A laugh track (or laughter track) is a separate soundtrack for a recorded comedy show containing the sound of audience laughter. In some productions the laughter is a live audience response; in the U.S., the term usually implies artificial laughter (canned laughter or fake laughter) made to be inserted into the show. This was invented by American sound engineer Charles "Charley" Douglass.
Before television, audiences often experienced comedy—whether performed live on stage, on radio, or in a movie—in the presence of other audience members. Later, radio and early television producers attempted to recreate this atmosphere by introducing the sound of laughter or other crowd reactions into the soundtrack.
In 1946, Jack Mullin had brought a Magnetophon magnetic tape recorder back from Radio Frankfurt, along with 50 reels of tape (it was one of the magnetic tape recorders that BASF and AEG had built in Germany starting in 1935). The 6.5mm tape could record 20 minutes per reel of high-quality analog audio sound; Alexander M. Poniatoff then ordered his Ampex company to manufacture an improved version of the Magnetophon for use in radio production. Bing Crosby eventually adopted the technology to pre-record his radio show to both avoid having to do it live as well as having to perform it a second time for West Coast audiences.
With the introduction of this recording method, it became possible to add sounds to a show in post-production. Longtime engineer and recording pioneer Jack Mullin explained how the laugh track was invented on Crosby's show with these Ampex recorders:
"The hillbilly comic Bob Burns was on the show one time, and threw a few of his then-extremely racy and off-color folksy farm stories into the show. We recorded it live, and they all got enormous laughs, which just went on and on, but we couldn't use the jokes. Today those stories would seem tame by comparison, but things were different in radio then, so scriptwriter Bill Morrow asked us to save the laughs. A couple of weeks later he had a show that wasn't very funny, and he insisted that we put in the salvaged laughs. Thus the laugh-track was born."
Early live U.S. television, film; "sweetening"
In early television, most shows that were not live television used the single-camera filmmaking technique familiar from movies, where a show was created by filming each scene several times from different camera angles. Since it was not possible for an audience to be present during single-camera filming, there could be none of the live audience laughter that audiences had come to expect from radio comedy, and which was still offered in the many shows broadcast live with audiences laughing in the studio. In addition, live audiences could not be relied upon to laugh at the "correct" moment. Other times, the audiences would laugh too long or too loud, sounding unnatural and forced or throwing off the performers' rhythms.
CBS sound engineer Charley Douglass noticed these inconsistencies, and took it upon himself to remedy the situation. If a joke did not get the desired chuckle, Douglass inserted additional laughter; if the live audience chuckled too long, Douglass gradually muted the guffaws. This editing technique became known as sweetening, in which recorded laughter is used to augment the response of the real studio audience if they did not react as strongly as desired. Conversely, the process could be used to "desweeten" audience reactions, toning down unwanted loud laughter or removing inappropriate applause, thus making the laughter more in line with the producer's preferred method of telling the story.
While still working for CBS, Douglass built a prototype laugh machine, that consisted of a large, wooden wheel that was 28 inches in diameter, with a reel of tape glued to the outer edge of it, containing recordings of mild laughs. This machine was operated by a key that would play until it hit another detent on the wheel, thus playing a complete laugh. Because it was constructed on company time, CBS demanded possession of the machine when Douglass decided to terminate his time with them, as his business was soon spreading to other studios. The prototype machine fell apart within months of use. In 1953, Douglass developed an expansion of his technique, when he began to extract laughter, applause, and other reactions (including people moving around in their seats) from live soundtracks recorded (mainly from the pantomime segments of The Red Skelton Show), and then placed the recorded sounds into a huge tape machine. This basic concept would later be reworked as the Chamberlin Music Master, which was succeeded by the Mellotron.
These recorded laughs could be added to single-camera filmed shows, making them seem as though there was a live audience. The first American television show to incorporate a laugh track was the sitcom The Hank McCune Show in 1950. Other single-camera filmed shows soon followed suit, though several, like The Trouble with Father (ABC, 1950–55), The Beulah Show (ABC, 1950–52), and The Goldbergs (several networks, 1949–56), did not include an audience/laugh-track of any kind.
Multi-camera shows; videotape
Soon after the advent of the laugh track, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz invented a method of filming with an audience using a multi-camera setup. This process was originally used for their show I Love Lucy, which used a live television studio audience and no laugh track. Multi-camera shows with live audiences sometimes used recorded laughs to supplement the response of the audience. While witnessing an early post-production editing session, comedian Milton Berle once pointed out a particular joke and said, "as long as we're here doing this, that joke didn't get the response we wanted". After Douglass inserted a hearty laugh after the failed joke, Berle reportedly commented, "See? I told you it was funny".
Sketch comedy and variety shows began to move from live broadcasting to videotape, which allowed for greater ease in editing during post-production. Editing a prerecorded live show with quadruplex videotape caused bumps and gaps on the soundtrack, Douglass was then called upon to "bridge" or "fill" these gaps; eventually, both performers and producers began to realize the power behind prerecorded laughter.
Filming without audience
By the early 1960s, live television became too cost prohibitive to use on a daily or weekly basis. Filming in a studio with an audience, as I Love Lucy or The Ed Sullivan Show did, had its limitations as well, as half the audience could hardly see or hear the show from where they were sitting. So Douglass was brought in to simulate the reactions from an entire live studio audience from scratch for the duration of the entire show.
