The laugh track is one of those curious idiosyncrasies of 20th century television that will puzzle the bejesus out of future generations of anthropologists
. “Why,” they will ask, “did these people feel that their enjoyment of a TV comedy show would be enhanced by having the disembodied laughter of invisible strangers ring out every few seconds?”
Not that people aren’t asking that question now. Few things on television provoke as much consternation as the laugh track on TV sitcoms
. Yet in spite of that, they are a mainstay of television, repeated in the comedies of almost every culture in the world. So how did they come to be?
What is a laugh track anyway?
The laugh track is often defined in very narrow terms, such as the insertion of pre-recorded
laughter into a TV show. In truth, a broader definition is required here: a laugh track is the sound of audience reaction included into any TV comedy which has been tampered with by the producers, whether by adding pre-recorded laughter, editing the real studio laughter to better fit the show, or using stage directions
to inform the audience when to laugh. In other words, a laugh track is the sound of laughter heard on every single comedy show.
The Nero Smile Show (sponsored by Colgate)
The first recorded attempt to artificially manipulate audience reaction can probably be traced back to the emperor Nero
, who liked his acting performances to be applauded by a 5,000-man strong ecomium
, which he paid his soldiers to deliver. This was believed to have inspired the rise of the rieurs
, professional theatregoers in 18th century France who for a fee would laugh heartily at every joke.
In general though, audiences were autonomous and players had to work for their laughs. The 19th and early 20th century saw a rise in entertainment and variety based theatre (Vaudeville
in the States, Music Hall
in Britain). This approach informed the early days of radio, and went on to shape how television was initially produced.
Live from NBC studios, New York
For the first few years of its existence, TV was largely a form of theatre, a kind of vaudeville-in-a-box. The most popular shows were variety shows, broadcast live and filmed in front of an audience. The studios were built as theatres and broadcasts were communal events. Hearing the cheers, boos and laughter of the audience made the viewers feel part of the experience, and no doubt greatly contributed to the initial success of the medium.
have always been ruthless about making sure that the audience gave the correct response to their show, and right from the off TV audiences have been directed
just as much as the performers. Several techniques pioneered during the era of radio were employed, the most common of which was the use of warm-up men. Still used on every TV show today, warm-up entertainers
spend around 30 minutes with an audience to whip them up into a frenzy before exposing them to the main act. A less common technique today was to simply stage manage
the crowd, either with a stage manager giving hand signals to the crowd, or the dreaded APPLAUSE
Who’s Laughing Now?
There was another technique that was becoming more and more popular on radio in the years leading up to television. When the real audience failed to react, pre-recorded laughter
could be played over the top to make the reaction seemed positive. This process was called “sweetening
”, and was first used on NBC
’s The Hank McClune Show
in 1953. The show itself wasn’t successful (it was cancelled after 3 seasons and isn’t preserved on video) but the idea of using artificial laughter had taken hold, and a sound engineer named Charlie Douglass
was about to turn it into an artform.
A Barrel of Laffs
The Laff Box
was about two feet high, with pedals and keys so that it could be played like an organ. Along the top were keys that allowed the selection of ages and genders. The end result was that a single operator could produce the reactions of an entire audience for any type of TV show.
The identities of the laughs contained in The Laff Box
remain secret, although there are a few notable suspects. Marcel Marceau
probably provided some, his recordings being conveniently free of dialogue. A few were likely taken from The Lucy Show
which often relied on physical comedy. Red Skelton
was famous for his barnstorming mime of a distressed drunk, and the laughter from The Red Skleton Show
was almost certainly in The Laff Box
. This adds a creepy element to The Laff Box: shows in the 70s featured laughter from people who were quite possibly dead.
The identity of the first show to use canned laughter is shrouded in mystery, but what we do know for sure is that by the 60s it was ubiquitous. Laff Box
operators were important parts of the production team, often rehearsing with the performers. Eventually, even the most unlikely shows had laugh tracks, such as The Jetsons
and The Flintstones
(animated shows are rarely filmed live – it’s a terrible strain on the animator’s wrists
). A Laff Box track was even inserted into M*A*S*H
despite the protests of Larry Gelbart
(who is said to have wanted it without a laugh track, "Just like the actual Korean War
“Filmed before a live studio audience”
Come the 70s, and the repetitive, mechanical sounds of the Laff Box began to grate on audiences. Increasingly TV shows declared themselves to filmed before a live studio audiences
. This was a declaration that artificial laughter wasn’t being used, and tacitly implied that the show was therefore guaranteed to be funny.
Both claims were, of course, inherently false. Warm-up men and stage direction are still widely used, and sweetening still continues (some shows, such as Frasier, allegedly contains some of the original Laff Box laughter). A new science was also developed as technology became more successful, which was the editing of the audio track
taken from the audience. At best this can be simple things such as removing coughs and out-of-place laughs, but often it can mean increasing volume of laughs, overlaying laughs, editing the laughs to be the required length and even wholesale transplanting of laughs from other parts of the track onto jokes that don’t fly.
Almost all shows to feature a laugh track have been in some way doctored. Even genuine live broadcasts
have these techniques applied, which have become easier and sophisticated as time moves along. Only one thing is for sure: it may be filmed before a live studio audience, but you’re probably not going to hear them on your TV.
Life after the laugh track
The last 15 years have seen a growing number of sitcoms completely abandon the idea of audience laughter altogether. Most people credit this revolution to The Larry Sanders Show
, which shows how much most people know. There are probably two things that have brought about this change in thinking. One is The Simpsons
, which like Larry Sanders
abandoned the laugh track, but unlike Larry Sanders
was an enormous commercial success.
The other key factor is a fundamental shift in the way television is made. In-house
studio shows are slowly being replaced by smaller production companies who do not own large theatre-like studios. Coupled with the rise in cheap digital video technology, it seems increasingly anachronistic to shoot anything in front of an audience with four fixed cameras. Rather than replace this missing audience with canned laughter, the production companies are choosing to forego it altogether, and increasingly finding that it does no damage to their figures whatsoever.
Slowly but surely, shows like Malcolm in the Middle
are replacing fare such as Will and Grace
and Everybody Loves Raymond
. So far the biggest beneficiary has been the comedy itself, as writers find themselves free of the need to entertain a studio audience (even a fake one). Malcolm
both play with timelines on a scale previously unheard of on TV. The Office
is happy to be as dry as the Sahara, equally satisfied with making the audience squirm as making the audience laugh. Curb Your Enthusiasm
goes places Seinfeld never dared, because someone in the audience would surely have eventually tried to kill Larry David
It’s still going to be a long time before you can watch a TV show without hearing your long-dead grandmother laughing at Red Skelton
’s distressed drunk, but it seems that the days of the laugh track are now numbered.