A reader, Rob, asked what I thought of the dreaded “laugh track”. The MASH DVD’s give you option to watch with or without. Which would be my recommendation?
Definitely: watch without the laugh track.
The only major disagreement the show ever had with CBS was over the laugh track. The “Eye” insisted upon it. I would always say, “where are all these people who are laughing at the chopper pad? Are they in bleachers just off camera? Are they under Hot Lips’ bed when she and Frank are having a private moment? Are they hiding in the still in the Swamp?”
The only concession the network made was that we could eliminate the laugh track during OR scenes. Great for us since as MASH fans all know, our big block comedy scenes were always during operating sessions.
Network thinking about laugh tracks is this: When you see a comedy movie in a theatre you are surrounded by people laughing. The laugh track helps recreate that communal experience when you’re sitting in your home alone. For fifty years networks have stuck by this theory despite not one shred of evidence to suggest it is valid.
Finally, now, networks are beginning to come around. Audiences have loudly stated they want new rhythms in sitcoms. They’ve also said they hate laugh tracks. And since some of the recent better comedies (like SCRUBS and the OFFICE) don’t use one and are embraced, networks are relaxing their yuck box choke hold.
Personally, I think a lot of credit should go to HBO. Their comedies (like SEX IN THE CITY) didn’t employ laugh tracks, and what do you know? Audiences were able to recognize that they were watching comedies all on their own. Networks tend not to be ahead of the curve.
For multi-camera shows there are actual live studio audiences laughing at the material. (On CHEERS we had to announce at the top of the show that we “were filmed in front of a live studio audience” because the public didn’t believe our laughs were real…although they were.)
The problem comes when you do multiple takes or pick-ups? How do you blend one performance with another? The answer is “sweetening”, adding a little laugh track to smooth out the transitions. The danger is to sweeten a little too much or embellish laughs that weren’t as big as the producers hoped.
And they’re not fooling anybody.
You know what’s funny and if a laugh track is orgasmic over a bad joke it’s not going to fool you into laughing yourself. Instead, it’s going to make you think the show is bogus. Laugh tracks are one of the reasons multi-camera shows are now an endangered species.
One final note: On CHEERS and FRASIER we used recorded laughs from our own shows. Not so with other series. A lot of the laughs you hear were recorded fifty years ago. Many of the people you hear laughing are now dead.
Talk about leaving a legacy. Grandma may now be a distant memory but she’s still with us, every week, laughing at Jim Belushi.