It’s Time for Laughter Track Comedies to Die
I have a new obsession, and it’s the CBS sitcom comedy smash ‘Mom’ starring Anna Farris and Alison Janney.
Ever since ‘The Way Way Back’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ I’ve been obsessed with character actress Alison Janney (Janney plays the starfish).
Janney stars in ‘Mom’ as an alcoholic and wildly unpredictable mother to Anna Faris and her batshit crazy daughter. The show is super funny except for one unescapable and deeply annoying fault… it’s a laughter track comedy.
The Goddamn laughter track
Laughter track comedies have always rubbed me the wrong way, going back to the days of Seinfeld and Friends.
What I loved about Seinfeld was the amazing jokes that came one after another. What I hated was how slowly the jokes had to be delivered while the actors constantly waited for the studio audience to shut the hell up.
Laughter tracks are usually played during the filming of risky or unfunny shows, in an effort to breath life into a bored audience. Unfortunately for me however, the studio audience seemed to find Seinfeld as funny as I did. There wasn’t a second they weren’t screaming or shouting after every sentence that left the actors mouths. I swear 70% of Julia Louis Dreyfus’ face expressions were exacerbated “waiting” expressions as she tried to deliver her lines.
The History of the Laff
In 1953 Charles Douglass developed his ‘laff box’ machine to produce “canned laughter” for TV sitcom sets. His vision was to provide a better sounding studio ambiance that created a theatre effect for folks watching at home.
Even though Charles Douglass invented the first machine that was solely intended for laughter tracks, he wasn’t the first person to have the idea. In 1946 Bing Crosby used a magnetophone to record his shows so that he could stop taping them live.
During an episode when a comedian brought the house down, he saved some of the laughter to be used later. Eventually an episode fell flat with the audience, so he used the previously saved laughter to boost the unfunny episode.
By the 1950’s, using a recorded laughter track was an accepted necessity in studio audience sitcoms. Show-runners didn’t like that audiences didn’t laugh at the right times, or that they may not respond at all to a joke they’d hoped would be a big hit.
Other times, the audiences organic laughter would actually be muted and replaced with the ‘canned laughter’. This would happen during times the laughter was too loud, ran too long or didn’t sound quite right.
The directors wanted perfection, and audiences could never provide it.
Giving Comedy a Helping Hand
The trouble with the laughter track is that it weakens the comedic value of a show. It makes audiences feel that they aren’t being trusted to know when to laugh.
Tracks are also too freely added in an effort to cover up bad writing.
When you watch episodes of Big Bang Theory on YouTube with the laughter tracks taken away, the jokes suddenly seem stale, dated, and sometimes mean.
Sitcoms such as 30 Rock that don’t have a laughter track need to provide jokes at a far quicker pace. They trust us to know when to laugh, and provide jokes that a laughter track comedy could never add.
30 Rock can add visual jokes, meta jokes, break the fourth wall, just to name a few devices.
They squeeze jokes wherever they can fit them, and never have to wait for the audience to react.
By far the two slowest episodes of the series were the two episodes that were shot live. The jokes had to be far slower, and were far more obvious. Subtlety was completely gone and instead featured jokes like the classic ‘throwing water into peoples face’ gag. And who could forget the visual joke ‘painting falls off wall’, it’s a side-splitter.
So why is it still a thing?
TV shows aren’t theatre for a reason. Television is a much more modern form of entertainment with which a lot more can be achieved.
Laughter tracks made a lot more sense during an era that humanity was still transitioning from stage to screen. Shooting ‘I Love Lucy’ in front of a studio audience provided theatre comfort to those watching from their brand new television sets.
But times have changed, and most people only go to the theatre a handful of times in their lives.
Statistically, it doesn’t seem that laughter tracks are going anywhere. New shows are being green-lit with laughter tracks all the time, and it’s because shows like ‘Big Bang Theory’ inexplicably make millions of dollars.
What’s wrong with me?
I know I’m contributing to the problem by loving ‘Mom’, and I’ll never stop being mad at that show for having a laughter track.
It’s really challenging both loving and hating a show at the same time. The feeling leads to a really strange sensation when you both do and don’t want to settle down and watch TV.
In future, we need more shows like ‘Bojack Horseman’ that tells the story of the people actually making these shows. A show like Bojack adds humanity to a form of television that should of been relegated to the past.
I hope that we’re heading towards a future where the laughter tracks become obsolete, but somehow I doubt it.