Laughing Out Loud

Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950’s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.
— Chuck Klosterman, pop culture critic

Set-up - joke – punch line - hahahaha.

Laughter has always been the natural psychological derivative to humor, but in the age of television, in which entertainment has divvied up all content producing shows into two categories - comedy and drama (and the now emerging “dramedy,” an amalgam of the two) - audiences are acutely instructed to understand what is funny, or at least, what is meant to come across as “funny.” Comedy comes in all shapes and sizes – it’s broad slap stick, it’s muted intellectual humor, it’s situational, it’s conversational – but the recent trend (in terms of critically acclaimed modern television, which often appears to be mutually exclusive to what is commercially successful) is an evolution into single camera, often “mockumentary” type series. The overarching “comedy” signifier would more accurately be broken into two, with the advent of single-cam constructing the great sitcom divide, leaving modern multi-cam shows (think Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld in their heydays compared to Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls) appearing antiquated and contrived. But more so than the filming devices employed in the production of modern sitcoms, this divide has created a shrewd awareness on behalf of critics and audiences alike when it comes to the ways in which laughter is prompted. Of course, I am speaking of the laugh track and the polarization it has created in a television landscape that both embraces and resists it.

Traditionally, laugh tracks were heralded into the world of sitcom as a means to counter the fundamental complication of television viewing: creating a theater-like, communal experience in the home. The laugh track itself dates back to the 1940s, when sound engineer Charley Douglass forever changed the relation of constructed humor to forced laughter with his attempt at compensating for the non-theater experience of television through the creation of the “laff box.” Douglass built a two-and-a-half foot high device that looked like a mix of an organ and a typewriter (pictured below).


Its keys, when connected to the laugh recordings, created a range of responses for any joke, big or small. One key produced a woman's laughter, another a child's; a mix would create big laughs, a single would create a minor one. Douglass even went so far as to update his device every few years or so, mixing and matching different laughs, retiring old and introducing new, to keep up with audiences. And so, the entertainment industry was granted a device that would “sweeten” a show with built-in laughter, whether comically deserved or not. Soon after it’s debut on The Hank McCune Show in 1956, the laugh track became a crutch television comedies could rest upon and a staple in the industry. There was of course the common disclaimer “this show was filmed before a live studio audience” that seems to circumvent the use of the “fake” laughs the track provides, but even in these cases, as evidenced by older shows Happy Days and The Mary Tyler Moore Show as well as the newer Two and a Half Men, the live, “real”1 giggles and chuckles are enhanced with canned ones.

The overwhelming current of laugh tracks throughout the ‘60s and well into the ‘90s was no grand experiment either; psychology researchers jumped on the phenomenon and verified that laugh tracks increase audience laughter and the audience’s rating of humorousness of the presented comedy material. Bill Kelley, a psychology professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the brain’s response to humor, validates the popularity of using a laugh track: “We're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people.” By hearing others laugh -- even if it's prerecorded -- the cause will encourage the likewise effect. A 1974 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people were more likely to laugh at jokes that were followed by canned laughter. The scariest element of this confirmation is the concept that the sound of laughter itself can evoke infectious laughter – that you don’t need a joke at all. Because laughter exists in two entities – as an expression of emotion and as a decidedly social signal - the addition of the laugh track complicates whether this reaction to humor is entirely self-determined or whether modern audiences have become “programmed” in their responses to what passes as a joke.

Throughout the years, critics have lamented the provided “safety net” as well as pointed out the insulting factor to viewers that comes with the laugh track. Karal Ann Marling, a professor of American studies and art history at the University of Minnesota, voiced concerns about the sitcom staple: “Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium. I mean, anything can be passed off as hilariously funny, if you've got people laughing like maniacs in the background.” Marling offers a popular opinion, “let me be the laugh track.”

