The question it seems I am most asked is what I think of the laugh track. For the most part I hate it. But not always.
The networks have always maintained that the laugh track is necessary so Joe Six Pack and Suzie Homemaker know when to laugh.
In theaters when there’s collective laughter it’s very infectious. So the networks feel if they can sneak 200 other people into your living room it will simulate that shared experience. Forget that those people recorded their laughter in 1952 and most are probably dead by now, without them how could you possibly know what’s funny?
On single-camera shows laugh tracks are really intrusive. We used to say on MASH, “where are these people?” Is there an unseen bleacher section on the chopper pad? Were they under Hot Lips’ bed when she and Frank had their little trysts?
For multi-camera shows, it’s a different story. In theory, the laughter you hear is real from the studio audience reacting to the show being filmed. You’ll notice that in year-one of CHEERS, after the first few episodes, we had to include the disclaimer, “CHEERS was filmed before a live studio audience”. We did that because viewers didn’t believe the laughs were earned… although they were.
But here’s where the laugh track serves a purpose: scenes are re-shot, sometimes several times. And the best performances are edited together. Obviously the audience doesn’t laugh as hearty the second or third time they’ve heard the same joke… unless they’re all that guy from MEMENTO. So we’ll use a little laugh track to “sweeten” and smooth out the tracks. But the laughs were legit. And over time on both CHEERS and FRASIER we were able to compile a backlog of laughs from our own shows. So we didn’t have to resort to those corpses who were so tickled by Lucy.
Often times, however, producers misuse this feature and crank up the track to the point where village idiots on laughing gas wouldn’t howl so loud and long. I won’t say which shows but you know who you are. And more than one showrunner, when questioned about a certain joke has said, “Aww, the machine will love it.”
But here’s something you might not know. Laugh tracks are also employed on LIVE shows. Award presentations for sure. Opening monologues are sweetened. And even that didn’t help Whoopi Goldberg on the Oscars.
At least today there seems to be a move away from laugh tracks on comedies. On MASH we got CBS to make a concession. No laugh track in O.R. So viewers were spared “He’s gone, Hawk. There’s nothing you could have done.” HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!
But now that there’s very few multi-camera shows with live audiences, and the Forest Lawn laughers have been told their ghostly services are no longer needed for single-camera series it’s up to the producers to actually make their shows funny enough so that Joe & Suzy will laugh without being prompting. That’s a scary proposition… and why the laugh track will never completely go away.