Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Let's talk laugh tracks

I get many Friday Questions about laugh tracks, so I thought I would devote an entire post to the subject. Here’s the latest question:

From Homesick Canadian in Taiwan:

Many of your posts are about the importance of getting authentic laughs from the studio audience. If a joke doesn't get laughs, it's cut or re-worked, etc.

However, I don't quite get how this works. It's well known from blooper reels that actors often flub lines and have to re-shoot. How does an audience give an uproarious response to a joke they're hearing for a second, third, or fourth time? My understanding is that this is what laugh-tracks are for. It's also been part of common knowledge in TV culture that producers just add a laugh-track when jokes don't get a response -- for situations like you've written about when an audience is comprised of a busload of Japanese tourists who don't understand English but want to see a taping of a hit American show. Or simply because a joke falls flat and the director thinks the home viewer will be amused if they hear the canned laughter.

The goal is to use as much of the actual audience laughter as possible. Yes, when we re-shoot a scene the response to a joke the second or fourth time is not as strong as the first and if we use that later take we’ll insert the laugh from the first take.

But sometimes it’s weird – the same joke will get a bigger reaction the second time. Maybe they just heard it better, or the actor delivered it better, or the air conditioning was working better,  In any event, we just thank the Gods of comedy and move on.

So yes, there is some jockeying with the laugh track, but the canned laughs are all from our audience not I LOVE LUCY.

Occasionally, you have a really bad audience or one comprised of tourists who can’t speak English, and you do have to fudge a little. But in those cases we try to be very judicious and sprinkle in just enough laughs so that the show doesn’t seem flat but not to where they’re intrusive.   In my mind, once the audience is aware of canned laughter you're in trouble. 

Part of the problem with many multi-cam shows is that the producers crank up the laugh track to where it’s ridiculous. I talked about this before, viewers now feel insulted. “Do these producers think I’m that stupid that I would laugh at this truly unfunny joke just because the familiar laugh track is going crazy?”  They have a right to feel insulted.  Sitcoms have been playing this shell game for sixty years now. 

Here’s an interesting thing – audiences respond way better to things they see live actors do rather than watching finished pre-records. In other words, let’s say I’m directing an episode with a car scene. I will pre-shoot it.

The editor will put it together that night and the following night when we shoot the show in front of 250 people we’ll have the ability to play it back for them and record their laughter.

However, when I direct, instead of showing that finished scene I bring out the actors involved, place them in two chairs, explain to the audience that they’re in a car driving, and have the actors do the scene live. I record the audio and even though the audience has to now imagine the scene, they laugh much louder having real actors performing the scene.

It all goes back to why some shows are filmed in front of an audience in the first place – there’s a real energy the cast derives from a live audience.  They feed off their laughter.  Their performances go up and if the writing is good the whole show rises. It’s intangible but the home viewer can sense it.

Getting back to that car scene, I wonder what would happen if we just aired the scene of the two actors on chairs instead of the real one with them in an actual car.  I don't think the home audience would be thinking about the laugh track at that moment. 

33 comments :

Gazzoo said...

Everyone connected with M*A*S*H has always talked about how much they hated the laugh track, and how it was only added at the insistence of CBS....then how come when the show went into syndication they didn't simply remove it?

VP81955 said...

The great William Schallert once told me that while "Dobie Gillis" (the first prime0time series I regularly watched) was not filmed before an audience, each episode was shown to an audience, whose reactions were then recorded -- so, for the most part, the laughs were genuine.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I know a lot of readers have been to many different audience shows.
I'd love to hear their favorite audience reactions, and how real they all are.

Greg said...

There are times when the energy between audience and performer becomes truly electric. I think of that classic Taxi episode in which Reverend Jim took his driver's test. James Burrows reportedly directed Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Conaway to just keep going with the "What does a yellow light mean?" joke until the audience stopped laughing. How would you know how far you could push that joke without an audience response?

Stephen Robinson said...

Woody Allen might have popularized the idea that laugh tracks are "cheap" but I do think there's something about the presence of laughter during a sitcom that enhances the communal experience of comedy.

Retsibsi said...

Gazzoo said " Everyone connected with M*A*S*H has always talked about how much they hated the laugh track, and how it was only added at the insistence of CBS....then how come when the show went into syndication they didn't simply remove it?"

