This being Emmy Awards month, I looked at the impressive list of heralded comedies — “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Abbott Elementary,” “Ted Lasso,” “Hacks,” “Barry,” and New York City’s own “Only Murders in The Building.” What do they have in common, besides wit and delightful (or delightfully cranky or murderous) characters? No laugh track! Yep, the lonely laughter you hear is your own.
Obviously, it was not always thus. Starting in the 50s, the laugh track first appeared on television, created by a CBS sound engineer named Charles Douglass. It was a time when TV shows — on both coasts — were primarily filmed in front of a studio audience, and Douglass thought that its organic reactions weren’t necessarily enough. So, he started manipulating the audio levels in post-production, developing a machine nicknamed the Laff Box.
Even as shows became more sophisticated, most used some form of laugh track for “sweetening.” Most, but not all, if you believe Norman Lear, the legend behind many of the best. “The shows we did never, never used a laugh track,” Lear told me.
“Each and every episode was performed and photographed before a live studio audience. I never had a more spiritual experience then watching an audience of 200 to 300 people when they were enjoying a belly laugh. I am confident that that added time to my life.” (Lear just turned 100.)
Ask other TV titans, past and present, about the laugh track and you find mixed reviews. “No showrunner ever forgets his first time,” says David Misch, who has written and taught comedy (most recently at the 92Y) for decades. And it seems true.
“Well, as I remember, my very first show (“Room 222”) was one camera and no laugh track,” recalls New York-born James L. Brooks. “For the audience shows, we had to use it just when editing to smooth out existing genuine laughs. Which is not to say, we didn’t (very occasionally) say, “damn, that was funny!” and correct the audience’s error. Yes, laugh tracks were an abomination.”
“My knee-jerk reaction is that I’ve never liked them, they’re manipulative, and are usually way too effusive for what are often really mediocre jokes,” says Jeff Reno, who wrote for “Mork and Mindy” and co-created “Moonlighting.” “Audiences get trained to laugh at the place they know a punch line belongs, whether it’s funny or not.”
Writer-producer Nell Scovell adds, “Because we used so many visual effects, “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” was shot in a hybrid style without a studio audience. So, we did sweeten the show. I guess some people are snobby about laugh tracks, but I always figured if it was good enough for “The Andy Griffith Show,” it was good enough for me.”
“The idea of canned laughter, which this is, sounds bad,” says part-time New Yorker Lawrence Lyttle, and former head of Warner Brothers TV. (“Murphy Brown,” among others) “But without it, our shows were flat, you were hurting them. That was a safety net for producers, believe me.” Perry Simon, former head of comedy at NBC, agrees and goes further. “Sometimes producers would boost the laugh track on pilots to try to make it seem like the audience was responding more positively than they really were. In other words, hyping the laugh track to make a sale.”
New Yorker Arnold Margolin, for example, says the track helped him sell “Love, American Style,” a hit series for ABC. “I discovered if you didn’t hit people over the head with it, and didn’t abuse it, it really helped to enhance a show,” says Margolin. “People laugh when they hear other people laughing.”
The most contentious battles over the track were on “M*A*S*H.” Its producers fought hard against it. (Who laughed during the Korean War, they asked.) Finally, all parties reached a compromise. No laugh tracks when the medical operating was going on. David Isaacs, who with his partner, Ken Levine, worked on “M*A*S*H,” “Frasier,” and “Cheers,” says, “I found them mostly positive if they were earned.” Isaacs now teaches full time and says the students make it clear that the laugh track is “an obsolete aspect of their TV viewing.”
Actors also have mixed feelings. They loved the live and in-person response, but as for the added stuff? “Laugh tracks make me cringe,” says Wendie Malick, who has been a regular on many series. “I think they’re greatly responsible for the endangered status of sitcoms, and with good reason. Comedies are now so much more nuanced. You can be moved to laughter and tears ... like life.”
A few recent comedies (“Mom,” “Big Bang”) have still employed Charles Douglass’ invention, some out of necessity. “I never used a laugh track until the pandemic, when we lost the live audience,” says Chuck Lorre. Though he chose not to use one on the award-winning “The Kominsky Method.”
Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” tried one live studio episode and added the laugh track. Fans and critics were not happy. As that series, and workplace comedies like “The Office,” “Parks and Rec,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” demonstrated, viewers are perfectly happy to experience a series as they do a film. And letting them decide for themselves what is funny.
Think about it: Can you imagine Bill Hader’s character taking time between his acting class and his next assassination for the roar of the invisible crowd? Or Martin Short and Steve Martin’s repartee being interrupted with guffaws at their Upper West Side building?
Michele Willens’ collection of essays, “From Mouseketeers to Menopause,” can be found on Amazon.com.