Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Setting the record straight

Since we seem to be on the subject of multi-camera sitcoms this week....

No one hates phony laugh tracks more than me.   Longtime readers of this blog (all six of them) know this.  But I must set the record straight.

Number one:  There is a big difference between genuine audience laughter and the phony canned laughter you so often hear, which to me is like taking a new car and tagging it. 

A reader recently commented on a sitcom being given the “Charley Douglass treatment.”  Charley was the man with the laugh box.   Many of the laughs in that box were compiled from shows as far back as the ‘50s.  There are people laughing on your television who have been dead for 30/40 years (talk about getting the last laugh).  Some tracks have been used so frequently on so many shows that they’re actually identifiable. 

But here’s the thing —

There is no “Charley Douglass treatment.” 

Let me be very clear. 

It is the show runner or someone representing the show that makes all the decisions.  They’re the ones who determine when there should be a laugh, how big a laugh, whether to go with the dead woman’s guffaw.  Charley just pushed the buttons. 

So when you watch a show and cringe at how the laugh track is going crazy for every stupid lame line, don’t blame the box.  Blame the insecure or deluded show representative who felt the need to create bogus hysterical laughter where none was justified. 

I watched an episode of TAXI recently and was struck by the fact that several jokes didn’t work.  And there was no effort made to hide that with fake laughter.  You’d hear the line clank and then silence for a beat until the next line was spoken.  It was so refreshing.  And it made the lines that did get laughs seem funnier and more genuine. 

As we ease out of the pandemic, multi-camera shows will again start filming in front of live audiences.  Let’s hope producers write funny enough shows that no “Charley Douglass treatment” is ever needed.  


Rob Greenberg said...

Personally, I never minded when older shows added the Charley Douglass laughs, because they were SO recognizable the genuine laughs always stuck out and felt earned. And maybe it's a nostalgia thing, but I always enjoyed hearing them on Cheers and Frasier (which seemed to use them more as light ambiance than anything else). It never felt like they were trying to 'fool' people like the shows today do.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

First of all, thank you for writing this, Ken. As one of a rare breed of "Laugh Track Nerds" (yes, we actually exist), it really bugs me when people use "laugh track sitcom" as something of a generic, blanket term to differentiate a sitcom that features audience reactions (and live audience reactions at that) from "silent" sitcoms that have no laughter or studio ambience whatsoever.

Secondly, I would like to clarify something, at least from our Laugh Track Nerd perspective: whenever we talk about a show receiving "The Charley Douglass Treatment," it's our way of saying a show has been sweetened or augmented by him, as Ron Greenberg pointed out, even sitcoms shot before live audiences still employeed he and his company (or even their eventual competition from Carroll Pratt and Sound One) to throw in some canned laughter mixed in with the actual live audience reactions. Honestly, anybody would be hard-pressed to find a TV sitcom that wasn't sweetened by either Douglass or Pratt in some way.

Having said that, I can confirm that yes, we actually do not only recognize these Charley Douglass reactions, but we also have given a lot of them names for identification purposes; for example, there's a common and prominent somewhat pained female cackle that was used so frequently during the late 60s and into the mid-70s (Krofft shows tended to abuse it) we call the "Ruptured Spleen Lady," or a man's distinct nasally laugh that was heard in the mid and late 60s, retired, then brought back in the late 70s and continued to frequently be heard on shows like CHEERS, FRASIER, BECKER, and others we call the "Angry Dog."

But, if you ask us, there is some enjoyment tied into these laughs and reactions - we know a lot of people hate, loathe, and despise canned laughter of any kind, and we understand that completely, but for us, a (well-executed) laugh track is but just one of several ingredients that went into making a wonderful show. Before WANDAVISION was even a thing, I had been emulating the look and feel of classic sitcoms of yesteryears in many of my original productions for quite some time (then again, nobody knows who the hell I am, so there's that) and that includes utilizing a Charley Douglass laugh track. If I can shamelessly share an example with everybody, here's a satirical drug PSA I produced a couple of years ago that intentionally illustrated how sometimes, Douglass's laugh track could sound rather repetitive (especially on kids shows, like those produced by Sid & Marty Krofft):


Speaking of which, because this also playfully poked fun at their shows, I also showed this to Sid Krofft on Instagram, and he actually liked it!

Rod said...

Ken-- Friday Question--Who has final say over which take is used? The Showrunner? When you direct an episode of a sitcom, and there are a couple of takes to choose from, has the showrunner ever chosen one of yours that you thought wasn't as good as another? Or even added canned laughter when you thought there shouldn't be any? Do you, as director, get to see the final edit, with laughs, before it airs and offer an opinion? Or are you just a gun for hire, and after the filming, your job is over?

Raymond said...

While I watched WandaVision, I realized they were applying a laugh track to lines that either were jokes that weren't funny or lines that weren't jokes - to support the underlying plot point that they were in a fake sitcom. I was as fascinated about that as I was about the actual story arc of the series.

The whole theme of when laughs occur in a sitcom is interesting. Using the track when a joke is actually funny and works. Applying the track when a joke bombs. Has it happened that the audience laughs at something in a show, and the writers/actors don't know why they laughed? Would they use that take for broadcast?

