In Defense of the Laugh Track
Does the laugh track add to shows or take away from them? The answer is more complicated than you think.
Have you ever been watching a TV show and heard laughter that wasn't in the room with you? Well, you probably have a ghost.
Just kidding. I mean, you might have one, but that's not why we're here.
I want to talk about the laughter coming over your TV speaks from the laugh track on your parent's favorite sitcom. The laugh track is a controversial subject. Some people hate them, while others like the encouragement it gives them to let loose and to be entertained.
Today I want to expose and explain the whole story behind the laugh track, from its history to its modern implementation, to a video essay that goes in-depth on a defense of it.
As Mulan once said, let's get down to business.
How Did We Get The Laugh Track?
The laugh track, or canned laugh, has been around since the dawn of television.
As TV came to prominence, it had to fill in the gaps between people used to listening to their entertainment on the radio. Since most radio shows were taped in front of a live audience, actors had to leave pauses for the laughs. When this came to television, it translated naturally. After all, most actors had done stage performances so they knew how to play to the crowd.
As multi-camera shows became part of the cultural lexicon, so did the laugh track. Shows like The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, and others were filmed in front of a live studio audience. People watching at home got to feel like they were right there when the audience laughed.
And those shows tested really well.
So shows like The Flinstones and The Jetsons also got laugh tracks and laugh track sound effects... even though they were animated.
DId you ever consider until now how weird it was that cartoons had laugh tracks
Soon almost every sitcom had a laugh track. For me, my early TV watching days were dominated by Seinfeld, 3rd Rock, and Everybody Loves Raymond. These were shows that still had an audience and still utilized the laugh track. Even as I got older, I appreciated the laugh track in How I Met Your Mother.
But tastes change, and when The Office came onto the scene, I didn't miss the laughs. Mostly because I was laughing so loud it didn't matter anyway.
Another reason could be that shows like The Office and Parks and Rec use the "documentary-style" device and the "confessional" to connect to the audience and give beats for laughs. A character might make eye contact with the camera, maybe when another character does something particularly odd. It's your cue to laugh on some level.
But when it comes to the modern laugh track, some of the shows with laugh tracks are filmed in front of a live studio audience. Others have their canned laughs added with a laugh track sound effect.
And when you take the laughs away... it gets creepy.
Sitcoms Without Laugh Tracks
When characters perform for a laugh track, they often space the dialogue out and react to the laughs. When you removed the canned laughs from that performance, a lot of the jokes don't work as well. Take this example from Friends. Watch as what used to be a funny set piece comes across as aggressive and annoying. Figures it's from Ross.
Laughter sets a tone and a mood. Shows with dialogue that's spaced out like Big Bang Theory survive on their quips. But if the laughter is removed, then the quips don't land. We aren't sure what's happening, and the pacing feels off.
Even the best sitcoms without laugh tracks suffer. Look at maybe the greatest sitcom ever, Seinfeld. This show usually has me howling, but when you take out the canned laughter and remove the laugh track, we're instead put in an awkward position. The lighting changes the mood, and the story doesn't feel like its coming across.
What's the Point of the Laugh Tack?
I've been in a live studio audience. I went to Man With A Plan when one of my friends wrote the episode. It was some of the most fun I've ever had in Los Angeles. When the actors come out, you usually see around three takes of every scene. This gives you time to laugh at the jokes the first time, catch what you missed the second, and gives the actors room to improv for the third take.
The point of the laugh track is to add energy and pizzazz to every story beat. It's a community experience that harkens back to people listening to the radio with their whole family around them.
The laughter in the live studio audience is usually real. They have a warm-up person putting you in a good mood, and it's genuinely hilarious to see your favorite actors performing on a stage in front of you. It's like being in the theater in New York or London.
Check out this live studio audience taping from Big Bang Theory. It feels magical.
The multi-cam sitcom felt like a stage play, and I had been raised on movies. I personally wanted my sitcoms to feel more immersive and less like I was sitting in an audience.
Recently, I was scanning YouTube and found this excellent video by Ideas at Play where they dig into the laugh track and its effect on modern television. I find it enthralling to trace how we got the laugh-track, but also to understand what it adds to comedy and to the artform.
Check it out.
Will the Modern Laugh Track Stick Around?
It's interesting to think about how modern screenwriting and its snappy dialogue almost removed the ability to include a laugh track. I can't imagine pauses within Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or even in the banter within The Good Place or Superstore. I do think that the younger generation rages against the laugh track, mostly because they were raised in a time where realness was valued more than entertainment.
I do feel like people in my generation are watching shows they think have emotional honesty. And regurgitating laughter seems like a white lie told to make someone feel better.
Still, there has to be a happy medium. I think How I Met Your Mother made huge strides by being both complex and audience-pleasing. So maybe mash-ups are applicable in the future.
The laugh track will live on because it has already shown its ability to help punctuate multi-cam shows. In fact, when shows are tested without laugh tracks, they consistently score lower than TV shows that include canned laughter. No matter which artists hate it, there's a large sector of society that loves laugh tracks.
What Shows still have Laugh Tracks?
The laugh track has been around since the dawn of television, and while its influence is waning, it's still around. Ranker released a list of the funniest current shows that have a laugh track. Among them were:
- The Big Bang Theory
- Man With A Plan
- The Conners
- The Ranch
- Fuller House
It's interesting to note that Fuller House and The Ranch are on Netflix. Both of which are filmed in front of a live studio audience. So Netflix is keeping the tradition alive. Current shows like The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Mike and Molly, The Odd Couple, 2 Broke Girls, and Hot in Cleveland are all taped in front of live studio audiences. Shows from the 70's, 80's and 90's, such as Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, Black Adder, The Golden Girls, Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 3rd Rock From the Sun, Cheers, That 70's Show, Rosanne, The Nanny, Married with Children, The Cosby Show, Taxi and many more were all also taped in front of live studio audiences.
Those audiences brought an energy to the show that has to be manufactured by television that doesn't have laugh tracks or canned laughter.
Will The Laugh Track Always Be Around?
One thing I keep thinking about is how comforting the laugh track must be if you're watching alone. The cinematic experience is communal. When you're in a theater you get to laugh with the people around you. If you're on your couch at home, it might just be you. The laugh track gives a false sense of community. If you look at the shows they mentioned which use it, like The Conners, they generally have older demographics. I do think there's some psychology that comes into play here as well.
In an article for NBC news, a psychology professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H named Bill Kelley said,
"We're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people,"
Hearing others laugh -- even if it's prerecorded -- can encourage us to enjoy ourselves more. In fact, a 1974 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that people were more likely to laugh at jokes that were followed by canned laughter.
So... maybe these TV networks and showrunners know what they're doing?
Regardless, it's hard to see it sticking around much longer. We're used to the "live audience" in talk shows, but as people age out of laugh track television, I think it will become a thing of the past. Even though I believe there will always be multi-cam shows, I do feel like people are asking for from their half-hours. they want them to feel more cinematic and to feel more real to life. Or at least stylized in other ways, like the way VFX are used in The Good Place.
What's your opinion on the laugh track?
Do you think it adds or subtracts from the viewing experience?
Will the laugh track continue to last on television and streaming, or will we eventually see the day when its part of the history books?
Let us know in the comments!