Friday, March 06, 2015

Friday Questions

Hello from somewhere in Japan.  Still, I never stand down from answering Friday Questions.  What's yours?   Kansha.  (Thanks in Japanese... I think.) 

gottacook leads off.

What a wonderful thing that MASH DVDs allow viewers to choose to omit the laugh track. Did you ever imagine, when working on the show, (i) whether such a thing might be possible one day for home video, and (ii) whether there might eventually be comedies (such as the "single-camera" type) that were laugh track-free?

At the time we wrote MASH we had no clue the show would still be so popular thirty years later. We were just thrilled when THREE’S COMPANY stopped kicking our ass in the ratings. I also never thought someday you could own the shows for your own home library. By the way, they look better on DVD than they ever did on the air.

But I fully expected that at some point a single-camera show could escape the laugh track shackles. Hour dramas that had comedy sprinkled in like MOONLIGHTING helped the cause.

On MASH at least CBS allowed us to do O.R. scenes laugh track free. “Let it go, Hawkeye. He’s gone.” (ha ha ha ha ha ha).

willie b wants to know:

We're all familiar with how cheap networks and studios are. So why are writing partners or rooms of writers the norm in TV? Seems to me the networks/studios would be happy paying just one writer instead of a whole roomful.

They would. The trouble is very few writers can write 22 episodes of television a year by themselves… and not wind up in the drooling academy. All the more reason why Larry Gelbart, Aaron Sorkin, and David E. Kelley are Gods.

From Brendan DuBois:

On Frasier, at what point were the title cards written, the ones that used puns and such to introduce different scenes? Were they part of the original script, or were they added on later?

Both. They were a stylistic choice from the get-go. In the pilot, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell employed them to help introduce characters. E.G. -- Before Niles’ first scene a card appeared that read “the brother”. For the FRASIER scripts my partner and I wrote we included several card suggestions. Some they used, some they didn’t, some they did themselves that were better.

And finally, from Chris Ayers:

In the episode where BJ is making Charles think he's gaining & losing weight, were you the "Beanpole Levine" whose pants made Winchester think he'd gotten fat?

Even though I pronounce it “La-Vine”, yep. A little inside joke to amuse maybe three people at the time. Now four. Thanks for noticing.


SER said...

"Tomorrow... he gets taller."

Graham Powell said...

I always thought that Hawkeye's humor sounded much different without the laugh track. With it, he was a good-natured goofy guy. Without it he sounded much more acerbic, and his humor had more of a "keep the world at bay" tone.

Unknown said...

Here in Australia in the early 90's an infomercial was flogging the complete series of MASH for just $29.95 per 3 episode VHS tape. I pity the fool who shelled out two and a half grand for a roomful of soon to be mostly useless black plastic. Luckily my girlfriend put the kibosh on my collection after the first season.

Johnny Walker said...

I've said it before, many times, but I cannot stand M*A*S*H with a laugh track. Hawkeye's humour was always very wry to me -- he made jokes whether anyone was paying attention or not, but with the laugh track they're big "events".

So glad the DVDs finally gave me back the M*A*S*H I remember growing up with.

Oat Willie said...

Oh Tokyo,
They got some sake and sashimi
And some clean sheets
Oh kimono

Le-vine? Yeah and Egbert Sousè liked to correct the pronunciation too.

David said...

Here in the UK, the BBC had the good taste to show MASH without a laugh track. While I don't usually mind laugh tracks, the idea of one on MASH is just, just, wrong.

kent said...

I thought thank you in Japanese was something like "origato". No?

Mike said...

Maybe it's because I grew up watching it with one, but the laugh track on MASH never bothered me. In fact, I tried watching one of the early-season episodes on DVD with the laughter turned off, and it was just.....odd. I was so used to watching those antics with the track of laughter underneath them that its absence stood out more than its presence ever did.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Ken, this has really been bugging me for a while, so I have to know: when you have two or more characters in a shot talking simultaneously - usually like in a heated discussion/argument/debate/etc. - and their dialogue isn't incoherent babbling (you can actually make out what the characters are saying)... how, exactly, is that written in a script? How do you actually write a scene where characters' dialogue overlaps one another?

