The Laugh Track, and Other Tiresome Television Trends

When I was a kid in the early 90’s, I never knew what time a show came on.  So every time I caught a show that I liked, it was a rare surprise and I got excited.  One of those shows was a weird surrealist Beatnik-inspired cartoon called the Pink Panther Show.  To this day I still don’t know what any of it was about, but I remembered it fondly and its iconic theme song was in fact my ring tone on my first cell phone (and the ladies loved it).  So last year I figured I’d down a few shots of Mad Monk Vodka, find a few episodes on the internet, and relish in the booze-induced nostalgia.

Yeah, it was a weird show

I knew the show would probably be pretty stupid now that I was an adult, but I was surprised at what turned me off the most.  It wasn’t the weird FDR cigarette-extenders or the LSD inspired animation that killed it; it was the damn laugh track.  It was strange, but I had always though cartoons were exempt from laugh tracks by some sort of FCC regulation or something.  But no, the characters were doing incredibly not-funny things and people were howling about it, like it was magically drawn in front of a studio audience dangerously high on nitrous oxide.  I realized the laugh track was poisonous, and not just to crappy cartoons no one cares to remember.  It really is an archaic relic of a bygone era, and today a genuine sigh of bad television.

I googled canned laughter, and I guess it's not completely inaccurate.

It’s a little known secret that I am a fan of Seinfeld, and word has it that this show may have had a laugh track.  But I like to believe that it was forced to because it was the standard at the time.  In fact, hugely popular shows like M*A*S*H were forced by their studios, against the creator’s wishes, to contain laughter.  It was widely believed by extremely condescending executives that audiences wouldn’t respond to comedies unless they were prompted to laugh.  It was a truism at the time that without canned laughter, a show was doomed to fail, and that audiences otherwise wouldn’t be able to tell if the show was a comedy.  I’m not sure why they thought viewers would think Seinfeld was a dark and gritty drama about urban nihilism and despair unless they included laughter, but it is what it is.

My friends, it is as Nietzsche promised. God is dead...

But all that is in the past.  My question is why we allow this beast of background laughter to continue to live.  It’s like poison ivy, and a small but effective group of misguided environmentalists are striving successfully to stave off the creep of extinction.  Laugh tracks had no place in shows in the 00’s, let alone this decade.  The fact that they still show up is an obscenity that should result in steep fines.  The fact that shows that use it are replacing those that don’t, e.g. Whitney is still on TV, Community is not; is akin to throwing your iPad in the trash because you just got a new Comadore 64.  Even shows that are still palpable, like How I Met Your Mother, are ruined by this outdated feature of television, like an attractive woman with a smallpox vaccine scar.  She’s hot, but damn, what year was she born? 

Hoe's be spending that cheddar on war bonds...

Here’s what I don’t understand.  The most popular sitcom on television right now is Two and a Half Men.  The second?  The Big Bang Theory.  And what do they have in common, other than not being funny?  They both have a laugh tracks.  They’re the boisterous fat kids in middle school that laugh at their own jokes to make sure everyone knows they’re funny.  But even though shows with laugh tracks are still widely watched, the ones without it are widely praised for not having it.  In fact, of all the critically acclaimed comedies of the last ten years, the best are overwhelmingly laugh track free.  It boils down to two different types of filming for sitcoms; Single-Camera Setup and Multi-Camera Setup.  The standard, cliche sitcom will use the multi-camera setup, filmed before a studio audience and such.  The newer format for sitcoms is the single-camera setup, made especially popular by The Office.

What's not to love?

Think about it for a second.  Why the hell are comedies still being performed before a live studio audience anyway?  Isn’t it just a throw back to stage theater?  The days of vaudeville?  Why would any sort of quality media need to be shot where you can hear the audience at all?  It’s like Seinfeld was being performed on stage, like a play, before an audience.  But that’s not the case at all and we know it.  Shows shot before and audience don’t do one live take for the benefit of the audience.  They do take after take, and the audience is mainly there just to see how a show is made and provide the laughter.  In scenes were the audience isn’t present, for continuity’s sake, fake laughter is later added.  But it makes no sense why television should be based on this model anymore.  Quality non-comedy shows haven’t been performed before an audience in decades, and 99% of the viewers won’t be in the studio.  So for the actual viewers’ sake, why break the fourth wall and include the laughter in this day and age when a show can increase in quality tenfold without this archaic inclusion?  The old notion was that only dramas could be high quality productions, but shows like Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family, and tons of others have shown that comedies can be high quality and still hilarious, and the absence of the laugh track allows these shows to go places sitcoms weren’t allowed to before.  They were tethered to this idea that the studio audience was a necessity, but without it comedies are now being elevated to a form of art.  That’s why shows like Whitney should have never been greenlit, allowed to assault our senses and spit in our collective faces.  It really is just an insult from the studios as they bend down and pat our heads and say “Watch this shit we made, we need to sell more ad space.”