As a result, producers began to realize how much simpler it was to just film a show, even variety or sketch shows that could not be done in single-camera, without any live audience at all and then create and tailor the whole audience reaction themselves in post-production. But originally, writers, producers and directors failed to allow space for the laugh track, making sweetening difficult. Because there was not enough space in which to insert enough laughter in order for the show to retain its live feel, audience response cards repeatedly came back saying that the audience reactions on the shows seemed "forced" or "contrived". After a few years of this, writers became more conscious of the space required for the laugh track and began writing and timing their scripts around it. On-set directors then began leaving room for as-yet-unheard audience reactions and producers began allocating more budget money for post-production so that Douglass could later edit with greater ease.
Despite the success of I Love Lucy, most television comedies in the '50s and '60s used the single-camera technique, with a laugh track simulating the absent audience. Producers became disenchanted with the multi-camera audience format, as the consensus at the time was that live audiences were tense, nervous and rarely laughed on cue anyway. As a result, single-camera filming with a laugh track became the dominant mode of sitcom production throughout the 1960s.
Network research suggested that the laugh track was required in order to brand a single-camera show as a comedy. According to fellow sound engineer, Carroll Pratt, one early example included a network playing two different pilots to three different test audiences – the pilot which the network believed was superior contained no laugh track, while the pilot they believed to be inferior contained one – as a result, the poor pilot containing the laugh track had a far more positive response from the test audiences, than the better pilot without one. The experiment to see whether or not a comedy fared better with the laugh track was put to the test again in 1965, when CBS showed its new single-camera sitcom Hogan's Heroes to test audiences in two versions: one with the laugh track, the other without. Partly due to the somewhat cerebral nature of the show's humor, the version without the laugh track failed with test audiences, while the version with canned laughter got an excellent reaction. The show was broadcast with the laugh track, and CBS decided to utilize Douglass' services moving forward for all single-camera sitcoms.
Sitcoms had different types of laugh tracks edited onto their soundtracks, depending on style. Outlandish or fantasy shows, like Bewitched, The Munsters and The Beverly Hillbillies, are virtual showcases of Douglass’ editing skill. The more outlandish the show, the more invasive the laugh track. Conversely, subdued programs, like The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch, and My Three Sons, had more modulated laughter. Certain shows, like Get Smart, featured a laugh track that became more invasive as the series progressed, while shows like M*A*S*H toned down the laughter as the series became more dramatic.
By the mid-1960s, nearly every sitcom was single-camera and had canned laughter added to the soundtrack. Only a few sitcoms, such as The Jackie Gleason Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Lucy Show used studio audiences and turned to Douglass only to edit or augment the real laughter via sweetening.
Charley Douglass and the mysterious "laff box"
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Charley Douglass had a monopoly on the expensive and painstaking laugh business. By 1960, nearly every prime time show in America was sweetened by Douglass. When it came time to "lay in the laughs", the producer would direct Douglass where and when to insert the type of laugh requested. Inevitably, arguments arose between Douglass and the producer, but in the end, the producer generally won. After taking his directive, Douglass would then go to work at creating the audience, out of sight from the producer or anyone else present at the studio.
Critic Dick Hobson commented in a July 1966 TV Guide article that the Douglass family were "the only laugh game in town." Very few in the industry ever witnessed Douglass using his invention, as he was notoriously secretive about his work, and was one of the most talked about men in the television industry. The Douglass family operated from their padlocked garage in the San Fernando Valley. When their services were needed, they would wheel the device into the editing room, plug it in, and go to work. Production studios became accustomed to seeing Douglass shuttling from studio to studio to mix in his manufactured laughs during post-production.
The one-of-a-kind device — affectionately known in the industry as the "laff box" — was tightly secured with padlocks, stood more than two feet tall, and operated like an organ. Only immediate members of the family knew what the inside actually looked like (at one time, the "laff box" was called "the most sought after but well-concealed box in the world"). Since more than one member of the Douglass family was involved in the editing process, it was natural for one member to react differently to a joke than another. Charley himself was the most conservative of all, so producers would put in bids for other family members who were more liberal in their choice of laughs.
Douglass used a keyboard to select the style, gender and age of the laugh as well as a foot pedal to time the length of the reaction. Inside the machine was a wide array of recorded chuckles, yocks, and belly laughs; exactly 320 laughs on 32 tape loops, 10 to a loop. Each loop contained 10 individual audience laughs spliced end-to-end, whirling around simultaneously waiting to be cued up. Since the tapes were looped, laughs were played in the same order repeatedly. Sound engineers would watch sitcoms and knew exactly which recurrent guffaws were next, even if they were viewing an episode for the first time. Frequently, Douglass would combine different laughs, either long or short in length. Attentive viewers could spot when he decided to mix chuckles together to give the effect of a more diverse audience.
Douglass also had an array of audience clapping, "oohs" and "ahhhs", as well as people moving in their seats (which many producers insisted be constantly audible). There was also a 30-second "titter" track in the loop, which consisted of individual people laughing quietly. This "titter" track was used to quiet down a laugh and was always playing in the background. When Douglass inserted a hearty laugh, he increased the volume of the titter track to smooth out the final mix. This titter track was expanded to 45 seconds in 1967, later to 60 seconds in 1970, and would receive overhauls every few years (1964, 1967, 1970); Douglass also kept the recordings fresh, making minor changes every few months, as he believed that the viewing audience was gradually changing. A man's deep laugh would be switched for a new woman's laugh, or a high-pitched woman's giggle would be replaced with a man's snicker. One producer noticed a recurrent laugh of a woman whom he called "the jungle lady" because of her high-pitched shriek. After regularly complaining to Douglass, the laugh was retired from the regular lineup.