Bryan said...

The laugh track on MASH has never bothered me, either. I'm never really aware of it. I guess I get engrossed in the show and just tune it out.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

On the subject of M*A*S*H and laugh tracks, I'm actually part of a very small yet passionate community of laugh track nerds. Yes, we do exist. I agree with what Mike previously said, I too have tried watching M*A*S*H without the laugh track, and the show suddenly takes on a slow-paced and ghastly feel (much like almost all single-camera, laugh-free sitcoms today). At the same time, however, I too become so engrossed in the show that I actually didn't even notice that episodes like "The Bus" and "Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?" didn't have laugh tracks until somebody pointed it out.

Don't get me wrong, I do respect Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, and Burt Metcalfe for wanting to forego laughter of any kind (they weren't alone, many producers either wanted live audiences instead of laugh tracks, or no laughter at all), but still, M*A*S*H just comes off as a bizarre and eerie show without it.

That said, laugh tracks are part of the reason I'm so fond of classic sitcoms from the late 50s up through the 70s: not only were shows funnier, better made, and carefree back in those days, but the laugh track just added to the fun of the shows - I mean, come on, can you imagine what a drag BEWITCHED or I DREAM OF JEANNIE might be if the sounds of people laughing and enjoying themselves weren't present when all those wacky and far-out escapades were going on? Heck, I'm such a big dork about all this that I actually use a lot of Charley Douglass's classic laughs and other reactions on much of my original work, and some other people do too. When done properly (non-invasive, flows well with the timing of the show) a laugh track can help make a show something special; when not done properly (heavy-handed, disruptive) a laugh track can break a show.

John Hammes said...

The first five seasons of M*A*S*H* used the repetitive, raucous Charley Douglass laughtrack.

Season six (introducing Winchester) onward switched to the less repetitive, relatively low-key Carroll Pratt laugh machine.

The Pratt laughs are far more "tolerable". (?) Seriously, when did ANY war reserve seating for a laughing, cheering section?

No disrespect meant to all of those "dead people laughing", thank goodness for that laugh removal feature!

Dixon Steele said...

For one reason or another, I once saw a GILLIGAN'S ISLAND that for some reason had no laugh track.

Jesus, talk about torture...

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@ John Hammes Have you ever seen ALF or THE GREAT SPACE COASTER? Pratt did the laughs for those shows too, but unlike M*A*S*H (which was shifting more towards drama at that point), the laugh track is much more lively and even at times raucous that they almost sound more like live audience shows.

I will agree though, as much of an affinity I have for Douglass' laugh track, Pratt's was a lot less repetitive, considering his more modern Laff Box had a greater capacity to hold more reactions than Douglass' outdated machine that could only hold 32 loops at a time (and ten laughs per loop, that's 320 laughs you hear over and over again).

Rickets And A Smart Mouth said...

My understanding of the Great MASH Laugh Track Compromise is that the points agreed on with the network were basically three:

1) It would be a "chuckle track", which is to say fairly nuanced and subtle (no obnoxious hee-haw laughing or overly extended guffawing)

2) There would absolutely be no laugh track during scenes that took place in O.R. or in combat (although I know they broke this clause at least once or twice--anyone remember which episode(s)?)

3) The show would be allowed to have one or two "heavy" episodes per season where there would simply be no laugh track at all in the episode. I believe "Point Of View" was one of those.

Is this all substantially correct?

P.S.--I'm with some others here who grew up with MASH in syndication--the laugh track honestly never bothered me, although I still can honor the fact that it was a somewhat bitter compromise for the show creators.

DBenson said...

In my boomer youth laugh tracks almost accidentally infiltrated Saturday morning cartoons.

