of Seinfeld trivia, Seincast explores the episode’s original script, which included much more Kramer, and how that deleted storyline relates to the following episode, “The Maid.” Character actor extraordinaire Peter Stormare’s turn as Slippery Pete is given his due as well as the return of Reuven Bar-Yotam (the hosts ponder if he’s playing the same character from his turn as “Foreign Guy” in season-eight episode “The Muffin Tops”). We also learn of this episode’s connection to Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh. [Mike Vanderbilt]

Word Of Mouth
Me, Myself & AI


BBC’s Word Of Mouth has a simple mission: “exploring the world of words and the ways in which we use them.” This exploration, however, reveals the beautiful complexity of language. Take for example this week’s episode, in which hosts Michael Rosen and Dr. Laura Wright are joined by a unique pair of guests: Tom Hewitson—a conversation designer for Siri, Alexa, and Cortana—and an actual virtual assistant. The three humans and the AI program discuss whether virtual assistants can ever accurately replicate human speech, but the bot remains mostly silent throughout (with only a few oddly patterned interjections), making it clear that machines are not there yet. This leads to an even more interesting conversation about how humans are developing a new vernacular as a workaround, which is especially evident when the hosts attempt to start a natural back-and-forth with the machine to no avail. There are less generic, more humanlike bots built with a smaller demographic in mind, allowing the technology to escape the pitfalls of general all-purpose use. [Becca James]

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