The laugh track was certainly removed when the show was shown in the UK. Three episodes were shown without it having been removed (apparently the shows were sent out to the UK in a hurry without them being removed, for airing very shortly after arrival) and it made newspaper headlines. Everyone hated those episodes and asked why the Americans wanted them when they clearly ruined the show...

tavm said...

Me, I still can't believe the audience that watched "2 Broke Girls" in person thought it was funny...

Mark P. said...

Speaking of actors in chairs simulating cars, this reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from Family Ties, when the father tries to teach Jennifer how to drive.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=xhacXz-WoOk

Johnny W said...

@Gazzoo I think it's because people in the US had gotten used to them by now. The good news is that the DVDs have the option to turn off the laughs. The bad news (for those of us in the UK) is that the laugh track version is now standard on all UK airings, and the option to turn off the laugh track doesn't seem to have followed through to Netflix. So bizarre that its legacy is getting worse. I guess Fox stopped caring.

I don't think I've ever quite recovered from watching M*A*S*H with a laugh track. After growing up watching this mature, subdued but hilarious adult comedy, seeing it with horrible overblown laughs inserted after EVERY SINGLE REMOTELY AMUSING LINE scarred me. I found myself hearing the laugh track even after I turned it off. I've vowed to never watch it again with a laugh track to try and erase the memory of the episodes I used to catch.

Yes, that's a strong reaction, but imagine watching your favourite single camera show suddenly with a laugh track inserted. Like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Maron or something. I'm guessing watching it without the laugh track is possibly equally unnerving for some viewers, though?

Speaking of great single camera shows, Ken have you watched GLOW yet?

Max said...

A few years ago I re-watched Sports Night. During the first year they inserted a laugh track and it basically ruined those episodes of the show. It's obvious that the show was not filmed live and that the jokes although funny were not laugh out loud funny (they were more subtle). I can only think that the laugh track was a requirement of the network - there was no justifiable reason to have one

McTom said...

I enjoy Big Bang Theory and Chuck Lorre's stuff in general, but is it just me, or do his shows have the laugh track turned up to 11?
Maybe it's the sound mix, or the laughs are sweetened more than in most shows, but as funny as I think his shows generally are, the laugh track (or genuine audience laffs) seems distractingly obtrusive. Or is it just me?

Bob O'Brien Leszczak said...

HAZEL and MY MOTHER THE CAR are two sitcoms that totally relied on laugh tracks. Even with the tracks, neither was ever very funny. However, with Antenna TV airing many of the episodes of each used for overdubbing in other countries, the laugh track is missing, and the true lack of humor on these two vintage series is painfully obvious.

Laugh Track said...

Or they use the laugh track to help disguise the fact that the jokes aren't funny. Listen to The Big Bang Theory without the track and decide for yourself. Painful.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKS3MGriZcs

Ratings Watcher said...

Hi Ken. A question about ratings. I know you've pointed out how weak Twin Peak's ratings were, but I was reading something this week where Showtime was bragging that over 3.1 million people have since watched the premiere. Because of streaming culture, people are preferring to binge shows when they have multiple episodes. And the model that Netflix is following is to release an entire season, then in a few months make the judgement on whether or not to renew.

My question is, where does this leave broadcast shows that live week-to-week on ratings? Even cable has given shows a little bit of slack to grow an audience, and it's paid off for shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones (which just had its highest rated show). Do you think networks will start letting shows run longer or splitting shows over two seasons before pulling them and waiting to decide if they want to cancel closer to the upfronts?

Danny said...

We tend to assume that people are more sophisticated about laugh tracks now than they used to be, but I'm not sure that's true. I have a friend whose mother works for ABC and I've heard her say that they constantly receive requests for tickets to see shows like The Middle and Modern Family being filmed. Shows that, it seems to me, are obviously filmed without an audience.

VP81955 said...
The great William Schallert once told me that while "Dobie Gillis" (the first prime0time series I regularly watched) was not filmed before an audience, each episode was shown to an audience, whose reactions were then recorded -- so, for the most part, the laughs were genuine.


The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show was filmed that way. Shot without an audience but played back to one later so they could get a live audience on the soundtrack instead of a laugh box. In a book I read about this show, actors who worked on it recalled that George Burns was very good at anticipating how big (or small) a laugh a line or bit of business would get and would give actors numbers to count to silently, in their heads, between spoken lines of dialogue to allow room for the anticipated laughs.

My favorite laugh track, when I was a kid, was on The Abbott and Costello Show. Loud, boisterous, unending screams of laughter that seemed to start as soon as the guys made their first appearance at the beginning of the show and to run continuously until the fade out.

