Who's Laughing Now?
March 18, 2010 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Mobutu Sese Seko of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? has written an excellent deconstruction of sitcom laugh tracks at Something Awful. (last embedded video is probably NSFW)

Elsewhere, Jaime Weinman of Macleans muses on the use of laugh tracks in WKRP in Cincinnati, and Gawker shows us what Arrested Development would have been like with a laugh track. Still not convinced that laugh tracks are the enemy? Maybe these two videos will change your mind.
posted by threetoed (42 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, I'm not sure those two videos are very good examples, at least not on their face. The delivery, pacing, and editing all assume the presence of the laugh track, so of course it comes off awkward and stilted.

Now, what the videos do demonstrate is how much time is wasted on laugh tracks. It would be better if the pacing were faster and the writers had more space for jokes and plot development.
posted by jedicus at 12:58 PM on March 18, 2010

Watching HuffPo attempt original comedy is pretty interesting.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:59 PM on March 18, 2010

What the article fails to take into account is that laugh tracks originated in an era when half-hour comedies were much longer. He talks about how sitcoms these days are 22 minutes of story, which is true. But twenty years ago, they were 25 minutes long; an episode of Head of the Class or Mr. Belvedere had as much story content as an episode of The Office does today just by dint of longer runtime. And if you go back further, episodes of I Love Lucy averaged 27 minutes, sometimes even hitting 28!

All that extra time can make a comedy (which needs to be tight) a bit flabby, which is part of why the laugh track - or filming before a live audience - became so popular: the laughs filled up that extra time and let the writers work with shorter, tighter scripts.
posted by mightygodking at 1:03 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

And yet, Two And A Half Men is still the #5 show for this week, below three doses of American Idol at the top.
posted by grabbingsand at 1:04 PM on March 18, 2010

The Dark Knight with a Laugh Track. And Pulp Fiction as well.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 1:07 PM on March 18, 2010

M*A*S*H on DVD has a wonderful no-laugh track option which improves and already good show.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 1:23 PM on March 18, 2010

I don't know which is weirder, laugh tracks on American TV, or the little boxes showing the audience's responses on Japanese TV.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:23 PM on March 18, 2010

I think laugh tracks have their place when it's genuine. Would Vitameatavegamin be as funny without a laugh track? Or George pulling out the golf ball at the diner?

It can help the show (Lucy, Seinfeld, All in the Family) or just serve as background noise to otherwise bland comedy (Two and a Half Men). I guess I'm just trying to say they're not inherently evil. (But come on, MASH was better without it)
posted by starman at 1:24 PM on March 18, 2010

grabbingsand, that link is depressing. America's taste in TV sucks.
posted by Aizkolari at 1:25 PM on March 18, 2010

Some shows are indeed filmed before live studio audiences, so the pauses for laughter are real, but the track is inserted later.

On the other hand, some shows are not filmed before an audience, and the pauses and mugging are done silently. And that is BIZARRE to watch if you can get your hands on a video file before the track is inserted.

I saw one or two episodes from Married With Children without the track, courtesy of a friend. Oh. My. Gawd. The most awkward-looking thing you can imagine. Christina Applegate should've gotten an Emmy just for putting up with it and making a marginally funny product.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:28 PM on March 18, 2010

starman: It can help the show (Lucy, Seinfeld, All in the Family ) or just serve as background noise to otherwise bland comedy (Two and a Half Men). I guess I'm just trying to say they're not inherently evil. (But come on, MASH was better without it)

I'm pretty sure those three shows all had real people, really laughing, not canned laughter dubbed in in post.

Also: on Seinfeld Larry David was well known for yelling at the audience and trying to get them to shut up and laugh less, because their laughing slowed down the pace of the show and not only caused things to be cut, but ruined the pacing of the jokes.
posted by paisley henosis at 1:30 PM on March 18, 2010

I can't watch shows with a laugh track any more. I just can't do it. It just makes everything about the show seem cheesy and forced.
posted by zsazsa at 1:33 PM on March 18, 2010

How did the laughter on Seinfeld help the show?
posted by kenko at 1:33 PM on March 18, 2010

Jeez, I know Two and a Half Men is bad, and I've seen full episodes, but the clip he uses in the article is two minutes of the worst TV ever created. Good Lord. How smart do you have to be to have sex? In what world is that funny?
posted by graventy at 1:37 PM on March 18, 2010

Gawker's take on Arrested Development with a laugh track.
posted by Paid In Full at 1:39 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I, like many, was a big Brady Bunch fan. Brady Bunch had a very specific laugh-track. After viewing many hundreds of hours of episodes I came to identify and enjoy one particular laugh - it would come usually during quiet physical comedy - you knew, the few minutes scenes of the kids doing stuff without dialogue. It was a very distinctive, "ooh ooh ooh AA AAA!" with the the 'A's a few half-steps above the 'ooh's.