Douglass knew his material very well, as he had compiled it himself. He had dozens of reactions, and he knew where to find each one. On most occasions, he would slightly speed up the reactions to heighten the effect. Douglass's work was crisp and clean, and was considered a craft by many in the television industry. He not only had an ear for inserting laughs, but he also possessed a terrific memory. Over the years, Douglass would add new recordings as well as revive old ones that had been retired and then retire the newer tracks. Laughter heard in sitcoms of the early 1960s resurfaced years later in the late 1970s.
1970s: Carroll Pratt
Although Douglass had a monopoly on the laugh track, he would eventually face competition by 1977 when other sound engineers began to offer laugh tracks that differed greatly from Douglass' distinctive laughs. Most notably, engineer and Douglass protégé Carroll Pratt started his own company, Sound One. Pratt introduced an innovative, new laugh track that contained more realistic, though less distinctive reactions. While Pratt's laugh track had its share of recognizable chuckles as well, the chuckles are considerably quieter, and much more subtle, compared to Douglass', which had become so familiar and ubiquitous that they sounded artificial. As a result, a number of sitcoms made the switch to Pratt's laugh track after 1977, including M*A*S*H and The Love Boat. Some live sitcoms, such as Laverne and Shirley also began choosing Pratt over Douglass for the sweetening process.
Pratt and his brother had been working under Douglass for a number of years, but began to notice that as advances were made in production technology, Douglass' technique was falling behind. Pratt commented that after years of constant use, Douglass' tapes were beginning to wear out; as a result, hissing sounds were audible, and he knew a laugh was about to be heard by the increase of the hiss. While not stubborn, Douglass was so fond of his machine and technique that he felt no urgency to advance his technology. Pratt parted ways with Douglass, and created a new "laff box," one that was simpler to use and had greater capacity than Douglass' (as their recordings were on cassette tape vs. Douglass' reel tape). With the advent of stereo television, Pratt's stereo recordings matched the sound quality of television shows being filmed or taped in stereo, whereas Douglass tried to convert all of his previous mono analog recordings to stereo, with mediocre results.
The competition from Pratt, and other engineers, also caused Douglass to retool his famous library, though the result led his using the more extreme reactions (guffaws and belly laughs) almost exclusively, some recordings well over a decade old. The combination of the classic loud guffaws, mixed with his own new, less invasive recordings, resulted in a less realistic audience sound.
Controversy and bucking the trend
The practice of simulating an audience reaction was controversial from the very beginning. A silent minority of producers despised the idea of a prerecorded audience reaction. Inventor Douglass was aware that his "laff box" was maligned by critics and actors, but also knew that the use of a laugh track became standard practice and as a result, a necessity in the industry. Leading industry experts reasoned that laugh tracks were a necessary evil in prime time television: without the canned laughter, a show was doomed to fail. It was believed that the absence of guffaws meant American viewers could not tell if the particular show was indeed a comedy. That did not stop several from forgoing the laugh track entirely:
- Former child star Jackie Cooper believed that the laugh track was false. Cooper's comedy/drama Hennesey (CBS, 1959–62) was cancelled in 1962 after a three-season run. For its first two seasons, the show used only a mild laugh track; by the third and final season, the chuckles were eliminated completely. Cooper later commented that "we're manufacturing a reaction to our own creation, yet we'll never know if people out there are really laughing." Cooper concluded by saying, "It's a put-on all the time."
- In September 1964, the comedy/drama Kentucky Jones (NBC, 1964–65), starring Dennis Weaver, tried to eliminate laughs, simulated or live. After only five episodes and slumping ratings, Douglass was recruited to add the laugh track. Kentucky Jones was cancelled the following April.
- Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., creator of the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise, outright refused to utilize a laugh track when production began on The Alvin Show (CBS, 1961–62) in 1961. Bagdasarian's reasoning was if the show was funny, the viewers would laugh without being prompted. The Alvin Show was cancelled after a single season.
- Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz refused to employ a laugh track during the production of the holiday favorite A Charlie Brown Christmas (CBS, 1965). Like Bagdasarian, Schulz maintained that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at their own pace, without being cued when to laugh. When CBS executives saw the final product, they were horrified and believed the special would be a flop. (CBS did create a version of the show with the laugh track added, just in case Schulz changed his mind. This version remains unavailable.) When the show first aired on December 9, 1965, it was a surprise critical and commercial hit.
- The musical sitcom The Monkees (NBC, 1966–68) featured a laugh track throughout its first season and several episodes of the second. Midway through Season 2, the Monkees themselves insisted the show eliminate the laugh track, believing their viewers were intelligent enough to know where the jokes were. NBC, already annoyed by the manufactured rock group wanting too much control over their show, cancelled The Monkees after Season 2 concluded, citing the missing laugh track as a major factor.
- Bill Cosby's first sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show (NBC, 1969–71) was also produced without a laugh track at the insistence of Cosby. He stated that his opposition to NBC's desire to add a laugh track led to the show's cancellation after only two seasons.
- The series Sledge Hammer! (ABC, 1986–88) began with laugh tracks in the soundtrack, much to creator Alan Spencer's disapproval. After months of fighting with ABC, Spencer had his wish granted when the laugh tracks were removed from the series starting with episode 14, "State of Sledge".
