“The trend away from engineered laughter can be seen through the Emmys: Of the five shows nominated in 2000 for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, four of the five used laugh tracks. In 2009, seven shows were nominated for the same award, and only one used a laugh track.” –B.K. Marcus, “Did Capitalism Give Us the Laugh Track?” (May 30, 2013)
A laughless clip of The Big Bang Theory demonstrates the contrived nature of the American sitcom. Pay attention to the number of scripted pauses. Approximately 23 seconds (~24%) of the 1:37 clip were dialogue gaps for laughter. Personally, it’s no surprise to me that a quarter of the show’s run time is blank space, since the show couldn’t stand on its writing alone. What is surprising is that Chuck Lorre is worth $600 million.
Although The Big Bang Theory is “filmed in front of a live studio audience,” there’s an air of phoniness in Lorreland. Think about it: How can they take that entire audience to shoot in the streets of Pasadena, and how can a joke still be as funny to an audience on the third or fourth take as it was on the first? Members of the live audience confirm this. In reality, even a live audience just isn’t sufficiently amused sometimes, and that’s why the laugh track has flourished.
Therein lies the rub.
Laugh Tracks Cheapen a Show’s Message
Unnecessary or meddlesome laugh tracking can ruin an otherwise good show. One of the best examples of this was M*A*S*H in the 1970s. An article by MentalFloss cited Larry Gelbart (the series’ developer), who claimed that the laugh track “cheapened the show.” Sadly, the network paying the bills (CBS) had no idea how to produce a comedy without scripting in a few chortles.
The show’s creative team did manage to get the laugh track removed from scenes in the operating room, and got it taken out altogether from at least seven episodes. The DVD collection actually provides the viewer an option to omit the laugh track throughout the entire series (i.e. the way creators intended it).
Comedy writer Ken Levine assisted on M*A*S*H. He also worked on other successful shows like Cheers, Frasier, and The Simpsons, and some admittedly unsuccessful ones like Dharma and Greg, Big Wave Dave’s, and Becker. Levine thinks all laugh tracks are unnecessary, with one notable exception: re-shoots.
In 2007, he wrote:
But here’s where the laugh track serves a purpose: scenes are re-shot, sometimes several times. And the best performances are edited together. Obviously the audience doesn’t laugh as hearty the second or third time they’ve heard the same joke… So we’ll use a little laugh track to “sweeten” and smooth out the tracks. But the laughs were legit. And over time on both CHEERS and FRASIER we were able to compile a backlog of laughs from our own shows. So we didn’t have to resort to [laugh tracks from the 1950s].”
His last comment there is of some importance, because it highlights the unfortunate practice of recycling laugh tracks and not actually producing new laughter for each joke. Not only did sitcoms eventually stop recording their own laughter, but throughout the middle of the 20th Century they all started sharing the same tracks. Viewers were hearing identical responses on completely different shows.
Laugh Tracks Overshadow Valuable Social Commentary
While finding humor in death and trauma might’ve been specific to M*A*S*H, those weren’t the only themes glossed over by television laughter. Fictional characters on TV shrug off realistic problems and conflicts all the time. They only get half an hour to find a solution to crises that, in and of themselves, would be sobering to viewers if not for the opacity of artificial laughter.
Remember in Season 3, Episode 18 of Family Matters when Laura was sexually assaulted in her own bedroom by Daniel Wallace? After she pushed him away, a laugh track played when he quipped “Whatchu mean, no?” and declared “I’m a man, I have needs.” Take out the laugh track, and you’re watching a dramatic statement of misguided adolescent masculinity, not the tenuous interpretation of teen sexuality we receive laced with giggles. Either way, I’m sure the girls at Jezebel are still pissed.
Unfortunately, laugh tracks have come to define the American sitcom itself, so anything falling under the genre is obligated to use them. Sure, we can argue that Seinfeld didn’t need a laugh track, mainly because the show on mute at least looks like it’s trying to be funny. On the other hand, you can mute the “Florida Flips” episode of Good Times and come away with a completely different feeling.
If you don’t want to watch the whole episode on mute, start at the 23 minute mark. A family gathering disintegrates when James Evans (played by John Amos) abruptly gets up from the couch, his mood suddenly dark. On mute, you don’t know what prompted it, but the ensuing argument with Florida includes angry body language, some arm grabbing, and shouting.
What you won’t know by watching it on mute is that a laugh track was running throughout the entire scene. With the sound on, the confrontation is amusing and watchable. You look forward to a resolution. On mute, it’s unsettling and awkward, and unless you’ve seen the show before, you’re convinced that James (a hard-working, honest, and loyal breadwinner) will hit someone any minute.
You can usually find at least one scene like this in every episode. To me, it’s the highlight of the show. Good Times (especially on mute) speaks to the realities of black America during the tumultuous 1970s far better than modern African-American cultural barometers like the Wayons, Martin Lawrence, or Tyler Perry. As it happens, that was the goal of the show all along (i.e. to use comedy to discuss serious topics, and provide viewers with positive characters), but the obligatory laugh track and JJ Evans’ ridiculous catchphrase led to conflicts between the cast, and eventually forced Amos off the show after Season 3.
Brief History of the Laugh Track
I’m not saying we should prohibit laugh tracks on all network comedies, I just think sitcom theory needs to evolve so that we can rely on it less. Before television, radio comedy was done in front of live audiences, and laughter was something that writers and performers worked hard to obtain. Early television sitcoms were also broadcast live, but like in radio, the amount of laughter and its timing weren’t very reliable.
