Have you ever watched those YouTube videos of your favorite sitcoms without a laugh track? Well, if you haven't, I can guarantee that they will make you cringe, and possibly question whether the sitcom was ever funny in the first place. This worried me, as I started doubting whether I ever found Friends or Seinfeld funny. Was it just bad comedy — covered up with the use of laugh tracks — tricking me into laughing? This led me onto researching laugh tracks; I just couldn't accept only finding my favorite sitcoms funny due to fake laughter.
There appears to be an ongoing argument over whether laugh tracks are good. Are they forcing us to laugh at jokes we wouldn't usually find funny? Or, are they perhaps creating a communal experience in which we can laugh with others? Most importantly, does having a laugh track mean the show isn't good enough without one? Hopefully this analysis will shed some light on the effect of laugh tracks. Don't worry, this won't be an extensive essay analyzing everything to do with laugh tracks; although, we will start off with a bit of history.
Laff Box: The History Of The Laugh Track
Before television, people would often experience comedy live, as part of an audience, laughing together at jokes, which drives the performance. This created a pleasant atmosphere in which people could enjoy comedy together, thus it seemed only natural for television producers to want to recreate this. Producers started using live audiences for their television shows in order to recreate the natural reaction of laughter. This, however, had its problems, as people cannot be relied upon to all laugh at the exact same time at every single joke.
Charles Douglass, American sound engineer, noticed this and developed an editing technique, now know as "sweetening," in which he would insert more laughter where a joke went unnoticed and cut out laughter that went on for too long. Douglass was unsatisfied with the sweetening technique, which led onto him developing the laff box, a machine that operated similarly to an organ and produced various types of laughter, controlled by a keyboard and a foot pedal. The machine contained 320 laughs of varying kinds — anything from a giggle to a full-blown belly laugh — allowing for different combinations of laughter, appropriate for any joke. It's a pretty awesome piece of technology there if you ask me. Check it out for yourself below:
Forced To Laugh Against Your Own Will?
I've often heard people justify their dislike for laugh tracks by saying they feel forced to laugh at mediocre jokes, referencing The Big Bang Theory as an example of overusing the laugh track. Perhaps that's true; it's no secret that hearing other people laugh makes us laugh — it's biology, we can't help it. We're designed to mimic emotion, thus it may seem like including a laugh track is using our biology against us, forcing us to laugh at jokes we don't actually find funny.
One article stated that as long as "keywords like Game of Thrones, Star Trek, or any scientific term," are included, a laugh track will be added to The Big Bang Theory. Nevertheless, the laugh track itself shouldn't be faulted, but rather its overuse, and if it were used more sparingly, it may be more effective and bearable.
Take a look at this clip of The Big Bang Theory without a laugh track — the jokes seem a little empty and there are long, awkward pauses. However, these short, "no laugh track" clips are not an accurate representation of what shows would be like without a laugh track. The sitcom is filmed knowing full well that a laugh track will be added, so it is all edited together in order to deliver a joke. Without the laugh track, The Big Bang Theory would not feature long, silent gaps; rather, it would be more concise, with the dialogue flowing right after a joke.
It seems as though adding a laugh track to anything makes it funny, but perhaps that's not a bad thing. Sometimes it's good to just laugh without overthinking it, and a laugh track facilitates this. This may seem like TV shows are being dumbed down for the pure purpose of comedy, letting you know exactly when something is funny and should be laughed at. This may be true, but there are also great examples of when laugh tracks are inserted along with many other techniques to deliver a joke well.
For instance, it took me all of eight seasons of How I Met Your Mother to realize that it had a laugh track, and when I did realize it, I found that it appeared to be more quiet than other laugh tracks, such as in Seinfeld. This is a great example of how a laugh track can add to comedy without being too over the top. Laugh tracks don't always have to be overused, forcing us to laugh at everything.
Inappropriate Jokes: Does Laughing With Others Make It Better?
The more of these "no laugh track" clips I watch, the more I find myself laughing at some of the bad or inappropriate jokes. I'm not a person to feel bad about laughing alone; however, I can see how laughing at some things may make some feel bad.
Laugh tracks aim to give the experience of communal laughter, as though we're experiencing the show with others, allowing us to laugh along with the "audience" and make us feel better about laughing at inappropriate jokes. While laugh tracks may have a bad reputation now, they were created with good intentions. They mimic the live experience of watching something with other people, which can often be a more fun experience than watching it alone.
Does A Laugh Track Equal Bad Comedy?
Some of the greatest sitcoms, such as The Office (US), It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Community do not feature laugh tracks, yet they're hilarious. This raises the question of whether these sitcoms are just of such high quality that they don't need to feature a laugh track to be funny. If these shows can do it, why can't others such as The Big Bang Theory? Do laugh tracks simply cover up bad comedy? I think the answer lays with the specific type of filming and comedy used.
Community features tons of film references, meaning that a laugh track would just be tiring. If we heard laughter every time Abed said something funny relating to film, it wouldn't be a show. The Office (US) uses more of a dry humor and specific camerawork necessary to make it a mockumentary. If a laugh track were added, it would take away from what makes the show seem like an actual documentary, with the characters knowing that they're being filmed. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia features a lot of dark humor, but if a laugh track were added, it would take away some of the darkness that makes It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia so brilliant. You're supposed to feel slightly bad about laughing at the jokes, such as when Charlie accidentally says he's a "full on rapist" instead of saying he's a "philanthropist."
I think it comes down to the show itself. The presence of a laugh tracks does not instantly mean the comedy is bad, and that we are forced to laugh. Even without a laugh track, I will forever laugh at Chandler Bing from Friends and his sarcastic jokes, and Kramer's over-the-top entrances in Seinfeld.
A laugh track does not define a show. For some it works, for others it does not. As long as I genuinely find the show funny and interesting, a laugh track doesn't stand in the way, and is often reminiscent of all those amazing '90s sitcoms we grew up watching.
“A day without laughter is a day wasted” — Charlie Chaplin.