The Laugh Track

Friday, January 06, 2012


For almost as long as there have been comedies on television there's been that old Pavlovian insurance–the laugh track.  But does it work?  Are producers just scared that without prompting we won't know what's funny?  New York Magazine's Joe Adalian tells Bob that a new generation of sitcoms highlights the pros and cons of canned laughter.

Comments [12]

George Work from Manhattan

The laugh tracks on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" and "Ask Me Another" insult the listeners' intelligence. Also, I'll bet hired audence members are there to clap, howl and laugh hysterically at content that's, quite frankly, not funny.
When NPR had the insight to include Michael Feldman's show, we weren't burdened with fake audience response. When Michael delivered a bomb, and there were many, there was no audience reaction. It was an honest presentation, a great show and it is missed.
NPR ends up looking like a cheesey television network from the early 1960's--Mr. Ed, Pete And Gladys, My Mother,The Car, etc.
Even "I Love Lucy" didn't employ laugh tracks--they didn't need to, the show was funny.

Nov. 17 2012 12:51 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Too serious, that is. Besides, never liked Sandler's nor Allen's work.

Jan. 11 2012 04:34 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Well, none of this discussion explains why I can hardly stand anything current defined as sit-com. As it is, almost none of SNL's material, outside political humor, grabs me. Some dramady, especially David E. Kelley's and most especially his musicals were superb! Times are too tough and issues to serious for musicals, right now, I guess.

Got another reason to admire Tony Randall now, though!

Jan. 11 2012 04:21 PM
Robert Buerkle from Los Angeles

It's worth keeping in mind that one of the things the laugh track does is signal a certain theatricality in the sitcom, providing a break in the "fourth wall" similar to theater, vaudeville, and sketch comedy performances and cuing the audience to watch the program differently than they would more "serious" programming (the reason the laugh track works in theatrically-staged shows like Cheers or Seinfeld, but not in a program like MASH).

Brett Mills (a TV scholar) has argued that as some contemporary sitcoms have rejected the laugh track, shows like The Office and Modern Family have used the mock-documentary style to replace this, allowing the characters to acknowledge the camera in a manner that similarly breaks the fourth wall, but in a less theatrical, more televisual manner. It's a compelling comparison that highlights the importance of the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" nature of certain types of comedy and how different sitcom conventions can achieve similar effects, but also shows that the laugh track -- love it or hate it -- does more than simply amplify the jokes.

Jan. 11 2012 03:01 PM
Michael Taylor from Los Angeles

Having worked as a lighting technician in Hollywood on many sit-coms since 1998 (and on movies, television commercials, and music videos for twenty years before that), I thoroughly enjoyed this piece -- but I must correct your contention that there's anything "modern" about filming or taping in the single-camera style. Movies and television dramas have been single-camera productions right from the start, and remain so to this day. Desi Arnez invented the modern three-camera style of shooting sit-coms in the 50's as a means of saving time and money, and it still works (even with the now-standard four cameras on set) to this day.

Multi-camera sit-coms are a very different beast than single camera comedies. Although some shows ("Modern Family" is a good example) are now shooting in a "hybrid" style -- using four cameras but not filming in front of a live studio audience -- the vast majority of multi-camera shows follow the template laid down by Desi Arnez.

And they do so because it's cheap and it works.

I have no problem with a laugh track on a standard multi-camera show. Shot before a live studio audience, those laughs are recorded during the show, albeit occasionally "sweetened" during post-production -- but to me, adding an artificial laugh track to a single-camera comedy or hybrid sit-com is intrusive and insulting to the viewers at home.

Jan. 10 2012 03:44 PM
Alan P. from St. Louis, Mo.

I have two children. The Disney Channel is on in my house. They cannot go two words without a blast from the laugh track. I remember a 60 minutes story on the laugh track that predicted a black screen and laughs as a comedy.

Jan. 10 2012 03:29 PM
Gary from Saint Louis, Missouri

One very pleasant feature about the DVD releases of the TV series M*A*S*H is that the laugh track is optional (the joys of multiple audio tracks). So we cam at least now watch the show the way that Larry Gelbart intended it to be seen.

Jan. 08 2012 10:22 PM
Hank Tilbury from Kansas City (mild chuckles)

Speaking of M*A*S*H...I'm surprised you didn't mention how the laugh track was always absent during scenes in the operating room. Apparently, Larry Gelbart won that battle, and I think it was appropriate. But it did reinforce the artificiality of the laugh track, which was known to be a fake even by me and my grade-school peers back then.

Worst use of laugh tracks: Ray Stevens records. I guess he had to make sure we knew he was funny!

Jan. 08 2012 07:47 PM

I remember watching an episode of M*A*S*H with my family in the 80s which was aired with no laugh track as an experiment. I seem to recall we laughed less, probably because we had seen the show for years with a laugh track, and it just didn't seem to be the same show.

Jan. 08 2012 02:48 PM
Neil in Brooklyn from New York

I don't think Wait, Wait... uses canned laughter because occasionally a joke will fall flat. Same for The Daily Show and early shows like The Honeymooners. I Love Lucy, on the other hand, although filmed before an audience, definitely used augmented laughter after Little Ricky was born; you can hear a couple of the same distinct laughs in episode after episode.

Also, I recently read that The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show would screen a filmed episode before an audience, recording its reactions - only adding minor canned laughter when a joke fell flat that couldn't be edited out.

It was really Tony Randell on The Odd Couple that fought to return to filming before live audiences (which no sitcoms were doing at the time) - which Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family also did.

Jan. 08 2012 11:17 AM
moose from jc

The weirdest thing is the old Hanna-Barbera CARTOONS with laugh tracks!

Jan. 07 2012 10:40 AM

Sounds to me like WAIT WAIT DON'T TELL ME uses a laugh track.

Jan. 07 2012 07:50 AM

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