First you had the reruns of what were originally prime time sitcoms: Flintstones, Jetsons and Top Cat. Then you had for-kids shows picking up on the tradition, from animation (Scooby Doo, Archie, etc.) to the Krofft Brothers live action (Pufnstuf, Bugaloos, etc.).

The Pink Panther Show went so far as to add laugh tracks to old theatrical shorts.

Early on, there was one Bullwinkle serial with a laugh track. From then on Jay Ward trusted kids to get the jokes, or perhaps didn't want to tip off the censors something was intended as a joke (Rocky's football team plays a school called Bairly Normal; in a Super Chicken episode a terrified populace runs around screaming "THE ZIPPER is loose!")

They were almost invariably tracks of adult laughter. I remember one or two shows experimenting with kid laugh tracks; though a kid myself I found them even more annoying than regular laugh tracks. Evidently everybody else did too.

Richie said...


John Hammes said...

Joseph Scarbrough,

I had no idea that the Pratt laugh track was indeed used many more times in a louder and more raucous way. I stand corrected. My apologies.

I also confess to a sometimes fondness - in the right mood - for the Douglass laugh track. Given those technological limitations, the repeated laughter is just as familiar and famous - if not more so - than some of the stars "they" were laughing with... the nicknamed "jungle lady" with her screech come to mind!

There was a short story some years back, very Twilight Zone-ish. The gist of it being a child hears the distinctive laughter of a long-passed relative (grandparent or great aunt?) on a television laughtrack, longs to reconnect, somehow does... and I can't remember what happens next, 'cept to say it is more than likely spooky.

Are you familiar with this story? I keep meaning to find out more about it, must not be searching right as I can not find it... how can anything NOT be found today on the interwebs?

Roy Bean said...

According to Google, KANSHA means THANKS; ARIGATO = THANK YOU. No laugh track for either.

VP81955 said...

I'm not keen on "laugh tracks" per se, especially on sitcoms which obviously couldn't be shot before a live audience because of the sheer amount of special effects ("Bewitched," "I Dream of Jeannie," "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch"). Such shows remind me of the "vast wasteland" era Newton Minow railed against. But on the other hand, I simply don't get the appeal of single-camera shows which could have a live audience, but don't.

Earlier this week, I watched "The Mindy Project" on Fox because my FB friend Francine York had a guest appearance, and while the jokes were there, the entire show seemed flat. Couldn't "Mindy" work if it were filmed before a live audience, with genuine (non-laugh track) audience reaction? Or are younger audiences so dead-set against audience laughter, even if it's not "sweetened"? I couldn't imagine "Frasier" or "Seinfeld" without an audience.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@ John Hammes Oh yes, matter of fact, once Pratt's company got rolling, many producers chose him over Douglass to laugh up their programs. Honestly, just from observation, it seems the only ones who kept using Douglass after 1977 (when Pratt's company really got off the ground) were the Saturday Morning crowd (Filmation, the Kroffts, etc.)

I hadn't heard the story you mentioned, but it does sound rather intriguing, and it does bring to mind how many complain about laugh tracks because, "The dead are laughing with us," which I can understand might be bothersome to some people out there.

@ DBenson Yes, by the mid-70s, since laugh tracks on Saturday morning shows were the norm by then, they did start adding kiddy laughs to those shows, and I agree, the mixing could have been better. I think because those shows were aimed at kids, that the balance would have been better if there was a greater variety of kiddy laughs, while reducing the older adult laughs to a minimum.

@VP81955 The reason why many single-camera shows don't have audiences is because having an audience wouldn't be practical for that filming style, what with filming multiple takes, readjusting camera positions, adding to and taking away from the set, and filming out of order or sequence - audiences aren't going to want to sit through all that. That's almost all multi-camera shows are done like stage plays, it would be less disruptive and confusing for the live audience watching. Admittedly, as much as I prefer single-camera sitcoms, a show like THE ODD COUPLE - that switched to multi-camera with an audience - works better with the multi-camera setup with an audience, especially since theater vets like Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were able to feed off the audience's enthusiam and play off of each other in a more spontaneous manner.