At the turn of the century, something happened in the relationship between audience viewer and laugh track in that the latter was suddenly (after existing on some of the most popular and critically acclaimed series of the previous television era) a symbol of the unsophisticated show or sitcom. Comedies came along like The Office, Arrested Development, Modern Family, the animated Simpsons and South Park, all managing to have large followings, positive critical response applauding the more subtle, clever humor as a departure from easy jokes, huge cultural cache, and the ability to still garner laughter without ever forcing the canned laughs on viewers.

This new age has signaled a shift in both the way showrunners create their shows as well as how viewers consume the material. And this shift has been able to find its footing through the transition to single-cam; by departing entirely from the structure in which laugh tracks were the norm, sitcoms have been able to change the way to tell a joke. This new age of television highlights humor in details, in editing, in long-running jokes that would not have worked if not for the deviation from multi-cam form. Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development commented on this new innovation: “When you don't have a laugh track, you can make the clothes funny. We can make a sign funny. We can make the way somebody walks funny. The makeup can be funny.”

David Cross as Tobias Fünke in  Arrested Development.

David Cross as Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development.

One of the greatest advantages of ditching the laugh track is the ability to write the script in which flow is not interrupted and space (read: time) is not given to the recorded laughs. Shows like 30 Rock and Community often have lightning-fast pace, jokes flying, landing and then a new joke suddenly piles on, that makes episodes of these series have more room for funny material, despite being the same length as an episode of Big Bang Theory. 22 minutes can now be filled to the brim with jokes both large and small.

But make no mistake – the laugh track is far from extinct. Its presence on many network shows seems as vital as the incorporation of music and editing. The most popular show on television – with the highest paid stars – Big Bang Theory makes no effort to hide its loud, constant recorded laughs. The canned laughter works like clockwork, coming after the same repetitive character quirks – Sheldon does not understand social conventions, Raj cannot speak in front of women, Penny cannot communicate on the same intellectual level as the others. Every episode’s script is a Mad Libs of the one before, just replacing the one-liners and punchlines with new material – but the “humor” behind the writing stays exactly the same. Or How I Met Your Mother, a show that ran 9 seasons, each one not filmed in front of a studio audience and each episode of every season containing consistent streams of recorded laughter.

Some critics and fans found the track a strange addition to a show that relied on crisp editing and a complex fast pace for subtle jokes to land, but the creators stuck by it. “We like the laugh track. I don't know how else to say it. It feels right. I get a little tired of the dusty old equation that single cam = daring and original and multicam = lazy and uninspired. I find that facile. I look at the White Stripes as an inspiration. Yes, they played old songs... but they found exciting new ways to play them. On our best days that's what we've tried to be.” So maybe it’s as simple as “we like it, get over it if you don’t”; or perhaps, the narrative on which the show was based – friends in the city looking for love – functioned on such a derivative level of so many other sitcoms to come before it (Friends is obviously the go-to example) and the jokes crafted by the show’s comedy writers needed the cushion of the track to ensure viewers would believe the show to be funny. And perhaps, maybe, the laugh track on a modern sitcom that plays in similar fashion to the single-cam ones without it would stand out from the lot as unique. I don’t know, perhaps.

In terms of popularity, it’s clear we are not witnessing the death of Douglass’s invention. The truth is that even in this “Golden Age” of television, comedies without laugh tracks fare worse than those that choose to employ the old trope. So indeed, those 14 million people tuning in for Big Bang Theory in comparison to the million or so tuned in to each episode of Community’s final season on NBC, believe that the communal experience the laugh track creates still matters. Comedies like Louie and Always Sunny in Philadelphia might be deconstructing the formula of “classic sitcom” but CK’s and the Sunny crew’s viewerships pale in comparison to less critically acclaimed shows like the departed Two and a Half Men and even the new Charlie Sheen vehicle Anger Management.

And just as we insist that cord-cutting is a reality and more viewers will relocate solely to Netflix, the numbers prove that more people are watching traditional television in the last few years than in the recent past; our proclamations against the laugh track might be all talk, no substance as well. The numbers can speak for themselves, and they say the laugh track continues to keep audiences comfortable in between punch lines, just as it always has.