When I was a kid, laugh tracks seemed particularly out of place to me on cartoons. I remember Pink Panther cartoons being shown on TV with an overdubbed laugh track, as well as Hanna-Barbera stuff like Scooby Doo, Where Are You?

Re: laugh tracks on M*A*S*H: I guess I've seen the show for so many years with the laugh track that I've gotten used to it and just sort of mentally tune it out.

Milt Josefsberg, who wrote for Jack Benny for many years, recalled in his book on the Benny show that when Jack sat down for a screening of the first TV episode of his that was filmed without an audience and so depended entirely on a mechanical laugh track, that it was one of the few times he ever saw Jack get flat-out angry. Benny stopped the screening, furious about the overblown laugh track, and demanded that both the number of laughs on the track and their volume be cut at least in half

VP81955 said...

To McTom: From having attended two filmings of "Mom," then viewing the episodes when they aired on CBS, I noted little if any difference in the volume of the laugh tracks than from when I saw them at Warners. I can't speak for Chuck Lorre's other series, especially since I've never really been a fan of "TBBT."

J Lee said...

Blogger VP81955 said...

The great William Schallert once told me that while "Dobie Gillis" (the first prime0time series I regularly watched) was not filmed before an audience, each episode was shown to an audience, whose reactions were then recorded -- so, for the most part, the laughs were genuine.


Rod Amateau was producer on "Dobie Gillis" after handling the final seasons of "The Burns & Allen Show", which I believed used the same system after it moved from being live to film.

Sweetening the laugher on a joke in a three-camera live audience situation to me isn't a total deal-killer as long as the tracks themselves aren't borderline psychotic, to the point the laugh track itself can't be mentally filtered out in any possible fashion. The late 1970s were the worst with that, as most of the Garry Marshall and Norman Lear shows had laughter ramped up so much that watching the mildest jokes today unleash a tsunami of howls comes across as bizarre (and as noted above, the audience reactions to some of the jokes on '2 Broke Girls' also sounds as though some audience members are in serious need of medication).

blogward said...

Brilliant idea about filming the car scene. Why I'm not a director. IMHO the sitcom most spoiled by a laugh track was Green Acres: they seem to pause between lines to make room for it. Unwatchabubble.

John H said...

Hi Ken. Quick question about the Cheers theme song. Starting with season 6, there are background singers which really bring out the chorus. Was this done to coincide with the arrival of Kirstie Alley? Thanks for your time!

Ben K. said...

Hi Ken, quick question: What happens when a particularly memorable line or catch phrase from a show becomes famous on its own? Is there ever a battle for credit, given that the listed writer(s) of an episode often don't come up with every line?

Of course, "Seinfeld" was littered with memorable terminology (and even named a new religion), while I find myself quoting old "Simpsons" lines almost daily. And one phrase from "Sex and the City" ("He's just not that into you") was turned into a book, a movie and an short-lived self-help movement.

I was thinking about this while watching a rerun of "Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment" which features Homer's brilliant episode-ending toast (a line that's probably in Bartlett's Book of Quotations by now): "To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems." John Swartzwelder is listed as the writer of the episode, although I'm guessing it was also punched up by the rest of the writing staff from that era. Some places online, the quote is credited to Matt Groening (I guess as the "author" of "The Simpsons" in general). But does anyone know who actually came up with it?

Maybe these details are well-known to the biggest fans of these shows (or owners of the DVD commentaries)... but I wonder if sometimes there's a staffer who threw out a catchy phrase in the writer's room and now is bitter because he or she never got credit.

VP81955 said...

To Danny, JLee -- Schallert indeed cited both Amateau and "Burns and Allen" when I spoke with him: http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/190884.html

Incidentally, Ken, what was the first prime-time series you became a fan of? Since you're a bit older than I am, I would think it was something that aired in the early to mid-1950s.

Joe said...

One of the best TV shows ever, SCTV, had the worst laugh track. The cast admitted in Dave Thomas' book the DVD extras that the person who did the laugh track didn't get their humor and just inserted laughs practically at random.

thirteen said...

I remember when Carroll O'Connor's statement at the end of All in the Family changed to something like "This program was pre-recorded and played before an audience for live reactions." This always struck me as a cheat.

Loved your bit about having the actors recreate a car ride onstage in chairs.

The only time I've ever seen a sweetener in the credits was for one of Elayne Boosler's HBO specials. Elayne should get bonus points for that.