- Larry Gelbart, co-creator of M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972–83), initially wanted the show to air without a laugh track ("Just like the actual Korean War", he remarked dryly). CBS, however, rejected the idea. Eventually a compromise was reached, and Gelbart and co-producer Gene Reynolds were permitted to omit the laugh track during scenes in the operating room if they wished. As a result, few scenes in the operating room contain canned laughter. Seasons 1–5 utilized Douglass' more invasive laugh track; when M*A*S*H shifted from sitcom to drama with the departure of Gelbart and Reynolds, new producers Alan Alda and Burt Metcalfe used Carroll Pratt's quieter laugh track for Seasons 6–11. Several episodes ("O.R.", "The Bus", ""Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?", "The Interview", "Point of View", "Dreams") omitted the laugh track altogether; as did almost all of Season 11, including the 135-minute series finale, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen". The laugh track is also omitted from some international and syndicated airings of the show; on one occasion during an airing in the UK, the laugh track was accidentally left on, and viewers expressed their displeasure, an apology from the network for the "technical difficulty" was later released. The DVD releases, meanwhile, give the viewer a choice of laughing or non-laughing soundtracks. UK DVD critics speak poorly of the laugh track, stating "Canned laughter is intrusive at the best of times, but with a programme like M*A*S*H, it's downright unbearable."
- Sports Night (ABC, 1998–2000) premiered with a laugh track, against the wishes of show creator Aaron Sorkin, but the laugh track became more subtle as the season progressed and was completely removed at the start of the second season. In some cases, a laugh track was needed to maintain continuity, as portions of each episode were filmed in front of a live audience, while the remainder were filmed without an audience present.
Comeback of live television
Though the use of canned laughter reached its peak in the 1960s, a few shows still retained the multi-camera tradition. In 1967, Desi Arnaz produced The Mothers-in-Law (NBC, 1967–69), which was recorded in front of a live audience at Desilu Studios, with a sweetening performed in post-production. A year later, The Good Guys (CBS, 1968–70) followed the same format. Production changes in location, however, caused the remainder of the first season to transition back to single-camera entirely, using only a laugh track. This continued through season two until low ratings led to its cancellation in 1970.
The 1970s began with the decline of rural-based shows (The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mayberry RFD) and the rise of socially conscious programming (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Maude). The resulting change also spurred the return of live audiences, starting with The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970–77). The series' pilot episode, "Love is All Around", had been initially filmed using the single-camera method. The results were not satisfactory to Moore or the producers, who then decided to shift to multiple cameras. Since the first several episodes were taped in late summer, the pilot's first taping was not received well due to bad insulation and poor audio. The second taping, however, provided better air conditioning and a better quality sound system to the stage. Critical reception thus improved, and the show used the multi-camera format thereafter, and became a major success during its seven-year run.
Creator Norman Lear's All in the Family (CBS, 1971–1979) followed suit in 1971. Videotaped live, Lear wanted the studio audience to actually like the performer, with hopes of the two developing a rapport with each other. Lear was not a fan of pretaped audiences, resulting in no laugh track being employed, not even during post-production when Lear could have had the luxury of sweetening any failed jokes (Lear relented somewhat in later seasons, and allowed Douglass to insert an occasional laugh). Lear's decision resulted in the show being a huge success, and officially ushered in the return of live audiences to the U.S. sitcom mainstream. To make his point clear, an announcement proclaimed over the closing credits each week that "All in the Family was recorded on tape before a live audience" (or during the show's final seasons where live audiences no longer attended tapings of the show) "All in the Family was played to a studio audience for live responses."
Jack Klugman and Tony Randall expressed displeasure during the first season of The Odd Couple (ABC, 1970–75), which used a laugh track without a live audience. Producers favored the laugh track-only method, as it allowed for more frequent scene changes and the ease of retakes. Theatre veteran Randall, in particular, resented the process, and disliked having to wait several seconds between punchlines in order to allot enough space for the laugh track. ABC relented and by the second season, The Odd Couple was filmed with three cameras (vs. a single camera the previous season) and performed like a stage play in front of a studio audience. The change also required a new, larger set to be constructed within a theatre. With a live audience present, Randall and Klugman now enjoyed the spontaneity that came with it; any missed or blown lines went by without stopping (they could always be refilmed during post-production). In addition, it gave the show a certain edge that was lost in the first season, though actors now had to deliver lines louder, since they were on a larger sound stage as opposed to a quiet studio with only minimal crew present. The sitcom Happy Days (ABC, 1974–84) mirrored The Odd Couple scenario as well. Its first two seasons used only a laugh track, and by third season, shifted over to a live audience.
As a result, the resurgence of live audiences began to take hold. The shows were not entirely live, however. With the exception of All in the Family, sweetening was still a necessity during post-production in order to bridge any gaps in audience reactions. Television historian Ben Glenn, II, used the sitcom Alice as an example why, stating "the actors kept blowing their lines. Of course, by the third or fourth take, the joke was no longer funny. A Douglass laugh was inserted into the final broadcast version to compensate."
In addition to The Odd Couple, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Happy Days, other live sitcoms that were sweetened by Douglass were The Paul Lynde Show (ABC, 1972–73), The Bob Newhart Show (CBS, 1972–78), Maude (CBS, 1972–78), Rhoda (CBS, 1974–78), Laverne and Shirley (ABC, 1976–83), Alice (CBS, 1976–85), Soap (ABC, 1977–81), Taxi (ABC, 1978–82; NBC, 1982–83),Seinfeld (NBC 1990–98), Friends (NBC 1994–2004), Cheers (NBC, 1982–93) and its spinoff Frasier (NBC, 1993–2004), and Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS, 1996–2005).
Variety shows that became prominent during the 1970s, such as The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and The Dean Martin Show (as well as The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast succeeding afterwards) also continued to use Douglass' sweetening for any less appealing jokes performed during sketches.
There were still some producers who either still did not trust a live audience, produced a show that was too complex for an audience to be present, or favored the single-camera method. In these cases, Douglass orchestrated the laugh track from scratch. Sitcoms like The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family and M*A*S*H utilized the single-camera method for their entire run. Several hour-long comedy-dramas, like The Love Boat and Eight is Enough, used only a laugh track.
