Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Laugh tracks

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.

35 comments:

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Much as the M*A*S*H producers hated the laugh track, the rhythm of the show feels wrong when it's removed. Not so much because of the acting, as because the episodes were edited around the presumption that there would be a laugh track. When I watch a show like that with the laugh track turned off, there are a lot of dead spots because of the pauses the editors left in for the laughing.

If it had been done without a laugh track, there would have been, if nothing else, a lot more music on the soundtrack to cover the dead spots; music on today's single-camera shows sort of does what laugh tracks used to do. But I find the incessant perky background music on some of these shows more annoying than a laugh track would be.

Andrew said...

I think that when MASH aired in the UK, it did so without the laugh track, for years.

And viewers got the jokes just fine.

SJ said...

I remember reading a story about MASH airing in the UK (or some other European country) without a laugh track and after a while they accidentally aired one episode with a laugh track and got a lot of complaints from the viewers.

Justin said...

Much appreciated - and I LOLled. Really.

Anonymous said...

I currently watch a range of sitcoms and yes, sometimes, MASH, BECKER, et al in Germany on TV without laugh tracks. Believe me, you only think about it on occasion, usually when there is an OBVIOUS play for the laugh track, and you expect that "HAHAHA!" and nothing is arriving. It is made odder by the sense of a few timing seconds off -the dead silence like from actors on a stage, waiting for the laughing to "die down" for lines to be heard again. All in all though, what is odd is that often there is a weird, dramatic side to certain sitcoms lacking a laugh track. Watch the Cosby show...wow, nothing is funny at all...

Bill said...

At the peak of Seinfeld's success, I started to get really annoyed with the audience (how Kramer would enter, and they'd have to stand around for 15 seconds waiting for them to quiet down). Since then I haven't been able to get into a new show with audible audience laughter of any kind. I stuck with Seinfeld and Frasier and Newsradio to the end (and I just about gave up on Sports Night before they pulled the laugh track out) but that's it. Never got into Raymond or King of Queens or any of the multi camera comedies.

But I'm obviously in the minority, as CBS' Monday comedies seem to get a much bigger audience than NBC Thursday. So the laugh track must really work, it just must be one of those things that don't affect me, like infomercials.

VP81955 said...

A laugh track is like a good umpire or referee -- done right, you don't notice its presence.

Barry said...

There was a apparently at least one episode of an early M*A*S*H with a soundtrack in the O.R. It was a Trapper episode, but I don't recall specifically which one, but as I watched it I was surprised, thinking there were never laughs in the O.R. Was that something that evolved over time, or decided on from day 1 (with one episode just missed)?

Dimension Skipper said...

I may be one of the very few these days, but I've never minded a laugh track at all. Yes, there are times when it's overused for a joke that I just don't find funny and then I do find it intrusive, but not so much as the unfunny gag. If a joke is funny enough on its own I just don't even notice the extraneous laughter.

I prefer my sitcoms in the traditional style rather than the newfangled wave which all seem to try to be "edgy and hip", but in so doing end up seeming like they're just copying each other and what's edgy and hip about that?

What I object to more these days is that without laugh tracks, shows seem to resort to other cheap gimmicks such as quick, jarring edits between scenes, way too much voiceover narration, and the addition of cartoon sound effects (such as a head swoosh, e.g.). I find those to be more obnoxious and more of a cheat than the laugh track. (If I want cartoon sound effects, I'll watch The Roadrunner. And if I want to listen to endless voiceover narration to explicitly tell me characters' innermost thoughts, well, I could always read a book instead.)

I will note that I didn't mind the visual gimmicks Ally McBeal because that was an hour-long drama with strong comedic elements, the gimmick was clearly established as being all in her imagination, and they toned it down after a while. Plus at the time the style truly did seem fresh (to me anyway).

I have never gotten into the Malcolms in the Middle, How I Met Your Moms, or Scrubs of this modern sitcom world. I don't even go for the documentary gimmick of The Office. I don't think it's so much the lack of a laugh track, but simply the cartoonish or gimmicky style that I see as the (unnecessary?) replacement for the laugh track.

This past season, I only watched two sitcoms: 2.5 Men and The Class. 2.5 Men often gets too into sex jokes for whole episodes (for my taste anyway), and it may not be quite what it was at the start, but I still enjoy it for the most part.

However, I actually thought The Class was better and I wish it had found a larger audience and stayed in production. The humor came very much from the characters' personalities and not from "stylish" camera gimmicks or cartoony sound effects. I simply found it funny which is what I look for first and foremost in a sitcom, not "style".

Oh, one show without a laugh track which I enjoyed was Fox's live action "The Tick" a few years ago. So what I just wrote above are my sitcom viewing tendencies, but they're not hard and fast rules.

