A recording of laughter which is used by television networks to make viewers of sitcoms believe that the shows they are watching are (A) filmed live and (B) wildly funny. Sometimes called canned laughter.

Recorded laughter isn't used on every comedy show. Even as far back as the 1950s, there were programs that refused to use laugh tracks, or that eventually stopped using them. In its initial seasons, "M*A*S*H," for example, used laugh tracks, but eventually reduced them as the show leaned in harder on its dramatic scenes -- and they never used a laugh track at all during scenes in the operating room. Other shows choose not to use a laugh track, either because they dislike having to tell the audience where the jokes are, because they feel there are enough dramatic moments in the show to make the laugh track obnoxious, or because they feel their shows are pitched to an audience that is mature and intelligent enough not to need a raucous laugh track. 

Still, there are lots of shows that love laugh tracks. Even classic comedians like Bob Hope and Milton Berle liked having laugh tracks on their programs -- their job was to make audiences laugh, and fake laughter was better than no laughter at all.

Strangest place for a laugh track: cartoons. Is there an audience somewhere watching those poor animators create a live Scooby Doo cartoon?

Through laughing in a group the shared agreement of what is humorous makes the subject matter or funny incident a norm through out the audience. The laughter track on television comedies and the live recordings of stand-up reinforce that comedy is the only art form that needs an audience to exist.

Music and movies, soap operas and literature can all be enjoyed individually or in a gathering. Group laughter is an interesting phenomenon.

It associates people and assimilates their understanding. The laughter track on situation comedies serves to unite individuals or small audiences.

By shared laughing, one is asserting that sanity lies with us and that one is not expressing forms of madness by laughing alone.

However to make sure that ‘sanity lies with us’ when watching televised comedy the mechanism of the laughter track enables individuals and same groups viewing the piece to not feel isolated even though they are in isolation. David Grote writing in 1983 continues to say:

Laugh tracks, or scream tracks, or cheer tracks are not required for melodramas; melodramas can be accepted in private, like the movies and stories from which they are derived. Only the comedy seems lonely without its audience, and so we turn on the tube and listen to the sound of other people sharing the experience with us.

But they are not really doing that, no matter how hard the producers pretend. We are alone with the comedy, just as we are alone with everything else on the screen." (Grote 168. 1983)

Socially these products are adaptable to circumstances, but the genre of comedy requires an audience otherwise the laughter is omitted and it is not comedy. The main element of understanding a joke and humorous concepts comes from the connotations derived from the symbolic reading of the text. Comedians take objects and give them another symbolic meaning transforming ones opinions to the maximum.

This idea of a shared laughter suggests that our intentions and laughter be aimed, channelled into activation. By having a shared sense of humour then morale throughout that particular social group is maintained, identity is formed.

The social content of jokes is primarily that, they are social. Comedy is the medium of entertainment that requires a level of interaction and thought from the audience. They have to pay attention and remain aware in order to listen and understand the jokes and content of the comedy otherwise they become lost in the flow of humour. Isolated.

Most commercially available laugh tracks, such as those used in SitComs are, in fact, recordings of real, live audiences at a real show. The chances are, though, that that recording was was taken from a very early television recording or even a radio comedy broadcast.

According to sound engineers at Viacom, most of the commonly used laugh track samples were recorded during the early 1930's to the late 1940's, back when people knew how to laugh out loud and mean it.

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. TV producers 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 sign.

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 and Scrubs 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 and Scrubs 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.

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