In the intervening years beginning with live film, progressing through videotape and onto studio-filmed productions with no live audience back to live-on-tape, Douglass had gone from merely enhancing or tweaking a soundtrack, to literally customizing entire audience reactions to each performance and back again to enhancing and tweaking performances recorded with live audiences.
In order to gauge the continued relevance of Douglass' laugh track, a study was published in 1974 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that concluded people were still more likely to laugh at jokes that were followed by canned laughter. That Girl creator Sam Denoff commented in 1978 that "laughter is social. It's easier to laugh when you're with people." Denoff added "in a movie theatre, you don't need a laugh track, but at home, watching TV, you're probably alone or with just a few others."
Single-camera comedy has made a comeback in the U.S. since the early 1990s, but networks have mostly abandoned the old tradition of laugh tracks for single-camera shows. A key player in this revolution was HBO, which allowed its single-camera comedies such as Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show to run without laugh tracks, and won critical praise for doing so. Single-camera shows with no laugh track have become increasingly common on broadcast networks as well, with critical and popular hits such as Malcolm in the Middle and The Office, alongside multi-camera hits such as Two and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly, which employ live audiences with sweetening performed during post-production.
Other non-laugh track sitcoms in the U.S. are the following:
- The Adventures of Pete and Pete
- Arrested Development
- Bored to Death
- Cougar Town
- Curb Your Enthusiasm
- Everybody Hates Chris
- It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
- The Middle
- Modern Family
- My Name Is Earl
- New Girl
- The Office
- Parks and Recreation
- The Simpsons
- 30 Rock
Animated shows, such as The Simpsons, Futurama, King of the Hill, South Park, American Dad!, and Family Guy, and even daytime cartoons such as The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show and What's New, Scooby-Doo?, have also gone silent, except on the very rare occasion that canned laughter is used comically for a single joke, usually as a parody of a sitcom. However, sitcoms made by It's a Laugh Productions, such as That's So Raven, use laugh tracks.
Since the 2000s, shows with laugh tracks became a rarity in the dispute for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. In 2000, of the five nominated shows, only Sex and the City did not use a laugh track. Of the seven shows nominated in 2009, only How I Met Your Mother uses a laugh track without the benefit of a live audience.
Sweetening is a common practice in live awards shows such as the Emmy Awards, the Academy Awards, and the MTV Video Music Awards. The microphones onstage often do not fully pick up the audience's laughter and reaction to the monologues as audiences are not microphoned in live awards shows due to the amount of conversation that takes place during filming. Laughter and applause are often sweetened and edited prior to public viewing, or if aired live, are done on the spot via a 7-second delay. (The same crew is also used to mute swear words and controversial statements from award winners). The Kids Choice Awards heavily uses laugh tracks that feature adults despite the fact that the audience is composed of mostly pre-teens.
Cartoons and children's shows
Prime time live-action shows were not the only genre to employ a laugh track, as the canned chuckles were eventually used in some prime time animated television series that would not employ a live audience. The Flintstones and The Jetsons incorporated laugh tracks.
Afternoon cartoon shows employed the laugh track as well. The first episodes of Rocky and His Friends utilized one, as did The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. Eventually, the laugh track entered the world of Saturday morning cartoons, beginning with the Filmation-produced The Archie Show in 1968. Many other Filmation shows employed a laugh track, including Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, The Brady Kids, Groovy Goolies, and The New Adventures of Gilligan. Filmation continued to utilize Douglass' services until 1983, when the studio moved from producing its Saturday morning lineup into syndication, producing more heroically-themed shows such as He-Man. The last Saturday morning cartoon to utilize Douglass' laugh track for Filmation was Gilligan's Planet (CBS, 1982–83).
By 1969, nearly all cartoon shows produced — both for the Saturday morning fare as well as prime time — followed Filmation's lead and included Douglass's laugh track, most notably The Pink Panther Show, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, Harlem Globetrotters and Josie and the Pussycats.
As the use of laugh tracks for Saturday Morning became more common, Douglass eventually added a number of children's laughs to his library. "Kiddie laughs", as they are known, first saw use for sweetening for the 1973 syndicated television special, The World of Sid and Marty Krofft at the Hollywood Bowl, but were soon heard on most Saturday Mornings shows by 1974, such as Uncle Croc's Block, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, The Pink Panther Show, The Lost Saucer and Far Out Space Nuts.
While appropriate, given that Saturday Morning is aimed specifically at children, critics reacted negatively to the inclusion, feeling that hearing the mix of new kiddie laughs along with Douglass' mature adult laughs seemed unnatural and unrealistic. This was especially true at the start of this new trend, when the kiddie laughs could only be heard a very small number of times throughout the program; in the following years, however, the mix became more balanced, to the point that nearly every joke, gag or punchline would be met with both a kiddie laugh and a classic Douglass chuckle.
Making their own
By 1970, Douglass' laugh business was proving so lucrative that he decided to raise the rates for his services. Unlike sitcoms, however, cartoons were produced with low budgets and looked for opportunities to reduce costs. Hanna-Barbera and Rankin-Bass would distance themselves from Douglass starting in 1971, by isolating several of Douglass' chuckles. These studio-made laugh tracks were controversial: while Hanna-Barbera's laugh track maintained a balance of laugh intensity, it was extremely limited and unrealistic; Rankin-Bass' provided a better selection of laughs, was mostly updated, and somewhat kept the tradition of Douglass' methods by using mild guffaws to mute out the laughs, but it was too invasive and would oftentimes provide unnecessary placing after even a mild joke.
The Kroffts maintained a full laugh track until 1975, when they decided to transition from their single-camera live to a more variety fare of shows, by creating their own sweetening system. Jim Henson and the other Muppeteers also created their own Muppet-esque laugh track for their new Muppet Show, which sounded realistic and convincing.
