Film, News & Commentary

Who’s laughing now? TV, laugh tracks and live audiences

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As somebody who has reviewed a stand up act with only four people in the audience, I can attest to the fact that laughing all alone isn’t always the easiest thing in the world. The experience of laughter is largely a social thing, which is why ever since The Hank McCune Show first brought canned laughter to television in 1950, producers have relied on a mixture of live audience laughter and pre-recorded reactions to get their home audience laughing. But laugh tracks have long divided audiences and critics alike. Do you want to feel like you’re laughing with your friends, rather than laughing all alone? Or do the farcical “oo’s” and “ah’s” and endless hysteria of an Everybody Loves Raymond audience get on your nerves?

In recent years, more and more comedies have been going it alone, ditching the laugh track. Shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, Modern Family, and of course animated giants like The Simpsons and Family Guy, have won critical acclaim and scores of devoted fans without a live audience or canned laughter. The conventional wisdom is that the writing in these shows is of a standard high enough to get their audiences laughing on their own.

But it might surprise you to learn that despite an industry trend against the laugh track, it’s still those sitcoms with recorded laughter that are scoring the best ratings. Earlier this week, three of the leading cast members of The Big Bang Theory negotiated new contracts, which would see each of them earn $1 million per episode for three more seasons, putting them on par with the Friends cast in their final season.

So how did they manage it? Well The Big Bang Theory, which uses a live studio audience, was the highest-rating comedy in the US by leaps and bounds in the 2013-14 season, drawing in an average of 20 million viewers in America each episode. It’s followed by Modern Family (no laugh track), which gathers, on average, 11.8 million, then The Millers, Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother (which all use laugh tracks or live audiences).

In fact, with the notable exception of The Simpsons, America’s highest-rating, longest-running television comedies over the last six decades have all used laugh tracks or live audiences. Everything from I Love Lucy to M*A*S*H to Cheers to Seinfeld.

So how did the laughter manipulation all start? In the early 1950s, television producers were often finding themselves frustrated when a gag didn’t get the laugh they wanted from a live studio audience, especially when a show required multiple takes. So CBS sound engineer Charley Douglass took it upon himself to “sweeten” the laughs on the soundtrack, either by adding additional reactions or muting the audience when they laughed too loudly over a gag. Over the coming years, he developed the “laff box”, a mysterious device containing 320 unique laughs. Douglass was the king of the “laugh track”, and his role moved from “sweetening” through to creating entire laugh tracks in the 1960s, when the cost of filming shows like Bewitched and The Munsters with a live studio audience became prohibitive.

The practice of “sweetening” a laugh track continues to today, with John Bickelhaupt currently one of the most in-demand sound engineers and canned laughter specialist. This 2011 New Yorker profile gives a unique and fascinating glimpse into the art of laugh tracks in today’s sitcoms.

Over the six decades of laugh tracks, they’ve copped their fair share of criticism, with one of the most public battles around the use of laugh tracks concerning M*A*S*H. The creators Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds both wanted the series broadcast without a laugh track, but CBS insisted on its use, as it was the overwhelming style of the time. All DVDs of M*A*S*H now give audiences the option to watch the show with or without a laugh track, depending on their preference.

There’s been a fair bit of research into the effect of the “laugh track” over its lifetime. In 1974, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that audiences were more likely to laugh out loud at a joke which was itself followed by a laugh. But a recent study by Dartmouth College psychology professor Bill Kelley found that it has little effect on what we actually find funny.

It’s been said that laugh tracks treat audiences as if they’re sheep, signposting what jokes are meant to be “funny”, and exactly how funny they’re meant to be, depending on the kind of reaction they garner. If that’s the case, it seems the majority of American audiences actually are sheep, lapping up the comfort of the laugh track.

Time will tell if the laugh track becomes a thing of the past, or remains a significant part of our lives’ soundtracks. It certainly doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. In the meantime, see what happens when you take the laugh track out of Friends.

Or add one to The Shining…

9 responses to “Who’s laughing now? TV, laugh tracks and live audiences

  1. I understand the ABC has two multi-camera (ie. live audience) sitcoms in the works. I hope it goes well for them, because I’ve just written a multi-cam sitcom myself. Hopefully I can find a market for it.

  2. I doubt the laugh track will diminish when the use of a second screen device is on the rise. When watching a show with a family member using their phone or tablet to play a game, they’re much less receptive to picking up on the jokes, especially the visual ones, on shows like Parks and Rec. The laugh track helps grab a distracted viewers attention and return it to the main screen and ensure they notice the gag. As much as I hate a laugh track, I don’t see it leaving any time soon.

  3. Best example of the diminished use of a laugh track in a series was ‘Sports Night’. Slowly as the first season progressed, they used it less and less. It became a much better viewing experience once they removed it completely by the second season.

  4. Wait, so you co-opt the premise of a New Yorker profile, water it down, re-use its research, and then link to it?

    I wish I had balls like Ben Neutze.

  5. I realise a lot of this is about “canned” laughter, which is a separate issue, but the argument that a laugh track is *never* good is silly and the sheep analogy is just patronising.

    I feel MASH is an example, as you mention, where the wrong call was made, but also where the application of fake laughter was badly handled – laughter being edited over simple establishing shots for example.

    But I really think it depends on a show-by-show basis. I can’t imagine 30 Rock, Parks & Rec, The Thick Of It working as well with it, but I also can’t imagine Seinfeld, Father Ted, The Young Ones working as well without.

    1. … said the sheep.
      u wanna know why? because 30 rock, parks&rec, and the thick of it are actually funny and can carry themselves without fake laughs. seinfeld, father ted, and the young ones aren’t funny. if you watched it w/o the laugh track u r right, it wouldn’t work… because no one would be laughing… cuz they ‘gags’ are dumb.

  6. I really don’t have anything sophisticated to say, but I certainly hate the laugh tracks – especially on Raymond. It’s one of our favorite shows, but it may become one of our past favorite shows because of the laugh tracks. I really think a laugh track is successful only if it doesn’t make you realize there is one on the show! When a laugh track startles you and diverts your attention from the “plot”, I believe that is is too much. Another giveaway, is when one of your fellow watchers, turns to you and asks, “What the heck was funny about that?” Thanks for letting me vent!

  7. Tried to watch Last Man Standing and Dr. Ken. The laugh tracks were so over the top irritating that I couldn’t. Sad because they stand up without them. I hate it when shows blast that phony laughter every couple seconds.

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