Seriously, fuck this show.

I don’t hate the laugh track.  It was a product of its time.  Old shows had them because that was the way things were back then.  But its time and place is in the past, and it has no business being on television anymore.  Shows that still contain it show they are offensively out of touch with audiences of today.  Just like those old Looney Tunes episodes that were crazy racist, you don’t have to hate all of Looney Tunes because of it, but at the same time, shows today don’t need to keep doing the same things they were doing 60 years ago.

So 30 Rock just...does the opposite?

I realize a few shows still need audience laughter.  Talk shows especially are based around being performed before an audience, and that is totally acceptable.  But for scripted comedies on television these days, the laugh track needs to go.  There is not a single sitcom on television that is made better with a laugh track.  I think it bothers me especially when I go back to watch old Seinfeld episodes.  Because all of the shows I watch these days don’t have added laughter in them, Seinfeld’s is starting to stand out more and more.  Don’t get me wrong, Seinfeld is still an amazing show.  But its laugh track is not what makes it great, and is sufferable only because it was the standard of the time.  New shows can’t excuse themselves based on that theory anymore, and the laugh track needs to die out, quickly.

And if you are one of the few who absolutely adores having people laugh with you during a show, watch this episode of The Office with added laughter and see for yourself how shitty it is:


4 Comments to “The Laugh Track, and Other Tiresome Television Trends”

  1. I think you’re missing that “Seinfeld” needed the audience or it wouldn’t have been as funny. Not only did the audience energize the actors, but it made the writers write jokes that were multi-layered and could get a laugh from strangers as well as themselves. The audience responses also helped to shape the characters and the performances over time, and benefited the show even in the scenes shot without the audience.

    Besides, why would you say that a talk show needs to be performed before an audience? Some talk shows aren’t — and if you’ve seen the Craig Ferguson episode where he did without the audience, you know that the two formats are very different. Same with sitcoms. You’re right that the audience style is based in theatre, and the no-audience single-camera style is based in movies. So why are movies superior to plays? They’re not.

    Both styles have disadvantages. Doing a show with an audience kills any idea of realism (so if you want to do a realistic show in a realistic setting, you shouldn’t use an audience) but the no-audience shows can sometimes have blander performances. Besides, it’s easier to get away with bad jokes in single-camera: MODERN FAMILY has worse writing than the same writers’ FRASIER because on FRASIER they had to earn their laughs from the audience.

    And finally, doing sitcoms without an audience is actually older, in TV, than doing them with an audience. So it’s LOUIE that has the old-fashioned retro style, not LUCKY LOUIE, which used the more modern multi-camera live-audience format.

    • Honestly, thank you for your thoughtful response. In my opinion though, I simply don’t think that an audience is necessary, and though I don’t think film is superior to plays, I do think the format, i.e. watching it on a television, is more suited for a film style than a theater style. I really do think that audience laughter just cheapens the jokes. It’s sort of like having to explain a joke, to me it becomes less funny when the show itself is telling me I need to be laughing. Regardless, I know this is an extremely subjective topic, and my post was more of my personal opinion than anything else. Thus, I think both of our perspectives can be valid, especially since comedy is what we ourselves perceive to be funny.

      Either way, your post was very well stated and I can see where you’re coming from. I think it probably boils down to personal taste more than anything else.

  2. Until you brought this to my attention, I think I had pretty much tuned out the fake background laughter. When I listened to your clip and heard how often laughs were injected into the conversation , at moments that were not even funny, I realized how annoying it actually is. Incidentally, I loved watching the Pink Panther as a kid. I thought it was a silent show, except for the sound effects of grenades and other such booby traps. I don’t remember hearing laughter. Maybe I have to look it up again.

    • Some videos of the Pink Panther on youtube will have a laugh track and some won’t. In its original run it had a laugh track, but in syndication some stations cut it out. It is interesting to note that for decades the producers of shows hated the laugh track but they were forced to add it in by their executives because they assumed audiences wouldn’t like a show without it. When shows were finally allowed more freedom to include it or not, especially beginning with The Office, the result was overwhelmingly positive. That long-held assumption about audiences proved to be wrong, and that’s why I think I get irritated when it’s still included. They know most of us don’t like it, but they put it in there anyway.

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