Hanna-Barbera (HB) was the first cartoon production studio to cease using Douglass' services. Successful series' prior to 1971, like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, Harlem Globetrotters, and Josie and the Pussycats employed a full laugh track. This changed at the beginning of the 1971–72 when HB employed their limited laugh track using a MacKenzie repeater machine, which cued up the same few laughs repeatedly. Mixed with a tinny, metallic sound, it included approximately five mild laughs, plus one or two uncontrollable belly-laughs (one contains a woman laughing prominently at the tail end). HB used these few laughs incessantly over the next decade on nearly all of their Saturday morning fare.
Several shows featuring the HB laugh track are listed as follows:
- Help!... It's the Hair Bear Bunch! (CBS, 1971–1972)
- The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show (CBS, 1971–1972)
- The Flintstone Comedy Hour (CBS, 1972–1973)
- Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space (CBS, 1972–1974)
- The New Scooby-Doo Movies (CBS, 1972–1974)
- The Addams Family (CBS, 1973–1974)
- Jeannie (CBS, 1973–1975)
- Hong Kong Phooey (ABC, 1974–1975)
- Partridge Family 2200 A.D. (CBS, 1974–1975)
- Jabberjaw (ABC, 1976–1978)
- The Scooby-Doo Show (ABC, 1976–1978)
- Dynomutt, Dog Wonder (ABC, 1976–1977)
- Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (ABC, 1977–1980)
- The Super Globetrotters (NBC, 1979–1980)
- Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo (ABC, 1979–1980; first installment)
The HB laugh track affected several television specials as well, including The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park and Casper's First Christmas. On occasion, the studio would slow down the laugh track for a greater effect; this was done in Season 2 of The New Scooby-Doo Movies.
HB also used the limited laugh track when they produced Wait Till Your Father Gets Home in 1972, their first prime time animated television show since the demise of The Flintstones in 1966. This laugh track, which added an additional belly laugh to the mix, was noticeably slowed during production. (This was the only TV series produced by HB to have this added belly laugh.)
The HB laugh track was discontinued after the 1979–80 television season. The final shows to receive the chuckles were Captain Caveman, Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo, and Super Globetrotters. The last prime time special to feature the HB laugh track was The Flintstones: Jogging Fever, which aired on October 11, 1981.
Laugh track historian Paul Iverson commented "the Hanna Barbera laugh track did more to give laugh tracks a bad name than Douglass's work could ever have done. Using the same five or so laughs repeatedly for a decade does not go by unnoticed, no matter how young the viewer is." Iverson added "all it takes is watching an episode of Josie and the Pussycats alongside of Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space and it is painfully obvious."
Animation studio Rankin/Bass, best remembered for their holiday specials, also experimented with creating their own laugh track for The Jackson 5ive Saturday morning cartoon show. Like HB, Rankin/Bass isolated several snippets of canned chuckles from Douglass’ library, and inserted them onto the soundtrack. Unlike HB, though, the chuckles were nothing but loud eruptions of laughter; mild jokes received unnatural bouts of laughter, while other times, the laughter would erupt mid-sentence. Because this laugh track was far too invasive, it only emphasized the artificial nature of canned laughter more than Hanna-Barbera's version; as a result, Rankin/Bass ceased using laugh tracks after production ceased for The Jackson 5ive.
Rankin/Bass' laugh track, however, did provide a better variety of laughs when compared to the limited HB laugh track. The laugh track also was more up-to-date; most recordings were used regularly during the 1971–1972 and 1972–1973 television seasons.
Jim Henson & Associates: The Muppet Show
Unlike the two "silent" pilots before it, The Muppet Show series incorporated its own laugh track onto the show, but in a completely different manner; because the variety program was modeled after vaudeville, oftentimes the viewers would be treated to glimpse of the theater audience and their reactions to The Muppets' antics on stage (though the audience was composed of Muppet characters as well).
As the show was produced overseas at the ATV studios in Elstree, England, Jim Henson and his Muppet production team were able to bypass Douglass’ easily recognizable laughs. New laughs, chuckles, and even applause were recorded for the first few episodes so they would sound fresh and new. Some of these guffaws were provided by the actual cast and crew members reacting to the playbacks and dailies of the episodes they were taping; eventually, The Muppet Show began recycling these same chuckles for later shows, establishing its own one-of-a-kind laugh track. A by-product of this convincing laugh track was the belief by viewers that The Muppet Show was indeed taped in front of a live audience, some even asking for tickets to attend tapings; Henson's son, Brian, noted how strange he thought it was that people believed the show was shot before a live audience. Henson himself knew that having a live audience would be impractical, given the way the series was taped; he also notes that because of the series' vaudeville inspiration, that the sounds of laughter was a necessity, but admits that it was not an easy task – "I look at some of the early shows, I'm really embarrassed by them. The sweetening got better later on, but it's always a difficult thing to do well, and to create the reality of the audience laughing." Henson also speaks of the previous Muppet Show pilot not having a laugh track, "I did one special dry – without any laugh track – looked at it, and then tried it adding a laugh track to it, and it's unfortunate, but it makes the show funnier."
From time to time, various Muppet characters or guest stars would break the fourth wall and acknowledge the use of the laugh track. In the fourth episode of the series, Kermit the Frog is asked by guest Ruth Buzzi if he felt a gag or routine would be funny enough for the show, to which he turns to the camera and replies, "That's up to the laugh track." A Season Two episode featuring guest Steve Martin eschewed a laugh track altogether to support the concept that the show had been canceled that night in favor of auditioning new acts; the only audible laughs are those of the Muppet performers themselves.