TV had the added dimension of body language that could mislead or confuse audience members, and much of the audience couldn’t even see the entire set. In an effort to smooth out final productions, a CBS engineer named Charley Douglass began augmenting and filtering audience laughter. He called this process “sweetening.”
When Desi Arnaz launched the multi-camera setup in the 1950s, Douglass’ “laff box” (as it had come to be known) helped bridge the gaps that Ken Levine mentioned, namely that 2nd or 3rd takes benefited from the laughter achieved on Take 1. Unfortunately, Douglass (presumably at the behest of network executives) went beyond “sweetening” programs, and started dictating how the audience should feel about content.
CBS quickly made the laugh track a staple of all its sitcoms after Hogan’s Heroes, which was tested with and without a track and found to be much “funnier” for audiences with one. Different laugh tracks were created for different types of shows (i.e. invasive guffaws for outlandish, fantasy shows like Bewitched and The Munsters, and more subtle, quieter laughter for Andy Griffith and The Brady Bunch).
Unlike other revolutionary developments like Abbey Road’s automatic double-tracking in the early 1960s or the proliferation of digital recording under Sony in the 1980s, the only evolution to laugh tracks has been tweaks to the formula itself. Today’s laugh tracks do the exact same thing as those in the 1950s; laughter doesn’t sound all that different across generations.
When will sitcoms move beyond the laugh track? It’s been in use now for 60 years, but I’m hopeful that the popularity of recent trackless sitcoms indicates the much needed rejuvenation of scripted comedy.
The Sitcom Renaissance (2001-Present)
It’s no surprise that the funniest American network shows in recent memory didn’t/don’t need a laugh track, and early successes validate the experiment. This “Sitcom Renaissance” began with Scrubs on NBC (and later ABC), and continued with Arrested Development (Fox) around the same time. While the former saw much better ratings at the time, the latter remains one of the most revered shows among critics. The depth of its plot, the brilliance of its writing, and the chemistry and delivery of the actors make Season 1 possibly the funniest of any season in sitcom history.
When the Bluths were gutlessly cancelled in 2006, 30 Rock launched on NBC, which had already been running The Office for a year. Although both ended in 2013, Parks & Recreation carried the network slack another two years, leaving only Community to bear NBC’s trackless standard. Additionally, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX) and Modern Family (ABC) both have great track records, the former having piloted as early as 2005.
Outside the big cable networks, HBO is proof that good writers don’t even need commercial breaks to fill an hour-long show. HBO led the charge against laugh tracks in popular American television when it added an edgy new show by Seinfeld‘s co-creator in October 2000. Curb Your Enthusiasm not only avoided scripted laughter, but abhorred a script altogether. Flight of the Conchords and Eastbound & Down were shorter, scripted, and left out laughter, but was still a favorite for conventional audiences.
British sitcoms like The Office, The Inbetweeners, Extras, Peep Show, The Mighty Boosh, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace all maintained healthy viewing audiences without the help of artificial laughter. I’ll admit that some of my favorite British shows did use a laugh track (Chef!, Yes Minister, Red Dwarf, The IT Crowd, Black Books), but hey, at least the shows were legitimately funny, unlike most of what’s on TV at 7pm any weekday night in the U.S.
While not traditionally considered sitcoms, the modern genre of trackless primetime cartoons have included all the necessary elements, such as a full-time cast, recurring characters, a static setting, and episodic plots. It began with The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, and Beavis & Butt-head in the 1990s, and taken to new levels by South Park, Family Guy, and a host of shows on Fox in the 2000s (King of the Hill, The PJs, Futurama, American Dad!, etc). These shows benefited from characters they didn’t have to pay and who didn’t age, but using a laugh track would be awkward since that would imply a live audience during the animation process.
This was a significant departure from previously successful cartoons like Scooby Doo and The Flintstones, which used canned laughter throughout the 1960s. The former was unenjoyably silly, and the latter merely animated the popular American TV stereotype of the fat buffoon married to an attractive and ever-practical wife. The Flintstones‘ formula, originally conceived by The Honeymooners in the 1950s, is still profitable for shows like the King of Queens today.
The Simpsons, and especially Family Guy, also utilized these stereotypes, which could help explain their better ratings compared to other animated primetime shows. Still, trackless cartoons with adult themes became so popular that Ted Turner dedicated 10 hours of his Cartoon Network per day to them in 2001. This would incubate early staples like Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, as well as future cult hits like Robot Chicken, Squidbillies, The Boondocks, and the most promising new show, Rick & Morty. Adult Swim was also instrumental in reviving cancelled network shows like Family Guy and Futurama, forcing big cable networks to reevaluate their own cancellations.
By the way…
Finally, I’d like to reiterate that the laugh track is outdated, overused, and in many cases, completely unnecessary, but while this is a problem unique to sitcoms, other fictional TV genres engage in similar devices.
For example, I can’t stand boilerplate network criminal dramas like NCIS, Criminal Minds, Bones, and the Hawaii Five-0 reboot (although, I do kinda have a thing for Grace Park). They do the same thing as laugh tracking on sitcoms, but instead of canned laughter indicating that something is supposed to be funny, TV dramas use intrusive scores to provoke suspense or shock.
This officious technique has even worked its way into film, making some movies virtually unwatchable (e.g. drawn out musical sequences in horror films and volume defying action sequences that require you to keep a remote on you at all times). We should count ourselves lucky that comedy films have not adopted the laugh track….*[knocks on desk]* …because if they did…