Why do shows still use laugh tracks?
Many, it is fair to say, will not mourn.
But if we can stand a moment at the graveside, we will find there are lessons to be drawn from the life of this strange 1950s innovation, one that stitched its mark on almost every minute of every American comedy for decades. In an era when emotions are manipulated on social media, it's important that we remember how our entertainment networks made us laugh even when the jokes weren't funny — and how that tyranny of manipulation ended.
Historians will dispute the exact moment of death. Was it when The Big Bang Theory, the last major sweetened sitcom, went off the air in 2019? Was it early in the COVID pandemic, when even the most unfiltered studio audience started to sound weird and quite possibly illegal? Was it only proven brain dead in late 2021, when no sweetened TV sitcoms debuted on U.S. networks during the all-important fall season?
Regardless, we knew the deceased was on life support for years. Its disease began when laugh-trackless comedies of the 1990s and early 2000s trusted the audience to know what's funny: The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development. When the UK and U.S. versions of The Office became the most popular comedies on both sides of the Atlantic, a tipping point was reached. Decline came on fast: After The Office won its first comedy Emmy in 2006, no show with added laughter ever won the category again.
By the mid 2010s, no longer protected by nervous executives, laugh-track comedies were in full retreat. They were losing in the marketplace of jokes. Freed from laughter pauses, fast-paced shows like 30 Rock could really cram in the funny. (Check out this YouTuber's experiment(opens in a new tab), which clocks the number of jokes in each kind of sitcom.)
With the rise of the internet, audiences had grown savvy and skeptical. Many saw viral YouTube videos that removed laugh tracks from top-notch sitcoms, turning shows like Friends into sad tales of automatons who stare at each other during multiple creepy silences. Even one of the finest moment of (opens in a new tab)Seinfeld(opens in a new tab) was revealed as profoundly unfunny without the laugh track.
And then there was the science. While a 2002 comparison of (opens in a new tab)Seinfeld(opens in a new tab) and (opens in a new tab)the Simpsons(opens in a new tab) showed that the former's laugh track didn't light up any extra comedy centers in the brain, a 2019 study concluded that laugh tracks make us chuckle when we wouldn't otherwise consider the jokes funny(opens in a new tab). Laughter predates language — other primates also use laughter as a social bonding tool(opens in a new tab) — so it makes sense that are hardwired to laugh at the same thing as a group, even if we can't see the group.
This raises a question that scholarship has barely begun to answer: What have we been manipulated into laughing along with all these years? The 2021 AMC comedy Kevin Can F**k Himself offers one disturbing answer. The protagonist's manchild husband has his sad, destructive antics approved by a haunting fake studio audience — one that disappears when he's out of the room, suggesting canned laughter has covered up casual misogyny in sitcoms for years.
Reports of its return to primetime life have been greatly exaggerated. "The laugh track is back in fashion," The Wall Street Journal (opens in a new tab)opined in August(opens in a new tab) — but its only examples turned out to be Kevin Can F**k Himself and WandaVision, two shows where canned laughter is used in limited doses to enhance creepiness. They were exceptions that helped to destroy the rule.
It's like we've all been living in Wanda Maximoff's fake-perfect Westview. Only now the spell is definitively broken are we able to wipe decades' worth of horrific fake smiles off our faces. But who was so expertly pulling the strings in the first place?
Canned laughter was born in the days of radio, helped along in no small part when Bing Crosby discovered that sound engineering meant he could pre-record shows(opens in a new tab) and still sound like he was entertaining a playhouse. (We modern work-from-homers salute you, Bing.) Still, radio comedies were generally recorded live in front of an unsweetened audience, because why wouldn't you? It's radio.
Only when TV required multiple takes from different camera angles, and each take was accompanied by an audience laughing in a different way, that a new problem emerged — and was quickly solved by an enterprising engineer. Charley Douglass was the inventor of the Laff Box, a mysterious typewriter-like instrument. Each key was connected to a different kind of taped laugh, for a total of 320 laughs. Many were taped from The Red Skelton Show, because that early 1950s comedy often had dialogue-free mime sketches.
Laughs from those 1950s audiences would be heard across America for decades, because Douglass had a monopoly. Almost all sitcoms of the 1960s bear his stamp; executives couldn't get enough Laff Box, and began to reason that more of it would make more shows seem more funny. Douglass and his family became virtuosos of the audience laughter organ. To protect it from prying eyes they shrouded the machine in secrecy, to the point of taking it to the bathroom when it needed fixing.
Douglass' monopoly broke down in the 1970s, when other engineers figured out how to play the audience too. The laughter became more subtle than the shrieking of the Douglass era, and more shows started to be filmed before a live studio audience — which, as the announcer would never say, would still be manipulated by an accomplished organ player. By the 1980s, as you can see in this video(opens in a new tab), the same basic formula remained in place: One wizened white male was deciding the places in a show that America was going to laugh at.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world was a more laugh-track free utopia. British comedy had little need of sweetening; if someone in the Monty Python audience coughed, or got the joke too late, you heard about it. The BBC even got export versions of some U.S. sitcoms, mercifully stripped of the laugh track. Growing up in the UK is why I've never been able to watch M*A*S*H* in America; the canned laughter seems sacrilegious, like crayon marks on the Sistine Chapel.
A studio audience is an audience present for the recording of all or part of a television program or radio program. The primary purpose of the studio audience is to provide applause and/or laughter to the program's soundtrack (as opposed to canned laughter).
In the United States, tickets to be a part of a studio audience are usually given away. However, as an enticement to attend, one or more members of the audience may be selected to win a prize, which is usually provided by a manufacturer in exchange for an advertisement, usually at the end of the show. Some game shows, such as Let's Make a Deal and The Price is Right, select contestants directly from the studio audience.