Golly, if the audience gave a good laugh on a take, would they go for another take?

Mike Bloodworth said...

The reactions from a live audience might be genuine, but they're not always true. That is, while the audiences are miked the volume can be manipulated. It may have been an actual laugh, yet made to sound more robust that it was.

There's a scene in "Annie Hall" where Woody Allen is in Hollywood visiting Tony Roberts' character's sitcom. They are in the editing booth where Robert's is telling the sound guy how much laughter to add after each line. Woody says, "Max, do you realize how immoral this all is?" Robert's says, "We do the show live in front of an audience." Then Woody says, "Right, but nobody laughs, because the jokes aren't funny." Roberts, "Well yeah. That's why this machine is dynamite." Ultimately, the whole exercise makes Woody nauseated.

One way to tell if an audience laugh is real is by how long the actors have to pause before their next line. It's fairly obvious when they're waiting for the laugh to die down.


Mike Bloodworth said...

P.S. Here's another suggestion for a "Jeopardy" guest host, Bobcat Goldthwait.


Call Me Mike said...

Funny, I've been rewatching a lot of Taxi lately and noticed it sounded more like a real audience instead of a laugh track. Like you said, it's oddly refreshing when a joke bombs and you hear that lone cough or someone adjusting their chair. Gives it a more authentic feel of like, well, watching a play.

Although, I've also noticed some really weird bits of ADR. Even for the time it sticks out as particularly bad. It's like two characters are talking and from the edge of the scene we're suddenly hearing the interior monologue of Louie DePalma, and that's a scary place to be!

KB said...

Unfortunately, there are very few new sitcoms these days that would elicit genuine laughs from a live studio audience.

I worked on a multi that had stopped using an audience for budget reasons. One day the showrunner came back to the room after being in editing and was irked that the guy didn't put laughs after a particular joke. The editor said, "I didn't think it was funny." Well, the machine does. In went the laughs.

Gary said...

The granddaddy of them all, The Honeymooners (classic 39) had its share of jokes that got crickets, or a chuckle instead of a guffaw. The actors just moved on with the dialogue. There was definitely no post-production sweetening. Still the best of all time.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

I've always felt there is a middle ground, somehow, into how to balance live audience response (which can be overwhelmingly distracting), and dubbed-in laughter (which of course, can seem phony). At their best, both styles work to enhance the show.

For a single-camera show, MASH handled it well with the limited "chuckle track", with none in the operating room or in combat scenes. And CHEERS and FRASIER generally kept it reasonable in front of a live audience.

It would be nice if every show could figure out a format and just go with it. As for the input of showrunners, are these laugh track mixes not network demands when it comes down to it?

Lemuel said...

Loni Anderson on WKRP launched the dud "there is that problem in the Middle East."

Rob Greenberg said...

Supposedly, when Sammy Davis Jr kissed Archie Bunker, the audience laugh went on TOO long and they had to cut some of it out. The ultimate metaphor between FUNNY sitcoms of the past and those today.

James said...

Interesting watching M*A*S*H on DVD without the laugh track. The early ones are a bit awkward with the silences for laugh spread, but by Season 2 they seem to have learned to edit it so it looks good even with the pauses.

You'd think if laugh tracks were G-D important, they'd add them to theatrical films when they're on TV. Yet somehow people still think Some Like It Hot is funny even without other people's laughter as a cue.

PQ said...

A 20-something intern at our TV station was asked to watch a few episodes of "Gilligan's Island" and pull out some funny bits for us to put together a promo for our digital channel. I should add that she had grown up in an American territory in the Caribbean, and her native culture was somewhat different from that of someone who had grown up in the continental United States. She came back perplexed. "I don't understand it," she said. "The audience is laughing hysterically at things that...aren't funny." (I had to explain the concept of the laugh track to her. She thought it was a live audience. She was incredulous.) I had to admit she was on to something, though. Sitcoms of that era (which I grew up watching) abused the laugh track at every lame opportunity, to the point that now shows of that time period are really annoying. I'm so glad filmed shows like M*A*S*H and "live in front of a studio audience" shows like the MTM comedies moved us away from that to some degree. I don't mind a little sweetening, but the constant drone of guffaws that were common in days of old really make those shows dated. Too bad those laugh tracks can't be erased and the shows re-edited without them, just to find how funny they really were...or weren't.

Marc Sotkin said...

Early in my career I remember being in a sweetening session and a producer who thought the joke was much funnier than it was saying, "Give me Bob Hope in Da Nang."

Jeff Boice said...

I didn't have a problem with canned laughter growing up- most of the sitcoms were fantasy shows like My Favorite Martian or Jeannie and I knew darn well there was no real audience on the set. So to me, it wasn't cheating. I had a problem with 70's shows that were "filmed before a live audience" - an audience that had such a bad case of the giggles you wondered what free gifts they received before the show.

I do remember the guy Joseph Scarbrough calls The Angry Dog- I associate him with all the Screen Gems Presentations.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Jeff Boice Yes, "Angry Dog" was quite prevalent on those shows - particularly I DREAM OF JEANNIE in its mid and late seasons; similar situation with HOGAN'S HEROES (a CBS series).