Somehow I got it in my head that that voice, that peculiar middle aged man monkey laugh, was the laugh of Sherwood Schwartz.

I just spent fifteen minutes looking at youtube clips of the Brady Bunch trying to find an instance of it, but no luck. Dammit.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:40 PM on March 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

Oh, it's embedded in the story.

Suddenly I regret the Flashblocker.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:41 PM on March 18, 2010

If I clicked favorite any harder my mouse would've shattered.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:59 PM on March 18, 2010

I find the act of laughter pleasurable; more so than simply acknowledging inwardly that something is funny. So I find it hard to get annoyed by a device that encourages me to laugh. Particularly when I am still free to not laugh, or even to not watch the show that is not making me laugh.
posted by MUD at 2:03 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Although, the last time I bitched about laugh tracks, I think someone pointed me to Mitchell & Webb, which is some good comedy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:07 PM on March 18, 2010

I think it's worth pointing out that Married With Children WAS filmed in front of a live audience and by the 3rd or 4th season the audience had really become a character on the show. There are many times where you can hear them yelling "Go Al!" or directly responding to characters who enter and exit the set. During one episode late in the show where Steve makes a surprise appearance, the ovation lasted over 20 seconds. That was REAL live theater.

Seinfeld also used a studio audience which is clearly noticeable in many episodes. However in the commentary they admit that for complex episodes with multiple locations, or remote sets, they would sometimes use either a laugh track.. OR they would screen the remote footage to a live audience for authentic laughs. Not EVERY sitcom out there used canned laughter. And besides, whether you remove fake laughter or REAL laughter from a comedy show, it will look awkward either way.
posted by ReeMonster at 2:15 PM on March 18, 2010

the wire
posted by p3on at 2:19 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

posted by p3on at 2:20 PM on March 18, 2010

Any writer, actor or director who's really serious about the craft of TV entertainment wants to do the most and best he or she can with every show. Filling up airtime with non-story prevents both.

Interesting to learn that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, Stephen Moffat (creator of Coupling), James Burrows, Glen Charles, and Les Charles (creators of Cheers), and Monty Python's Flying Circus aren't serious about the craft of TV entertainment.

Anyway, what silliness, and clearly written by someone who doesn't know how three-camera sitcoms are made. Two-and-a-Half Men (normally) tapes in front of a live studio audience. If jokes don't get laughs live, they are re-written on the spot and the scene is re-done. (Of course the laughter is sweetened in post-production). So his whole assertion that this is a product created in a vacuum is totally off. Now, I don't like the show myself, but this guy doesn't know what he's talking about.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:21 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love the name of that guy's blog.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:21 PM on March 18, 2010

Two-and-a-Half Men (normally) tapes in front of a live studio audience. If jokes don't get laughs live, they are re-written on the spot and the scene is re-done.

I should clarify that this is standard procedure for three-camera comedies.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:22 PM on March 18, 2010

How I Met Your Mother is actually shot first, and then the laugh track is recorded later with a live audience watching a tape of the finished show. I generally don't mind the laugh track at all, though there have been one or two spots when it was intrusive.

In the end, a laugh track is not what makes or breaks a show. It's appropriate for some shows, silence is better in other shows, and some shows just suck (2 1/2 Men).
posted by kmz at 2:31 PM on March 18, 2010

Early Marx Brothers movies started life as live shows that were taken on the road (to Philadelphia and other rude hinterlands) to shake out the bugs and tighten up the yocks, then typically ran on Broadway for a while before being consigned to celluloid. By the time they got shot, all the laughs were timed and accounted for and the pacing frequently reflects this: Groucho utters a stinger, Groucho looks expectantly at the camera for five seconds, Groucho continues.

Sometimes the jokes still work, sometimes they don't. That's show biz.
posted by tspae at 2:47 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Wire clip with laugh track is brilliant. It really highlights what irks me the most-- laughing at the most innocuous moments (such as the opening of a door.) I agree that some comedies are unbearable to watch because of the heavy-handed use of laugh tracks but surprisingly there are shows that aren't ruined. When I requested comedy show suggestions in AskMe, I specifically asked for "no laugh tracks" but I found it didn't matter as much as I thought. Sweeping generalization: Brit comedies do laugh tracks better.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:15 PM on March 18, 2010

That's not a very good article because, as usual, it has no clue about the difference between an audience and "canned laughter." If you want to see/hear the difference, look at that WKRP clip. The show was shot before an audience, and most of the laughs are real, but in some cases they added canned laughter in post-production. (In one case they added the canned laughter to remove a too-enthusiastic audience reaction to a joke.) Like many laugh-track bashers he has no idea that Two and a Half Men is shot in front of an audience and that when the actors pause it's because real people are laughing. Just like in the theatre. Or a stand-up comedian. Or Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Is he going to tell us that every stand-up comedian infantilizes the audience by pausing while they laugh?