On the wholly other end of the spectrum, one television reviewer, not concerned with commercial popularity of shows, critiqued: “Laugh tracks are the deathly shrieks that bellow in the background of television sitcoms in an attempt to turn a malignant punch line into something a little more benign. They are false advertisements, telling the people, 'This is good,' when what’s hidden underneath is bad.” Now, while this is an over-generalization of the trope, many modern audiences would agree that the track is no longer a necessity to “getting” humor on television. But we must take into consideration something else: the laugh track on a multi-cam sitcom feels fake to modern audiences (or so cry certain critics), but television series and the stories we consume through this medium are indeed fictional in and of themselves. On a mutli-camera show – take older Friends or newer 2 Broke Girls – the comedy lies in jokes that are born from contrived plots and situations. The seams of construction are obvious, but there’s also something honest in their presentation.

The actors are in hair, makeup, full costume. They are positioned intentionally; they look and sound rehearsed. Live studio audience or not, the players stand on their mark, under intense lighting that accompanies television production, and then the jokes are set up, the actor with the punch line will hit their cue with a premeditated delivery, and then of course, pausing for laughter. The entirety of the form, from script to shooting to presentation, is a constructed media product, so perhaps the manufactured laughs simply align with the illusion of reality that is the sitcom.

Modern television viewers who might be accustomed to single-cam can find watching a multi-cam show to be slightly jarring. Most new single-cam sitcoms, notably 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Girls, are shot as small films, eliminating any sign of fabricated performance “boosting realism, by inserting multiple distancing layers (editing, music, specific camera lenses, etc.) between the viewer and the actor.” The absence of the laugh track in addition to these other elements mark all that appears on our screens as “real” and the jokes can hit their mark in a way that makes the humor feel less broad and more grounded. But this in essence – the appearance of reality – can be interpreted as more of an artificial construction than the laugh track itself. One entertainment reporter put it, “The live studio audience, a set that is very obviously a set, or even a laugh track, as simple and stupid and taken for granted as it is, are subtle and powerful tools that shape our viewing experience. An agreement between the actors, the set and the audience is loud and clear: We’re putting on a show for your entertainment. For 21 minutes we experience, in the teeniest-tiniest way, the essence of comic theater.”

In any case, laugh tracks are polarizing, whether it’s viewers feeling as if they are treated as unintelligent enough to understand the humor on their own or whether it’s critics believing that the trope allows shows to mask mediocre comedy writing. Laughter itself is an expression of relief, one that is related to alleviating anxieties concerning culture, status, politics, what have you. Laughter is an equalizer in which the public can unilaterally interpret humor and let out a positive vocal response. It’s cathartic, it’ exhilarating, but it may be becoming more of a forced social construction than an innate desire. Television has always taught “morality” lessons, tales that reassert hegemony, stories that make a statement for social issues concerning race, feminism, and almost every cultural movement. But canned laughter teaches audiences something too; it can either act as an intermediary from show writer to television viewer – instructing them on how to watch an episode and connecting them to the material – reaffirming the faux-reality of fictional sitcoms or can insult and disturb the entire construction. Laugh tracks, still in very active use though it may not seem like it, will continue to be employed as long as audiences are laughing along to it. And in the meantime, the single-cam, mockumentary-type sitcoms might come to be a passing trend in which audiences feel disturbed and isolated by silence – especially as television becomes an entirely individual experience with new mediums, such as Netflix and Hulu, allowing viewers to be one-on-one with their show and craving the sound of laughter. If there’s one thing that’s certain in the debacle presented by the prerecorded tracks, it’s that laughter is physically, undeniably infectious.

  1. Use of quotes because it would be outrageous to accept even the audience laughter as entirely authentic given the extreme laughter coercion techniques employed by television productions. (Back)

Sara is currently a senior at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study concentrating in Media Theory and Entertainment Criticism. She will soon be moving on to the next phase of life: unemployment. To stay tuned for her inevitably self-deprecating descent, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.