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The last laugh: The history of laugh tracks

The disappearance of this television staple reveals a shift in the tone of sitcoms
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Laugh tracks have fallen out of popularity lately. COURTESY OF MOHAMED HASSAN/PIXABAY
Laugh tracks have fallen out of popularity lately. COURTESY OF MOHAMED HASSAN/PIXABAY

If you’ve spent some time watching popular old television sitcoms, you’ve probably heard laugh tracks after their scripted jokes. Love them or hate them, laugh tracks have an undeniable presence in television history. Although they seem to have fallen out of popularity recently, it’s worth examining how they came to be and where they might be headed.

The laugh track first appeared on television in the 1950s, created by CBS sound engineer Charley Douglass. It came at a time when TV shows were primarily filmed in front of a studio audience. Douglass thought that the audience’s organic reactions weren’t the right fit for the taped shows. Audiences either laughed too much or didn’t laugh enough, and so the sound of their laughter was never right for the tone of the show.

Douglass started dealing with this problem by manipulating the audio levels of the audience’s laughter in postproduction. Eventually, he developed a machine that could play back recordings of laughter. Called the Laff Box, the machine was built to look like a typewriter — but instead of producing letters, it produced laughter. Douglass himself would haul it into postproduction rooms when it was needed to give TV studios the laughter they wanted.

Even when television started to turn away from canned laughter in the 1970s, shows kept studio laughter for audiences at home. Sitcoms like Cheers were recorded in front of a live studio audience and kept the audience’s natural reactions. The audience was in dialogue with the performers, mirroring their energy back at them and making comedy a joint effort.

Gradually, though, that laughter got erased. Now, very few modern sitcoms actually include the sound of laughter at all. 

Part of that can be attributed to shifts away from studio audiences, but part of it is because of a shift in comedy style. The humour of modern comedic writing has a very different tone to the sitcoms of the past. An article by the BBC describes modern sitcoms as relying on ‘cringe’ humor and dark comedy, calling the modern style “the awkward style of millennial UK comedy.” 

The quippy style of today’s comedy isn’t as well-suited to loud laughter, artificial or not. There’s something oddly disconcerting about watching a scene from The Office with laugh tracks added. Seeing the characters sing and dance to “Staying Alive” while Michael resuscitates a dummy might make you groan internally or chuckle, but not laugh out loud.

I think there’s a good reason for why laugh tracks are now going unused. Part of the original intent of adding laughter was to mimic the experience of the communal entertainment that was popular before television, like going to a movie or a play. Now, however, it’s probably fair to say that none of us expect that communal quality. Since streaming services give us access to sitcoms on demand, watching TV is understood to be a more solitary experience.

There’s also the fact that laughter slows things down. When there are people laughing, there have to be breaks between jokes so the punchlines that follow them aren’t drowned out. While that pacing might work in episodic releases, it can start to feel slow or tiring when we binge a series, the way we regularly watch television shows now. Because there’s an implied acknowledgement that laughter is part of the audience experience, forcing viewers to hear and register it can take away from the experience of the show itself.

Now that we seem to have moved past them, laugh tracks have become, funnily enough, a joke of their own. Critics argue that audiences have grown more sophisticated and don’t need to be told when and how to laugh. There are plenty of YouTube videos of sitcoms with their laugh tracks edited out, meant to show how awkward and unfunny they are without laughter. 

On the other hand, there are also laughter-defenders, who maintain that laughter helps good jokes hit harder, as they can be reworked with the help of the audience response.

While I don’t think studio laughter is necessary anymore — modern sitcoms seem to be doing just fine — I don’t think that should detract from how we view old shows. It’s not fair to remove the laughter from a show that was filmed with a laugh track and say, “Look how uncomfortable and bad this is.” Of course it is; a crucial part of the show has been replaced with silence. The jokes are meant to engage with the audience’s laughter.

The fact that old sitcoms don’t appeal to our sense of humour anymore doesn’t make them unfunny. The disappearance of laugh tracks doesn’t naturally entail an improvement in the quality of television. There are good shows with laugh tracks, just like there are bad ones without them. It’s the way we engage with these shows that has changed. These days, we value dark comedy, cynical comedy — comedy that presents itself in a different way.

What the death of the laugh track really shows is an evolution of the sitcom genre. The laugh track is a character that has been written out of the scripts.