For sitcom/sketch comedy shows like All in the Family, Saturday Night Live and Happy Days (for indoor scenes), the use of a live studio audiences essentially turns them into de facto stage productions while shooting individual scenes, with minor problems like the audience applauding or uproariously whooping (the latter since becoming a satirical cliché in shows which mock the format and tropes of traditional sitcoms) when their favorite performers enter the stage. Shows like The Red Green Show, meanwhile, actually make the audience a part of the show, since that show is supposedly a television broadcast made from the (fictional) Possum Lodge, cast members react and speak directly to the audience as if they were talking to the viewers at home.
Most early radio shows in the United States were recorded in the presence of a studio audience, including comedies such as The Jack Benny Program, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and Fibber McGee and Molly, as well as anthology series like The Mercury Theatre and Lux Radio Theatre.
In its earliest days, most television broadcasts stemmed from the world of New York theater. Stage veterans were experienced in performing for a crowd. Starting in the 1940s, these plays were broadcast live. Thus, these plays were now directed towards both the live audience and those watching from home.
Premiering in 1951, I Love Lucy was the first television series to be filmed in front of an audience. This was made possible by the idea of Desi Arnaz to use multi-camera setup, a concept which had been pioneered by Jerry Fairbanks, and which had been used on The Silver Theater, Truth or Consequences and Amos ‘n’ Andy. This implementation allowed the show to benefit from the strengths of both stage plays (live audience) and film (camera angle options, point of view, etc.). This approach produced a marriage between cinema and theater; television and plays. This approach was subsequently adopted by most U.S. network sitcoms until the 2000s, when one characteristic of that era's Golden Age of Television was a resurgence in single-camera setup sitcoms without studio audiences, although studio-audience sitcoms continued to be made.
Although radio broadcasts for a studio audience have for the most part ended for commercial radio programs (outside of special "road show" episodes), public radio shows such as A Prairie Home Companion, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, Says You!, Tent Show Radio and Whad'Ya Know? are mainly performed in front of live audiences in theaters or art centers, if not a confined studio setting.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of television programs have been forced to conduct tapings without live audiences due to restrictions on gatherings. Some shows usually filmed in front of a studio audience used canned applause and laugh tracks instead, in some cases accompanied by stock footage of audiences from previous episodes filmed prior to pandemic restrictions. Some shows—particularly talk shows, game shows, and reality competitions—have adopted virtual audiences, whereby audience members appear from their homes via webcams and videoconferencing.
While the audience's reactions can be inspired by the show itself, they may also be cued to respond with applause or other reactions by illuminated signs.  Modern applause signs might be simply a text that shows up in the monitors, which audience members see during the show. In the early television era, applause signs were made from cardboard and other materials which studio staff members showed to the audience to get required reaction.
Television tapings for sitcoms and talk shows have a warm-up comedian who warms up the crowd before the recording starts and sometimes in between the commercials or between the scenes. The warm-up comedian usually will familiarize the audience members with the Applause signs which are facing the audience near monitor screens. Before the show, the audience is given some training on how and when to applaud and told to be loud and enthusiastic so that the people at home can hear them.
Applause signs are currently being used on late night talk shows including The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers as well as variety and sketch comedy shows like The Price is Right, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show among others.
In some cases, a studio audience can be called upon to vote, to help a contestant(s) (such as with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) or pass judgment on a politician (such as with Question Time).
Scholar Kenneth L. Brewer writes that the laugh track has often been treated as a problem of morality, “either because it coerces viewers into laughing or makes them more receptive to ideological messages from the media.” He argues that such concerns are exaggerated. But he does thinks there’s an ethical component in all this: producers, typically cagey about the use of laugh tracks today, should simply acknowledge they use them.
Radio, which used the sounds of live studio audiences to signal to listeners that they were tuned into comedy, was the first medium to use canned laughter. One origin story points to Bing Crosby’s radio show, which ran from 1949 to 1952. This was one of the first radio shows to be recorded on the new magnetic tape technology because Crosby wanted to be free from the tyranny of live broadcasting, and the necessity of re-doing the same show again for the later, West Coast broadcast.
One of Crosby’s guests, comic Bob Burns, told some jokes that made the studio audience laugh uproariously. The jokes, however, were thought entirely too risqué to actually broadcast. But the laughter itself was gold, saved to be used elsewhere, as when uncensored jokes didn’t get as many guffaws.
For TV, Charles Douglass’ “laff box” of 1953 became the industry standard until the 1980s, when stereophonic laugh tracks became available. These canned laughs would be used to jazz up a live audience’s tepid response, or, more simply, in lieu of a live audience all together.
The necessity of a laugh track for sitcoms became an industry shibboleth. Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971) initially tested in a non-laugh track version, but, evidently, even prisoner-of-war comedies needed one to succeed. M.A.S.H. (1972-1983) incongruously used one in its wartime surgical hospital setting. After much debate about whether or nor All in the Family (1971-1979) used a track, producer Norman Lear years later admitted that sure, sometimes they did for retakes when there was no audience around.
Though loathed by many, laugh tracks are still regularly used, and not just for situation comedies. An audio mix is complex production that can include music and sound effects, dubbed in retakes, and audience reactions, which need not be limited to laughter. Even when no laugh track is used, a studio audience’s reactions may still be edited for the final mix. In addition, Brewer notes that studio audiences themselves are manipulated into laughter, and that single-camera shows, which have prided themselves on not using laugh tracks, “use the laughter of other characters as a means to induce laughter on the part of the audience.”
Brewer writes that critiques of laugh tracks have had three main points: that they are coercive, that they dumb down the audience, and that they’re deceptive. He argues that these takes date to the 1950s and presumed a passive, if not “zombified,” audience. He argues that audiences were never such suckers.
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