NYLouOC said...

There was one MASH outside the OR where no or very little Laugh track was used - the episode, "Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?", where an amnesiac patient thinks he is Jesus Christ. Apparently CBS had qualms about mixing guffaws and Christ..

some of the MASH DVDs allow you the option of excising the laugh track - it is very spooky.

In Marx Brothers lore, it has been speculated one of the reasons that the Marxs' Paramount films play better these days as opposed to the MGM films like A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, is because since ANATO was tested on stage, and the laughs times, there are now 'dead spots' of shots of say, Chico standing there, where the writers knew the people would be laughing. On TV, this looks odd. But a movie like DUCK SOUP plays better on TV now, because that, and the other Paramount films, are the movies that STARTED the rapid-fire dialogue, that permeates TV sitcoms.

estiv said...

Often there is a weird, dramatic side to certain sitcoms lacking a laugh track. Watch the Cosby show...wow, nothing is funny at all...

No comment.

John Hudgens said...

Actually, don't *all* the MASH DVDs offer the episodes without the laugh track? I actually prefer to watch it this way...

Which isn't to say that laugh tracks/audience reactions don't have their place - I generally prefer not to have them (The Office, The Tick, Corner Gas), but some shows, like the original British Coupling or The IT Crowd, I can't imagine watching any other way...

Anonymous said...

I like the thought that people who originally laughed at Eve Arden or Sid Caesar are still laughing at How I Met Your Mother.

All over the map said...

Unique laughs that are recorded should be used sparingly, though. There was a very distinctive laugh added to a number of Taxi episodes; every time I heard it, I was reminded that some of the laughs weren't real. Similar to that scream that's been used in a hundred horror movies.

Christian Hummel said...

I am a little late now, but I read a book (for college) and I came across a section about "laugh tracks" (and other recorded emotions, e.g. "awwwwww") which mentioned a part I never thought before. "Laugh tracks" are not (only) used to tell people what is funny but what is not but more so to not let them feel "alone" in front of their TV (although they often are). It was in a chapter called "parasocial interaction" and I still think this explanation makes a lot of sense. Naturally you are sitting in front of your TV to entertain yourself and/or cheer you up. Watching a comedy does that (unless you watch the wrong ones ;-) ). But having a laugh track (or any track whatsoever) gives you the feeling, as you mentioned with you cinema-comparisson, that you are not alone. And that makes it "feel" even better...

Anonymous said...

I always thought the laugh track on "Scooby Doo" was a litte bizarre...

Melanie Anderson said...

The laugh track doesn't bother me as much as that Awwww does. When I've watched Full House before Yes, I admit to watching it. It was with my son! It makes me skin actually crawl.

But my son and I have gotten good at predicting when the awww moment is going to come. It's almost like a gam now. Oooo, Bob Saget is giving us a message. Awww coming soon!

Incidently, it was weird when Scrubs did the episode of what life would be like if they were on a sitcom. It opened my eyes to the fact that they had no laugh track and kind of showed me the difference between the two. I hadn't noticed up to that point that it was missing.

Anonymous said...

Re: AllOvertheMap's comment about Taxi's laugh track, I thought that was the distinctive laugh of producer and co-creator James L. Brooks.

addy said...

Anonymous,
I'm with you on the weird Scooby Doo laugh track. Even as a kid it annoyed me. So much I never bothered watching it.
Now I have to as my son likes it. You always pay for what bad you have done in life, don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Marty McKee said...

That laugh Alloverthemap mentions is James L. Brooks, and it's definitely real. You can hear it on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW too.

Mary Stella said...

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.

I'm shocked.

I'm also going to hope that, someday, an audio techie hits the button and fires off the laugh track at a completely wrong and inappropriate time during the Oscar broadcast.

Seymuor said...

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA wasn't intended for television. Watch it in a theater with a live audience, as I have many times (It gets frequent revivals) and it is amazing how well timed those pauses are. Whereas, watch DUCK SOUP with an audience (Again, I have a number of times.) and you can't hear half the lines over the laughs. It's part of why DUCK SOUP tanked at the box office amd the Marx Brothers were dropped by Paramount, while A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES were their biggest hits.

How foolish that they didn't make their movies to fit into a medium not yet invented.

Adam Bowie said...

M*A*S*H did indeed air over here in the UK without the laugh track, and it now always seems very wrong if you ever see it with that track.

It's interesting that post The Office (the British original) laugh tracks on anything very slightly edgy all seem wrong.