For Muppets Tonight, the laugh track is used during the show, but is skipped at the beginning and end. Unlike the former Muppet Show however, Muppets Tonight employed mostly classic Douglass chuckles.
From 1969 to 1975, Sid and Marty Krofft incorporated a full laugh track onto all of their Saturday morning children's shows (save for Land of the Lost, which was more dramatic in nature); by 1976, however, the Kroffts transitioned from high concept children's fare to variety programs. Donny & Marie (1976), The Krofft Supershow (1976), The Brady Bunch Hour (1977), The Krofft Superstar Hour (1978), Pink Lady and Jeff (1980), Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters (1980), and their syndicated sitcom D.C. Follies (1987) were taped before live audiences, but the studios were relatively small, resulting in a small audience. In addition to the small audiences, some elements of these shows were shot on-location and outdoors (i.e. Wonderbug and Magic Mongo); because of this, the Kroffts too isolated several chuckles from Douglass's library to incorporate into the soundtrack of these shows, for both sweetening, and to maintain continuity. The laughs the Kroffts isolated were of a better variety, ranging from loud belly laughs, to soft titters, and even the sounds of children's laughter: some of these laughs were older (from the laugh track of the mid-to-late 60s), while others were of the current 1976–1977 television season, just before the real television laugh track was overhauled by the 1977–1978 television season.
During the 1970s through the early 1980s, some TV corporations even managed to isolate several of Douglass' guffaws and add them for sweetening on game shows (often played when a contestant or the host says something considered to be funny and only a small reaction comes from the live audience). One of the leading producers to do this was Chuck Barris, whose game shows were designed mainly to entertain the audience; the "prizes" were often rudimentary or derisive. Many of his productions, including The Gong Show and 3's a Crowd, used the isolated chuckles for sweetening. Game shows produced at NBC's Burbank facilities in particular in the 1970s and 1980s used a unique library of oohs, aahs.
Laugh tracks were also used on Merv Griffin's Crosswords, which ran from 2007 to 2008 and, unlike most game shows, did not tape in front of a studio audience.
Children's Shows: 2000s
While Disney Channel-produced sitcoms and studio-created laugh tracks are primarily recorded in front of live audiences, Nickelodeon—Disney's top competitor—utilize a laugh track for shows such as iCarly and Victorious since closing the original studios fitted for live audience seating.
Glenn Martin, DDS, a claymation show produced by Nickelodeon, utilized a laugh track for the first seven episodes only before eliminating it. Series creator Eric Fogel commented, "It took too much internal thinking".
Laugh tracks outside the U.S.
In the 20th century, most UK sitcoms were taped before live audiences to provide natural laughter. Scenes recorded out of doors, traditionally recorded in advance of studio work, are played back to the studio audience and their laughter recorded for the broadcast show. Other comedies, such as The Royle Family and The Office, which are presented in the mode of cinéma vérité rather than in the format of a traditional sitcom, do not feature any audience laughter.
The League of Gentlemen was originally broadcast with a laughter track, but after the first two series this was dropped. The pilot episode of the satirical series Spitting Image was also broadcast with a laugh track, apparently at the insistence of Central Television. This idea was quickly dropped as it was felt by the show's producers that the show worked better without one. Some later editions, in 1992 (Election Special) and 1993 (two episodes) did use a laughter track, as these editions were performed live in front of a studio audience and included a spoof Question Time.
Most episodes of Only Fools and Horses feature a studio audience, the exceptions, which featured no laughter at all, were all Christmas specials, "To Hull and Back", "A Royal Flush" and the second part of "Miami Twice". For their DVD releases, "A Royal Flush" (which was edited to remove over 20 minutes of footage) had an added laughter track, as did the second part of "Miami Twice" (which was merged with the first part to make Miami Twice: The Movie).
The 21st century, many new sitcoms inspired by mostly those of the new wave of British comedies of the late 1990s, did not feature a laugh track or studio audience. Although Green Wing does not feature audience laughter, partly due to its surreal nature, it does feature unusual lazzi techniques, where the film of the episode is slowed down immediately following a joke.
Most contemporary Canadian television comedies are laugh track-free, but some programs, such as the sitcom Maniac Mansion (1990–1993) and the children's program The Hilarious House of Frightenstein (1971) were broadcast in Canada without a laugh track, though one was added for American airings.
The children's sketch comedy series You Can't Do That on Television (1979–1990) did not utilize a laugh track during its first season as a locally televised program. However, when it entered the Canadian network realm (as Whatever Turns You On), it utilized a laugh track composed almost exclusively of children's laughter, with some peppering of adult laughter.
While unique and appropriate for the nature of the show, the use and quality of the laugh track varied from season to season. The 1981 episodes featured an excellent variety of different laughs, offering a more authentic sound. The 1982 season, which was the first season the show was produced for Nickelodeon, used less laughs, but also employed Carroll Pratt's titter track used on U.S. sitcoms such as Happy Days and What's Happening!!. The last six episodes of 1982 corrected the repetition of the kiddie track by mixing different laughs together, along with the titter track. 1983 took a noticeable downturn, with the laugh track being considerably muted and poorly edited. By 1984, the editors corrected this problem, with laughs reverting to 1982 minus the effective titter track.
In 1986, a new children's laugh track was used with decidedly younger sounding laughs to match the material, which targeting a younger demographic than earlier seasons. When the series returned in 1989, it used both 1981 and 1986 kiddie tracks.
I Love My Family, the first multi-camera sitcom in mainland China, used a live studio audience, which is a practice slowly used to today's standards.[clarification needed] Some single-camera comedies, such as iPartment, used a laugh track.
