As ’90s kids, we grew up listening to laughter straight out of a baked beans tin. Popular TV shows such as Bottom, Friends, and even the mighty Frasier relied on a live audience to laugh at jokes.
Some TV series even went a step further – not filmed before an audience, editors stuck in pre-recorded canned laughter (a laugh track).
But why is this stuff still in use? Why was it ever in use? Ahahahaha! Let’s open that can and find on out, eh?
Okay: canned laughter, laughter track, laugh track. Whatever you want to call it, the result is above. You have a separate soundtrack with pre-recorded laughing that’s stuck over the top of a show.
You can tell the fake stuff away from the live audience laughter, too. Canned laughter sounds moronic – like it’s a bunch of drugged up simpletons in a tin braying like sheep.
It was invented, too, by sound engineer Charles Douglass (1910 – 2003). What was called the Douglass laugh track became ubiquitous with American shows in the 1950s through to the 1970s. Why?! Watch this excellent clip from Useless History.
So canned laughter was put into use to help audiences feel like they were part of the audience.
Back in the days before TV (yes, that did exist) folks would head to the theatre or listen to the radio. The initial shift to television was jarring for some – the laugh track eased the transition.
But over the decades it also became a way to make terrible shows seem hilarious. That’s still in use, with that artificial sounding hooting livening up mediocre crap like The Big Bang Theory (sorry to any fans out there, but we can’t bloody stand it).
The Day The Laughter Died
Canned laughter is all so very weird when you stop to think about it. It detracts away from the “reality” of the show, yet somehow provides viewers with a reassuring pinpoint of where they should be going, “Duuuuh huh huh huh huuuuh!!” in unison.
As you can see with the Friends clip (filmed before a live audience as it was), the actors actually wait for the audience to stop laughing as their cue to continue a scene.
Take the laughter track away and it’s like they’re on a different planet where being socially awkward is the norm.
And that’s odd, as this is a show that presents itself (at least in the first few seasons) as wholly realistic of life in the mid-1990s. Yet Friends clearly has a subversive fourth-wall breaking acknowledgement right there.
Frasier, meanwhile, is the same. You can see its laugh track explored in the above clip, with Kelsey Grammer pausing after one of Niles’ snide remarks.
With the laughter, it its the scene – take that away and you’ve got a bizarre silence that doesn’t make sense. All of which some snappy editing can fix easily enough.
But that knowing nod and appreciation of the audience is certainly on its way out now. American sitcoms – so reliant on all of this previously – are now shifting away towards laugh track free episodes.
Shows like Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation have managed it with cool aplomb, as did the hugely successful The Inbetweeners over in England.
We believe it is time to wave goodbye to the laugh track once and for all. It should be a weird little artifact in cultural history, as audiences are smart enough to know whether or not they should be laughing at something.
And if they don’t, perhaps make your show funnier. Eh!?