Another great UK comedy is I'm Alan Partridge which I very much doubt travels too well. Anyway, it came back after a few years in the wilderness, post The Office, and had the same laugh track as it always had - although the track was live laughter. Yet there was much comment that the track must have been dubbed on afterwards. It didn't help that the set design was excellent and it never felt like it was being shot in a studio. Indeed I believe that the live audience had to pretty much watch the whole show on monitors.

Dhppy said...

I'm also going to hope that, someday, an audio techie hits the button and fires off the laugh track at a completely wrong and inappropriate time during the Oscar broadcast.

They had their chance when Costner took home Best Director.

NYLouOC said...

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA wasn't intended for television. Watch it in a theater with a live audience, as I have many times (It gets frequent revivals) and it is amazing how well timed those pauses are. Whereas, watch DUCK SOUP with an audience (Again, I have a number of times.) and you can't hear half the lines over the laughs. It's part of why DUCK SOUP tanked at the box office amd the Marx Brothers were dropped by Paramount, while A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES were their biggest hits

The idea that DUCK SOUP 'tanked' at the b.o., is one of the more inaccurate myths of Hollywood.

First of all, one has to realize that the previous two Marx flicks, MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS, were Paramount's biggest grossers of their respective years. One of the main reasons was the fact that people came back several times to catch some of the dialogue they missed the first time they saw it.

Second of all, Paramount and the Marx Brothers, prior to DUCK SOUP, had been at each other's throats over contract matters relating to the participation deal the brothers had. The brothers actually had gotten to the point of forming their own company, and soliciting contract offers from people like Sam Goldwyn.

And thirdly, 1933 was like the worst year EVER for the movie business - the very rock bottom of the Depression. So folks did not have that extra dime to see DUCK SOUP a second time. And DS still ended up being Paramount's FIFTH biggest grosser of the year.

So no, the Marx Brothers/Paramount thing was much more standard business dealings - there was no love lost between either side..the 'DUCK SOUP doing poorly' thing was much more a RELATIVE thing...and it WAS the most expensive Marx movie at Paramount...

Sherri said...

Does anyone know when, or if, season 9 of Cheers is coming to DVD? It's been a year since season 8 came out. I hope Cheers isn't going to be one of those series that gets abandoned when it's so few seasons short of being complete.

Sorry--I know this has nothing to do with laugh tracks. This just seemed like a good place to ask!

Thanks

Brain Diva said...

I noticed that they sweetened the opening monologue on SNL, but I never thought it was used in other live award shows.

Overall, I prefer shows like The Office or Arrested Development without a laugh track, but I can't say it ever truly bugged me on shows like Friends, Newsradio or Cheers, where I felt the material was truly funny. It bugged on sitcoms I thought were lame (not naming names).

Anonymous said...

Another LIVE show that clearly must be sweetened is Leno. He's just not THAT funny.

Anonymous said...

Imagine how much more unfunny Gilligan's Island would be without a laugh track.

Batocchio said...

Thanks for the background. As a general rule, I hate laugh tracks, and was just watching a short comedy film where the laughs were massively out of proportion with the material, and it kills it. To smooth an edit, though, I've got no problem with that.

The Crutnacker said...

My favorite story is that Lou Reed's classic Rock and Roll Animal Album had its own crowd noises sweetened from tracks pulled from a John Denver album.

Kevin said...

Ken, you didn't mention the fact that during sitcom tapings often the writer(s) and producer(s), usually sitting just off the stage near the monitor, let out big belly laughs - often when a line isn't all that funny - as a way of "cheerleading" for their show.

I'd be interested in any anecdotes you might have to that effect.

dougR said...

A few weeks ago I was in the Paley Center for Media (AKA Museum of TV&Radio in NYC) watching an old 50s sitcom called Mr. Adams & Eve (Howard Duff & Ida Lupino). The writing was dreadful, awful, excrable, but the laugh track was so beautifully modulated that it was almost the aural equivalent of a topiary hedge. Glad to report that Mr. & Mrs. Duff were solid pros with impeccable comic timing. Too bad the show was such dreck.

repair rubber track said...

wow a blog finally about something that makes sense! MASH! ITs only one of the greatest tv shows to ever come about! I actually have a dear family friend whos in the media industry and he himself loves the show! he understand all the jokes, i actually had to pull an all nighter watchin MASH for him to esplain everything to me!

-Evan

Neko said...

Shows that are filmed before a studio audience can be just as bad. Sure, I get the need to test the scene, but like you said, with editing things need to be glued back together.

And then some jackass decides to bump the volume of the laugh track to 200% of the actors' voices. And insert laughs on every beat. Fuck them with a shovel.

I don't really care if the laughs were from that particular joke or if they were saved for a rainy day. If they are too loud, if they are too frequent, it destroys the show.