Donald Benson said...

Mark Evanier wrote that Sgt. Bilko worked the same way -- and that Phil Silvers had his timing down to the point where his delivery matched the reactions of the eventual film audience.

Donald Benson said...

I was going to say cartoon laugh tracks started with the Flintstones, which was very frankly a sitcom. But I remember seeing a very early Rocky and Bullwinkle serial -- the pilot? -- with a laugh track (as well as slightly different character designs). "The Pink Panther" was the only show that put laugh tracks on theatrical cartoons, if I recollect properly.

Note that cartoon laugh tracks feature adult laughter. I remember exactly one show that had -- briefly -- a laugh track of kid voices. I was a kid myself, and I was creeped out.

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, i remember you saying you took out a huge laugh from Coach's Daughter. When yo watch it, it's flawless, but how do the set mics not pick up the sound of 250 people laughing? Surely there must have been some bleed into the dialogue?

Wally said...

Aside:
In Monday's WTF episode with Edie Falco, she said she memorizes lines according to what she has to do/ where she has to be. E.g. Go to the door and say "....", pick up the bowl and say, "....". Reminded me of the post where the actress did that and when the desk was moved slightly, she got lost. And, therefore, found it surprising.

Anonymous said...

@Donald Benson "Rocky and His Friends," which debuted in 1959, started out with a laugh track which was eventually dropped. "The Flintstones" had a laugh track in its network run from 1960-66. Both were prime time shows and laugh tracks were standard practice for sitcoms, so Hanna-Barbera prime time comedies ("The Flintstones," "Top Cat," "The Jetsons," "Where's Huddles?") all had them, so when they moved to Saturday mornings, the tracks were already there. You'll note that the early H-B cartoons did not have laugh tracks because they were not network primetime shows.

Filmation introduced laugh tracks to cartoon made for Saturday mornings in 1968, starting with "The Archies", which got something like a 44 share in the ratings. All the other kid shows followed. "The Pink Panther" and other related cartoons didn't have laugh tracks in theaters, but the tracks were added for TV. Even the Krofft shows had roaring laugh tracks in those impossibly fantastic settings (except adventures like "Land of the Lost").

As for shows like "Hazel," "Andy Griffith" and "Bewitched," having grown up with laugh tracks on them, I find them to be part of the musicality. Without the tracks, they seem barren, rather than exposed as unfunny because they're not yockfests to begin with. Nobody ever split a seam over "Hazel," but she's a real doozy.

As for "Green Acres," that particular show is so deviously surreal that it could be argued that there isn't really a laugh track at all. Those are actually supposed to be the citizens of Hooterville, following Eddie Albert around, tracking his every pompous move and laughing at everything he does. Such is the show's fine madness.

Lionheart said...

Agree with McTom above on laugh track volume cranked up a couple of extra notches, Very disruptive for me.
Ideally, a show could use a live audience if it helps the actors and then somehow delete the audience from
the telecast. If I can't figure out where to laugh, it isn't funny to me. And if it isn't funny to me, no laugh
track will make a show seem otherwise.

Clarence Odbody said...

I had to stop watching the Big Bang theory because of the constant laughter at every utterance. I don't know if it's sweetened or not, but it was so annoying that I just couldn't stand it any longer.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

VP81955: In case you see this and are not aware: your icon is being blocked by PhotoBucket's new account rules. No more Carole Lombard on display!

More seriously, I don't think Lorre sweetens the laughs on any of his shows beyond what they all do, which is have a warm-up guy whip them up into a frenzy and keep them hopped up with little contests, candy, pizza, sodas... and of course, start with college students and tourists who are eager for free entertainment.

wg

Andy Rose said...

There were only a couple of guys who did laugh track work in Hollywood. They used tape loops mounted into a specially designed Mellotron-like device, and they used the same loops over and over again for decades. (It's long been assumed that many of those laughs came from The Silent Spot segments of The Red Skelton Show, but the engineers were very secretive, so nobody seems to know for sure.) But they were used with such frequency that some people are able to listen to a sitcom episode and figure out by ear who sweetened it and which laugh recording he was using.

VP81955 said...

Wendy, I'm hoping to bring Carole back -- if only we could do so in real life (though I'm not sure 2017 Hollywood would know what to do with her!) -- but I'm trying to find a way to either circumvent Photobucket or transfer my resized avatars to another service Blogspot can use. Any suggestions?