Unknown said...

Hello. I'm trying to break into sitcom writing in Ukraine. I have a question : how can I create a character ? Is there a classic model or a way to make this in correct way ?

Jake said...

Why did Eight is Enough have a laugh track?

James Van Hise said...

I was so glad when M*A*S*H came out on dvd with the no laughtrack option. I basically learned to tune it out back in the day because in most cases the laughtrack was fake. I recall reading about a guy who for years made his living running a laughtrack machine for network sitcoms, and there was a certain laugh you often heard which had been done by a woman who died years before, but she lived on in the laughtrack machine. I basically found them annoying and I remember that I almost stopped watching Cheers during the first season because the laughtrack was louder than the spoken dialogue. Comedies don't need laughtracks. What would a Marx Brothers movie be with a laughtrack? I shudder at the thought.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@ James Van Hise Well, movies don't need laugh tracks, because movies are usually shown in theaters, in front of a large group of people, so the theater is invariably going to be filled with the sounds of people laughing . . . but when you're at home, watching a comedy by yourself, and there's no sounds of laughter, you're less likely to laugh yourself. Laughter is communal, and laughter is contagious, which is one of the reasons why sitcoms have laugh tracks, to help recreate that communal feeling of watching a comedy in the presence of others as opposed to by yourself. And let's be honest: don't you feel more inclined to laugh at something you know is funny when you're with a group of buddies than when you're alone?

LouOCNY said...

I kept wondering about 'Beanpole Levine', but also kept forgetting to ask!

tavm said...

James Van Hise: "Cheers" was always filmed in front of an audience. A cast member always said so in the beginning of each ep and it's mentioned in print in the end credits.

Johnny Walker said...

@Joseph It's cool that you're a laugh track nerd, but home releases of movies don't need laughter. Especially not FAKE laughter. (I don't mind laughter, but I can't stand it when its obviously faked.)

M*A*S*H wain't supposed to have a laugh track. The reactors didn't want a laugh track. It was shown in some territories (like mine, by the BBC) without a laugh track.

That said, everyone gets to be happy: The DVDs include both versions. (Now if only Netflix did, too.)

Johnny Walker said...

Damned autocorrect: creators, not reactors.

canda said...

When you mentioned how hard it would be for a writer, or team, to write 22 episodes a season, think of the "I Love Lucy" writers - Bob Carroll, Jr., Madelyn Pugh-Davis and Jess Oppenheimer, writing 39 episodes a year for the first four seasons.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I tend to focus on audio, and on some shows, the laugh track is part of the "musicality", if you will. On shows like "Andy Griffith", "Bewitched" or "Leave it to Beaver", the ambience overall is of a closed set in which the actors are playing for the camera. Maybe I'm just used to it, but it never bothered me.

On a three-camera show, like "All in the Family", "The Honeymooners" and "Dick Van Dyke", there is more of a stage feeling. The actors are playing to the audience. The same was true of radio comedies: Jack Benny sounded like a live variety show, while Vic and Sade sounded like a closed studio.

Here's the part I cannot figure out: on many of today's three camera sitcoms, the audience laughter sounds phony, as if someone is just twisting the "pots" back and forth (nice DJ term, eh Ken?)

It may be because the more sophisticated mikes allow the actors to play more naturally, less stagey, so the effect ironically becomes like a closed set with a laugh track. Maybe it's just part of the over-thinking and over-controlling behind the scenes. Anyone have theories?

Jarrett Rush said...

You said in a previous post that someone who wants to write comedy should watch and study classic sitcoms. Any chance you could give us a Top 5 list of classics that we should watch and the things that we should be looking for in each?

Orion Anderson said...


As Sam Simon passed away yesterday, I was wondering if you could possibly share some stories and comments about his impact on television comedy and his legacy.