‘Abomination’ or ‘Safety Net’? A Look Back at TV Sitcoms’ Much-Reviled Laugh Track

·6 min read

As the Emmys approach on Monday, there is an impressive roster of comedy series nominees like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Abbott Elementary,” “Ted Lasso,” “Hacks,” “Barry,” “Only Murders in the Building.” What do they have in common, besides wit and delightful (or delightfully cranky or murderous) characters? As with virtually every top TV comedy of this millennium, the laughter you hear is your own!

It was not always that way. For decades beginning in the 1950s, TV comedies boosted their punchlines with the use of recorded laughter. In a a time when TV shows were primarily filmed in front of a studio audience (think “I Love Lucy”), CBS sound engineer named Charley Douglass thought that the audience’s organic reactions weren’t good enough. So, he started manipulating the audio levels in postproduction, developing a machine nicknamed the Laff Box.

Even when shows became more sophisticated, most used some form of laugh track for “sweetening.” Most, but not all, if you believe Norman Lear. (And even skeptics don’t dare challenge the 100-year-old TV comedy legend.) “The shows we did never, never used a laugh track,” Lear told us. “Each and every episode was performed and photographed before a live studio audience. I never had a more spiritual experience than watching an audience of 200-300 people when they were enjoying a belly laugh. I am confident that that added time to my life.”

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Ask other TV titans, past and present, about the laugh track and you find mixed reviews. “No showrunner ever forgets his first time,” said David Misch, who has written and taught comedy for decades, on shows like “Mork & Mindy” and “Police Squad!” And it seems true.

“Well, as I remember, my very first show (“Room 222“) was one camera and no laugh track,” James L. Brooks recalled. “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.”

Jeff Reno, who wrote for “Mork & Mindy” and co-created the Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd classic “Moonlighting,” is also dismissive of the laugh track. “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,” he said.  “Audiences get trained to laugh at the place they know a punchline belongs, whether it’s funny or not.”

Still, some creators saw a value in the device. Writer-producer Nell Scovell recalled that “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” was shot in a hybrid style without a studio audience, in part because the finished episode relied heavily on visual effects. For that reason, she said, “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.”

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“WandaVision” played with a variety of sitcom tropes from previous generations, many with laugh tracks (Disney+)

Lawrence Lyttle, the former head of Warner Brothers TV who oversaw hits like “Murphy Brown,” said the laugh track was a necessary evil. “Canned laughter, which this is, sounds bad,” he said. “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, said it could also be less of a safety net than an act of desperation. “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,” Simon told us. “In other words, hyping the laugh track to make a sale.”

Arnold Margolin, for example, said the track helped him sell “Love, American Style,” an Emmy-winning comedy anthology that ran for five seasons on ABC from 1969 to 1974. “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,” Margolin said. “People laugh when they hear other people laughing. You just have to show them where those laughs belong.”

The most contentious battles over the laugh track were on “M*A*S*H,” whose producers fought hard against it. (Who laughed during the Korean War?, they asked.) Finally, all parties reached a compromise. No laugh tracks when the Army surgeons were in the operating room — but outdoors, cue the piped-in chortles. David Isaacs, who with his partner, Ken Levine, worked on “M*A*S*H,” “Frasier” and “Cheers,” said that on the whole, “I found them mostly positive if they were earned.” Isaacs now teaches at USC, where he said the students make it clear that the laugh track is “an obsolete aspect of their TV viewing.”

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“Kevin Can Go F**k Himself” alternates between stylized sitcom scenes, with laugh tracks, and grittier moments (AMC)

Actors also have mixed feelings. “Laugh tracks make me cringe,” said Wendie Malick, who has been a regular on comedies such as “Just Shoot Me” and “Hot in Cleveland.” “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 such as CBS’ “Mom” and “B Positive” have still employed Charlie Douglass’ invention, sometimes out of necessity. “I never used a laugh track until the pandemic, when we lost the live audience,” Chuck Lorre said. Even so, he chose not to use one on his award-winning Netflix show, “The Kominsky Method.”

On single-camera shows like that, or workplace comedies like “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” viewers seem perfectly happy to experience a series as they do a film. Can you imagine Bill Hader’s title character in “Barry” pausing between his acting class and his next assassination for the roar of the invisible crowd?

These days, laugh tracks are often a deliberate attempt to show how just dated the idea is. Disney+’s “WandaVision” and AMC’s dark comedy “Kevin Can Go F**k Himself” both try to re-create the look and feel (and sound) of old-fashioned sitcoms from a bygone era, and the sprays of prerecorded chuckles reinforce that idea. The aural intrusion reminds us of a time when networks thought we needed to be told what was funny. Even when it wasn’t.

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