The difference between multi-camera, live-audience comedy (Two and a Half Men, Seinfeld, WKRP, I Love Lucy) and single-camera comedy (M*A*S*H, 30 Rock, Arrested Development) is that single-camera comedy is done like a movie, while a multi-camera show is done like a play.

That is, on a single-camera show everything is shot in bits and pieces, while in multi-camera the scene is done straight through like a play, with cameras covering it from all angles. The audience is there because, well, it's a play, and because they energize the actors and make their timing sharper, and because if the audience doesn't laugh, the writers know they have to fix a joke.

Some shows work better as single-camera movie-style shows for whatever reason. Others work better with the theatre-style approach. The style of acting and writing and shooting is very different depending on the format, because everything has to be broader in multi-camera. (You can't have fancy camera angles or elaborate lighting in that fomat.) Some performers just don't come alive unless they're in front of an audience. Others are better without an audience. Etc.

But let's be clear here: there is nothing "infantilizing" about shooting comedy in front of an audience. Yes, they may add or subtract laughs in editing (the same way single-camera shows add music: single-camera shows rarely have music under dialogue because the laughter, rather than music, is used to set the timing). But the basic idea is to put people in front of an audience and see if they get laughs, and that's been going on ever since comedy was invented.
posted by tobiagorrio at 4:07 PM on March 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

Then again, even a live audience doesn't guarantee any sort of "authenticity," so it'd say it's a moot point if the laughter was live or canned. Observe: Radio Lab interviews professional laughers from The Nanny.

Anyway. What Zizek quoted.
posted by monocultured at 4:09 PM on March 18, 2010

How did the laughter on Seinfeld help the show?

Well, Jerry Seinfeld is a standup comedian who by his own admission can't act, so he performs better with an audience than without one. His timing is based on having an audience respond to what he says.

If you want to see the difference between one kind of show and another, look at "The Odd Couple" when they had no audience (the first season; they used a laugh track instead) and when they started using an audience with multiple cameras (season 2 onward). The two lead actors were much funnier with an audience because it energized them and improved their timing. It also made the acting broader and less subtle and the writing had to be broader too, to make the live audience laugh. So this style doesn't work for every kind of show. But sometimes the audience energizes the performers and improves the show.
posted by tobiagorrio at 4:29 PM on March 18, 2010

I prefer Harlan Ellison for my laugh track ownpage, although I will say that not watching shows with them has made watching any show WITH a laugh track complete torture. I had trouble with the first season of the league of gentlemen cause of the track, it's just so fucking WEIRD if you're not used to it.
posted by The Whelk at 5:09 PM on March 18, 2010

I don't know which is weirder, laugh tracks on American TV, or the little boxes showing the audience's responses on Japanese TV.

Those faces aren't usually those of audience members but rather the professional tarento or geinoujin (entertainers/comedians) paid to appear on the program. There is also often an audience as well, behind camera, though depending on the show it may be 100% female (which I think is weirder than any laugh track, but YMMW).
posted by armage at 7:11 PM on March 18, 2010

I do enjoy laugh tracks when I'm watching something alone - otherwise I definitely don't laugh as much. I like a good laugh track. The real problem is unfunny comedy.
posted by niccolo at 7:51 PM on March 18, 2010

Also, there are hot guest star ladies who engage in fucking. Naturally, this show is the most successful comedy on TV.

Things Hollywood actresses and I have in common: when we engage in fucking, it's funny.

Things Hollywood actresses and I don't have in common: when they engage in fucking, it's successful.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:32 PM on March 18, 2010

A groan track is a laugh track in reverse. It has to tell you that something isn't funny at the same time a laugh track tells you that something is funny. It infantilizes the audience in the exact same way, only it presumes that what it's telling you is even more important than "Laugh now."

Holy shit, plate of beans much? It's a minute and a half comedy sketch, not a 70 year old trend.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:37 PM on March 18, 2010

Another brilliant use of a laugh track out of place was in Natural Born Killers.
posted by tighttrousers at 10:12 PM on March 18, 2010

I really liked the "Friends" clip without the laugh track. I would watch that show. I've never seen the "2 1/2 Men" show, but I'm glad to see Ducky got some work.

The other day my best-friend/spouse and I were at the movie theater and saw an ad for "Wall Street 2" and it occurred to me to wonder if maybe Shia LeBeouf was going to be the Charlie Sheen of his generation.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:29 AM on March 19, 2010

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