Legacy and support
Si Rose, executive producer for Sid and Marty Krofft, convinced the Kroffts to use laugh tracks on their puppet shows, such as H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. Rose stated, "The laugh track was a big debate, they (the Kroffts) said they didn't want to do it, but with my experience with night-timers, night-time started using laugh tracks, and it becomes a staple, because the viewer watches the program and there's a big laugh every time because of the laugh track, and then when you see a show that's funny and there's no laugh because of no laugh track, it becomes a handicap, so I convinced them of that. Good or bad." Sid Krofft commented "We were sort of against that [the laugh track], but Si Rose—being in sitcoms—he felt that when the show was put together that the children would not know when to laugh." Marty Krofft added "the bottom line—it's sad—you gotta tell them when it's funny. And the laugh track, [Si] was right. It was necessary, as much as we were always looking to have a real laugh track, a real audience. In comedies, if you don't have them, you're in big trouble, because if you don't hear a laugh track, it's not funny. And that's the way the audience [at home] was programmed to view these shows."
In a 2007 DVD interview, Filmation producer/founder Lou Scheimer praised the laugh track for its usage on The Archie Show. "Why a laugh track?" Scheimer asked. "Because you feel that you are watching the program with a group of people instead of being alone." Scheimer confirmed that The Archie Show was the first Saturday morning cartoon to utilize a laugh track.
Television historian Ben Glenn, II once commented that the laugh tracks used today are radically different than the "carefree" quality of the laughter of past:
"Today's sitcoms are based mostly on witty reparté and no longer rely on outlandish situations or sight gags, such as you would see in an episode of Mister Ed, The Munsters or Bewitched, and today's muted laughs reflect that. Generally, laughs are now much less aggressive and more subdued; you no longer hear unbridled belly laughs or guffaws. It's 'intelligent' laughter—more genteel, more sophisticated. But definitely not as much fun. There was an optimism and carefree quality in those old laugh tracks. Today, the reactions are largely 'droll' just the way in which they sound. In the past, if the audience was really having a good time, it shone through. Audience members seemed less self-conscious and they felt free to laugh as loudly as they wanted. Maybe that's a reflection of contemporary culture. In the 1950s, the laughs were generally buoyant and uproarious, although somewhat generic, because Douglass hadn’t yet refined his structured laugh technique. In the 60s, however, you could hear more individual responses—chortles, cackles from both men and women. The reactions were much more orderly and organized. I can actually tell you the exact year that a show was produced, just by listening to its laugh track."
Several months after the 2003 passing of Charley Douglass, his son Bob commented on the pros and cons of his father's invention:
"On some of the shows it was abused. They wanted to keep adding more and more laughs, and it would go way overboard. They thought it was going to be funnier, and it wasn't. A lot of producers would have the laughter almost louder than the dialogue, and that ruins it. It's a tool. Like music is, like sound effects, like dialogue. It's everything combined together to make a show flow along and have a nice pace to it. It's all timing. With skill, and a little luck, a well-executed laugh track can be a work of art contributing to a larger work of art. We've been around a long time, and it fills a need in the industry. We don't expect to be the main ingredient in a show. It's just part of the puzzle that puts together the shows that make for great television."
Karal Ann Marling, professor of American studies and art history at the University of Minnesota, voiced concerns about Douglass' invention:
"Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium, because it treats the audience as though they were sheep who need to be told when something is funny— even if, in fact, it's not very funny. It's probably changed comedy, particularly situation comedy. I mean, anything can be passed off as hilariously funny, at least for the first two or three go-rounds, if you've got people laughing like maniacs in the background. It's as though during a drama show, suddenly a voice in the background goes, 'Ooohh, this is scary!' or 'Oh, he looks guilty!' It seems like the next logical step if you're going to have laugh tracks. For proof of the intelligent power of a non-laugh-track show, look no further than The Simpsons. It's wonderfully written. They work for their laughs. And audiences sit there and wet their pants. That's a great example of why not to have a laugh track. Let me be the laugh track."
Marling added she was concerned more about canned laughter as a symptom of a larger social willingness to accept things uncritically, which included political messages as well as commercial messages. "It's a kind of decline in American feistiness and an ability to think for yourself," she said. "It certainly is embedded, but that doesn't make it a good thing. There are a lot of things that we do every day of the week that aren't good things. And this is one of them."
In 2011, critic James Parker bemoaned the absence of laugh tracks in many popular sitcoms of the time, feeling that the idea of not having an audience had become an overused gimmick:
"Silence now encases the sitcom, the lovely, corny crackle of the laugh track having vaporized into little bathetic air pockets and farts of anticlimax. Enough, I say. This burlesque of naturalism has depleted us. Give me the honest joinery of The George Lopez Show, the fat gags and the cackles on demand, over Parks and Recreation or NBC's ghastly version of The Office. Who knew irony could be so cloying?"
He conceded that Modern Family was one of the few shows which benefited from not having one.
A study was done as recently as 2011 to gauge the necessity of the laugh track, particularly on U.S. sitcoms. Dartmouth College Psychology professor Bill Kelley's continued study of the human brain's response to humor stated "we're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people. Hearing others laugh — even if it's prerecorded — can encourage us to chuckle and enjoy ourselves more." Kelley's research compared student's reactions to an episode of Seinfeld, which utilizes a laugh track, to those watching The Simpsons which does not. Brain scans suggested that viewers found the same things funny and the same regions of their brain lit up whether or not they heard others laughing.
Despite this, Kelley still found immense value in the laugh track. "When done well," Kelley commented, "they can give people pointers about what's funny and help them along. But when done poorly, you notice a laugh track and it seems unnatural and out of place."
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