YEKIMI said...

Longtime readers of this blog (all six of them)

A Friday question [or request actually]: Name all six of the "Longtime readers". Oh, they can't be "anonymous" either.(Yeah, I know you were being satirical but sort of am interested if your first few readers are still following or reading.)

DBenson said...

As a kid I got used to laugh tracks on cartoons, at least the sitcom-styled half hours. There's a Pink Panther theatrical short, "Psychedelic Pink", that had laughs added for the Saturday morning television show and THAT version is on the various DVDs I've found. Annoys me like crazy, since it's one of the better toons.

The laughs used were the usual ones. Somebody briefly experimented with children's laughs, but even for a kid the results were weirdly creepy and less real than the familiar grown-up laughter.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@DBenson Since laugh tracks on Saturday Morning shows became more common in the 70s, Charley Douglass began adding children's laughter to his library to throw into the mix when laughing up SatAM shows, and yes, the results were less than stellar to hear newer kiddy laughs mixed in with older laughter that had already been in use for over a decade by that point. Some kids shows later on kind of improved this practice, such as the Canadian series YOU CAN'T DO THAT ON TELEVISION - which mostly used Carroll Pratt's company, Sound One (which became most producers and studios prefered audience reaction company by the late 70s and into the 80s), but wisely used canned children's laughter almost exclusively: it's surprisingly rather effective.

WB Jax said...

What about the laugh track on the Abbott and Costello show? Sounds like an audience of ten-year olds.

Greg Ehrbar said...

• Canned laughter, especially as created by Charley Douglas, has a definite musicality to it. In a sense, he "played" his laugh machine like a musical instrument. When it was done well, it is conspicuous by its absence.

• Some of the live audiences of today are so encouraged (and mixed technically) to screech, scream and woo, that even the most wonderful programs can be difficult to enjoy. This may be due to efforts on the part of producers and networks wanting to add "energy levels." I suspect it is to keep the channels at home from changing or other streams to begin, but it's becoming a dated sound in itself, like old Bozo shows.

• Desi Arnaz refused to sweeten "The Mothers-in-Law" and there are places in which there is no laughter if it is not earned. Of course, the audience was geared up and excited to be there, but there is still some refreshing honesty in those soundtracks.

• Filmation cartoons were the first with laugh tracks on Saturday mornings with "The Archie Show" in 1968, I believe under the supervision of Fred Silverman. The series had astronomical ratings and the other shows imitated the format and the soundtrack. In 1970, live-action kids were shown laughing at jokes on "Archie's Funhouse."

• Hanna-Barbera used laugh tracks for "The Flintstones" on ABC as it was a network sitcom. The laughs were somewhat subdued but critics at the time still poked fun at the idea of where the audience was supposed to be coming from.

@ Joseph Scarborough, O G your video was A O K! It scared me more than the Sonny Bono anti-drug movie the policeman showed us in school!

@ DBenson, The Pink Panther was just reissued on Blu-ray in six volumes and every one of the 124 cartoons are in their original theatrical form without the laugh tracks. One cartoon, "Pink Outs," is included with and without it. The other DePatie-Freleng cartoons are also on Blu-ray and almost all of the theatrical ones are laugh track-free, but there are a few exceptions.

@ WB Jax, "The Abbott and Costello Show," like the shows made at Hal Roach Studios, was pre-filmed and then played for a live audience. Some early TV shows must have allowed younger audience members. I always thought specific shows bent the rules for various reasons, like that episode of "The Honeymooners" called "Young at Heart" in which it sounded like they let teens in and one young lady tried successfully to become immortalized by saying, "Careful, careful now!" when Ralph was on roller skates.

Tudor Queen said...

The late Harlan Ellison wrote a lovely short story called "Laugh Track" about a boy who grows up to be a sitcom writer/producer and his wonderful Aunt Babe, who dies too young but finds a way to be an invaluable help to him versus a venal executive.

"I Love Lucy" was filmed before a live audience (Lucy and Desi both felt she did better with immediate audience feedback and who can argue with success?). Her mother, DeDe, was in the audience for most episodes and it's DeDe providing the well-known "Uh-Oh" when Lucy's about to get in over her head.

Brandon in Virginia said...

I always get a kick out of the "mild chuckle" laugh tracks that were popular in the 60s ("Bewitched", "Brady Bunch", the first year or two of "Happy Days", and so on). Surprisingly shows in the mid-80s were still using that, usually ones shot on film.

In recent years, I've heard some laugh tracks on some pretty unfunny shows. Judging by the laughter, you'd think it was "Cheers" or "Cosby Show". Nope...just "Two Broke Girls" or one of Tyler Perry's shows. I stumbled across an episode of the former where one of the broke girls delivered some line about how she'll be making six-figures in Hollywood and the laugh track let out the most ridiculous "Woooooooo!!!" Never watched again.

I remember watching "Martin" from time to time, and even as a kid wondering who thought that some of the random lines were worthy of a laugh.