Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Can the canned laughter

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.


VP81955 said...

I don't mind laugh tracks when they're used correctly (such as in live-audience shows, and not using laughter recorded in 1956). Good laugh tracks are like good umpires; you don't notice their presence. What irks me are the holier-than-thou crowd who don't want laugh tracks on any sitcom, as if it's beneath them. That's generational snobbery.

doggans said...

//don't mind laugh tracks when they're used correctly (such as in live-audience shows, and not using laughter recorded in 1956). Good laugh tracks are like good umpires; you don't notice their presence.//

I agree with VP.

Also, what amused/irked me about the M*A*S*H laugh track specifically was how it would always, without fail, crack up uncontrollably whenever Klinger was revealed to be wearing a dress. Oh, that wacky Klinger and his completely unforseeable antics!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but it's a guy in a dress. Don't you see ? Always absolutely hysterical. Always.

(reminds me of the round of applause some characters would get when they walked onto the stage in e.g. 'Happy Days'. Riiight. Cos they've never ever done that before)

Totally agree with Ken though.

We watched MASH as a family without fail on its first run on the BBC (which played it without the laugh track). Absolutely classic show, brilliantly funny, incredibly poignant, just top drawer all the way.

Years later I find the show absolutely unwatchable with the track and (happily for Ken if he still gets royalties ;) despite it being repeated regularly on various satellite and cable channels, will probably eventually buy the DVD sets just so I can watch it in peace.

Anonymous said...

As a child of the 70's/80's I had the good (?) fortune of being a latch-key kid, babysat by the TV until my folks came home. That said, I recognize individual laughs on the laugh tracks. Odd? Sad? Yes.

There is one laugh on the classic laugh track indelibly marked onto my brain. It sticks out, head and shoulders above the others. I think I've heard him on M*A*S*H, but I KNOW I've heard him on The Brady Bunch. He's generally at the end of the laugh beat, so his distinctive sound is out there, on it's own. The best way to describe this laugh is: a man-squirrel who guffaws upward.

Yeah, I know that's real helpful.

Anonymous said...

Once wrote a TV variety show and I would sit in the control booth during the sketches. This one sketch played very well...great laughs, etc. But when we cut, one of the producers came to me and told me to re-write the piece, it bombed. I told him it played so well and he told me there wasn't a sound in the audience. What I was hearing was the laugh track in the booth..they were sweetening as we went! That's my peronal stroy of dealing with a laugh track.

Emily Blake said...

The laughs always end up being so out of proportion to what's really funny, and now that I've been in a studio audience I see why.

They expect and encourage you to laugh so much and on so many takes that after a while you can't remember what funny is anymore and you just start laughing at everything. Guy in a dress? I guess they meant it to be funny, so I'd better guffaw like a lunatic. That's what warm-up guy says, anyway.

Plus, he gives out prizes for the most enthusiastic laugh. I busted my gut on some unfinny jokes at a taping of Crumbs in an attempt to win a copy of The Princess Bride signed by Fred Savage. I was beaten out by the teenage girls and their incessant squealing.

Graham Powell said...

To me, the laugh track changed my perception of some of the dialog. In particular, Hawkeye's humor always seemed more bitter and defensive during the OR scenes.

Anonymous said...

"One final note: On CHEERS and FRASIER we used recorded laughs from our own shows."

That may be so, Ken, but ALL the Paramount sitcoms from the 1980s onward (CHEERS, TORTELLIS, WINGS, FRASIER) used the original Charley Douglass machine tracks that do indeed contain laughs dating back to the late 50s and early 60s. Listen to the "gasp" when Sam agrees to marry Diane at the end of the courtroom episode. It's the same gasp heard when the Beav did something wrong on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and, oddly enough, when Ken Jennings finally lost on JEOPARDY!.

Anonymous said...

I from the same demo as you and I remember that same laughing dude. He was out of step with the rest of the laughs and way over the top.

I recall him on shows like the "Brady Bunch", "Gilligan's Island", "The Partridge Family".

There should been an Emmy category dedicated to him.

And the "Most Grating Fake Guffaw" goes to..

thehardmenpath said...

Here in Spain the public channel has decided to skip putting in the laughing in the dubbing process. I can tell you you don't want to listen to a live audience show without a laughing track.

Anonymous said...

The first season of "The Odd Couple" was a three-camera show with the normal Desilu/Paramount canned laugh track. But both Tony Randall and Jack Klugman hated it so much they were able to get Paramount and ABC to experiment with one episode where the laugh track was left out (the one where Oscar takes a job at a Playboy-like magazine, if you're keeping track).

Problem was, it wasn't a very funny episode (a problem shared by most of the show's first season episodes), and the dead slience made some of the flat jokes even more noticable. So completely eliminating the laugh track can expose the unfunnyness of a bad episode -- or a bad show overall -- for all to see (Though in the case of TOC, Jack and Tony's efforts did help to get the show coverted to the three camera/studio audience format in 1971, and both the actors performances and the scripts themselves improved tremendously when they performed the material in front of a live studio audience).

Anonymous said...

The inventor of the laugh track should have been subjected to being paraluzed from the neck down and puy in a pitch dark and dead silent room for life. Or at least sent to Gitmo.

Enemy of The People/ Friend of The Person said...

Ken, I know I'm commenting on a 7 year old post, but what the hell....I have a question.

Is it my imagination, or did Frasier significantly subdue the laugh track at some point. I'm watching the reruns on Hallmark these days, and the track in the early years seems oddly uproarious....later years not so much.


Kansas City News said...

Great post, I always wondered where they got the laughter and other crowd responses from. That Douglass machine is really cool! There is a video on YouTube of a woman who owns one demonstrating it. I agree with the Bewitched laugh track, it is just too much. The show is pretty funny, but they jam that laugh track in your face no matter WHAT happens. Also agree with Two and a Half Men, by far one of the most unfunny shows in history, but the crowd is way over the top on every terrible joke. Don't even get me started on the show with the nerds and the blonde girl, my God that show is just awful.

DG said...

On some of the more lousy shows, I always assumed it was the writers who were in control of the laugh track, because every single line of dialogue got a huge guffaw. It wasn't funny, but they were telling us it was.