A day or two ago, during a Twitter conversation, a buddy of mine expressed surprise that the TV show How I Met Your Mother is already in its seventh season. Specifically, he said when he watched the first episode, his reaction was along the lines of, “A laugh track? Right, this is going to last.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard him express a sentiment like this, and he’s be no means the only person I know who has felt this way. And I have an odd sort of reaction to it every time. While I’m not necessarily a fan of laugh tracks, I’m not instinctively opposed to them either, and in no way do I think the presence or absence of a laugh track is indicative of the quality of a show. Some of the greatest comedies of all time have featured either a laugh track or, even better, the laughter of a live audience — Cheers, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Sanford and Son… due to the sheer number of shows that have included the sound of laughter, it’s easy to argue that it has been present in most of the great English-language comedy shows of all time.
Let’s examine the perceived problem with the laugh track. The opposition, I believe, stems from the feeling that the producers of the show are being insulting or patronizing by cuing the audience to laugh, or that it speaks to an inherent lack of confidence in the material that requires the canned laughter so the viewer knows it’s supposed to be funny. In some cases, this is probably true — it’s a little less painful to watch a terrible attempt at comedy if we hear somebody laughing. But for most of us, that’s not nearly enough to disguise bad material. In fact, when used on a bad show, it can even serve to accentuate what’s wrong with it. For example, think of the critics’ current go-to example of terrible programming, the NBC sitcom Whitney. Among the show’s many crimes against the viewers, Whitney Cummings starts every episode by announcing, “Whitney is taped before a live studio audience. You heard me.”
The “live studio audience” bit is standard, of course, it’s been used by sitcoms for decades to let the viewer know that, yes, real people were there when they taped the show and, yes, they really laughed. But Cummings takes it a step too far: “You heard me.” Suddenly she’s become abrasive and confrontational, as if she’s anticipating some critic using the laugh track to condemn the show and wants to cut him off by saying, “See? THESE people like it!” It’s supposed to set the tone with a joke, but it doesn’t work. Then again, “abrasive,” “confrontational,” and “it doesn’t work” are all terms I would use to define the show in general, so perhaps it’s more successful at setting the tone than is readily apparent.
Regardless, Whitney doesn’t suck because it has a laugh track, it sucks because it’s poorly written and performed by soulless automatons that couldn’t hold on to their jobs frightening children in theme park dark rides. The laugh track itself is just a convention of muti-camera sitcoms, and we’re so used to it that such a show would feel strange without one.
There are, basically, two kinds of comedies on television, single-camera and multi-camera, and each has different demands based on the way the television show is filmed. “Single-camera” shows are filmed like movies, with one camera in use at any given time, and no audience. Shows like this — such as Scrubs, The Office, or Community to name a few — allow for location shooting, outdoor filming, and give the director the opportunity to record a take as many times as he wants until he gets it right. The “multi-camera” technique was popularized by Desi Arnaz when he was making I Love Lucy. Like their predecessors in radio, early TV sitcoms were often performed in front of a live audience. The problem here is that you can’t do as many takes are you want with an audience.
People will only sit so long to be entertained, and even worse, the jokes lose their impact upon repeat viewings. Even the funniest scene ever written (and here I am specifically thinking of the bit in The Dick Van Dyke Show when Rob and Mary are afraid their child was switched at birth, only to find out the other family is black) will fail to elicit a laugh if you’ve seen it ten times in the past hour while the director tries to get different angles. Using several cameras to shoot different angles at the same time drastically reduces the number of takes necessary. The vast majority of TV comedies over the past several decades have been multi-camera, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when shows like Scrubs became successful, that single-camera began to regain popularity. (Virtually all TV dramas, by the way, are filmed single-camera, and thus aren’t particularly germane to this discussion.)
The result is two very different experiences for the viewer. Single-camera shows are packaged like movies, with more incidental music and greater opportunities for action or special effects. They come to the viewer in a very complete fashion. But multi-camera shows aren’t made like movies. They are performed and packaged like a stage play, and it is for this reason that laughter isn’t only expected, but almost required.
A stage play is far more immediate than a movie. There’s a greater energy and urgency, not only for the actor, but for the audience as well. Live actors can feel when an audience is enjoying a show and feed off that energy, and conversely, when an audience isn’t into it, the show suffers. There is nothing you, as an audience member, can do that will change your experience watching a movie, but simple audience consensus in a live play actually does make it better or worse.
Obviously, this isn’t true of a TV show, once you’re watching it at home. But the point I’m making here is that these shows — probably unintentionally — are designed in such a way as to imitate the shared community experience of watching a live play, which is different even from the shared community experience of watching a movie in a packed theater. And it is because of this that hearing laughter during a multi-camera show “feels” right, and why a laugh track added to a single-camera show “feels” wrong. In 2010 NBC rolled out yet another of their many doomed sitcoms, this one called 100 Questions. This single-camera show was weak to being with, but the producers did it no favors by adding in a laugh track. This sitcom convention, which is almost unnoticable when used well on a multi-camera show, is unbearably conspicuous in a single-camera setting.
By contrast, look at a multi-camera show with no laugh track. There are plenty of efforts on YouTube to strip the track from assorted shows, and most of them suffer from rather poor and obvious editing, but it’s enough for you to get the idea:
Even the funniest show, when stripped of its laugh track, feels like sitting in a play where nobody is laughing, and that’s a miserable feeling for actor and audience alike. The tone is similar to the webcomic Arbuckle, which repackages Garfield comic strips without Garfield’s thought balloons, thus giving Jon Arbuckle the appearance of being a sad (well… sadder), lonely man who talks to his perfectly conventional pets as if they could respond. (This is not to be confused with the more popular Garfield Minus Garfield, which strips all characters and dialogue save for Jon Arbuckle himself, giving him the appearance of being a lunatic suffering from advanced schizophrenia. Although one wonders if The Big Bang Theory would feel this way if you edited out Johnny Galecki’s Leonard and left Jim Parson’s Sheldon by himself.)
To give one more example, this of a fantastic show where virtually everything was done wrong, look at Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. It was a multi-camera sitcom that, strangely, felt very wrong with a laugh track added in. When the producers dropped the laugh track, it made for a better show, but it also made it clear what the problem was: the show wasn’t really written as a comedy, but a drama. At most, it was a “dramedy,” and should have been shot single-camera, where it may have at least stood a chance. But Sorkin learned his lesson on his next show, a little thing called The West Wing.
While I can accept that a person can prefer the single-camera format to the multi-camera or vice versa, I soundly reject the notion that either format is inherently superior to the other. And I think the sound of laughter (I do prefer live audience to canned laughter, but that’s another discussion) is hardwired into the genre the way comic books use panels. Is it possible to do without? Sure — but it feels… off.
If, perhaps, we were to eradicate the laugh track entirely, we could learn to live without it. Twenty or thirty years from now, it could be considered quaint, and the next generation would find it unusual if someone tried to bring it back. But it’s part of an experience that has been conditioned into our brains, and that’s really hard to change.