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 instead; 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.
- 1 U.S. history
- 1.1 Radio
- 1.2 Multi-camera shows; videotape
- 1.3 1960s
- 1.4 1970s-1980s
- 1.5 1990-present
- 1.6 Controversy, bucking the trend
- 2 Outside the U.S.
- 3 Effects
- 4 Legacy and support
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Before radio and television, audiences experienced live comedy performances in the presence of other audience members. Radio and early television producers attempted to recreate this atmosphere by introducing the sound of laughter or other crowd reactions into the soundtrack.
Jack Dadswell (also known as the "Traveling Reporter" by Time Magazine), former owner of WWJB in Florida, created the first "laughing record".
In 1946, Jack Mullin brought a Magnetophon magnetic tape recorder back from Radio Frankfurt, along with 50 reels of tape; the recorder was one of the magnetic tape recorders that BASF and AEG had built in Germany starting in 1935. The 6.5 mm 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, which was scheduled for a certain time every week, to avoid having to perform the show 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 during post-production. Longtime engineer and recording pioneer Jack Mullin explained how the laugh track was invented on Crosby's show:
"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 broadcast live used the single-camera filmmaking technique, where a show was created by filming each scene several times from different camera angles. Whereas the performances of the actors and crew could be controlled, live audiences could not be relied upon to laugh at the "correct" moments; other times, audiences would be deemed to have laughed too loudly or for too long.
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 28 inches in diameter with a reel of tape glued to the outer edge of it containing recordings of mild laughs. The 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. The prototype machine fell apart within months of use. Douglass developed an expansion of his technique in 1953 when he began to extract laughter and applause 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 programs. 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 feature an audience nor a laugh-track.
Multi-camera shows; videotape
Soon after the advent of the laugh track, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz devised a method of filming with a live audience using a multi-camera setup. This process was originally employed for their sitcom I Love Lucy, which used a live studio audience and no laugh track. Multi-camera shows with live audiences sometimes used recorded laughs to supplement responses. 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 migrate 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 these gaps; eventually, both performers and producers began to realize the power behind prerecorded laughter.
As the medium evolved, production costs associated with broadcasting live television escalated. Filming in a studio with an audience, as I Love Lucy or The Ed Sullivan Show did, had its limitations as well: half the audience could not see the show from where they were sitting. Douglass was brought in to simulate reactions from scratch for the duration of the entire show. Producers soon realized how much simpler it was to film a show without an audience present and tailor the reactions during post-production. Directors initially did not allow space for inserting reactions, making sweetening difficult and resulted in dialogue being drowned out. Audience response cards repeatedly came back saying that laughter seemed forced or contrived. Writers gradually became more conscious of the space required for the laugh track and began timing their scripts around it. Directors gradually left room for as-yet-unheard audience reactions; producers budgeted for post-production so Douglass could edit with greater ease.
Most television sitcoms produced during the 1950s and 1960s used the single-camera technique, with a laugh track simulating the absent audience. Producers became disenchanted with the multi-camera format; consensus at the time was that live audiences were tense, nervous and rarely laughed on cue.
Network research suggested that the laugh track was required in order to brand a single-camera show as a comedy. The experiment to see if a comedy fared better with a laugh track was tested 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 while the version with laughter succeeded. The show was broadcast with the laugh track, and CBS utilized a laugh track for all comedies afterwards.
Sitcoms had different types of laugh tracks edited onto their soundtracks, depending on style. Outlandish or fantasy shows, like Bewitched, The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie and The Beverly Hillbillies, were 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 (it was entirely absent during operating room scenes).
By the mid-1960s, nearly every U.S. sitcom was shot single-camera and was fitted with a laughter track. Only a handful of programs, such as The Joey Bishop Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Lucy Show used studio audiences and turned to Douglass 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 the U.S. 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 to a joke differently from another. Charley himself was the most conservative of all, so producers would put in bids for son Bob, who was more liberal in his choice of laughter. 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 (in 1964, 1967 and 1970). Douglass also kept 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.
Cartoons and children's shows
The laugh track was also used on some prime time animated television series, like The Flintstones (ABC, 1960–66) and The Jetsons (ABC, 1962–63). Midday programming, like The Banana Splits Adventure Hour (NBC, 1968–70), gradually followed suit. Television executives soon insisted that Saturday morning cartoons be fitted with laughter, beginning with the Filmation-produced The Archie Show in 1968. Many other Filmation shows utilized a laugh track, including Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, The Brady Kids, Groovie Goolies and The New Adventures of Gilligan. Hanna-Barbera entries Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (CBS, 1969-71), and Josie and the Pussycats (CBS, 1970–71) also joined the ranks.
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).
Following Filmation were producers Sid and Marty Krofft. When production began on H.R. Pufnstuf in 1969, executive producer Si Rose viewed any comedy without a laugh track was a handicap, and convinced the Kroffts to include one on Pufnstuf. After Pufnstuf, the Kroffts employed Douglass's services on all shows produced for Saturday morning television (except for Land of the Lost, which was more dramatic in nature), including The Bugaloos, Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, The Lost Saucer and Far Out Space Nuts. When transitioning from high concept children's programming to live variety shows, the Kroffts continued to employ Douglass for sweetening. Several shows included Donny and Marie, The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, The Krofft Supershow, The Krofft Superstar Hour, Pink Lady and Jeff, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, Pryor's Place, as well as their 1987 syndicated sitcom D.C. Follies.
The Pink Panther Show was another Saturday morning series to also follow suit in 1969; previously released theatrical shorts featuring the titular Pink Panther were compiled into a series of half-hour showcases for television, which also included other DePatie-Freleng Enterprises shorts that were also previously released theatrically, including The Inspector, Roland and Ratfink, The Ant and the Aardvark, The Tijuana Toads (redubbed into The Texas Toads), The Blue Racer, Hoot Kloot, and The Dogfather. The original theatrical releases of these cartoons did not require laugh tracks, but NBC insisted on its inclusion for television broadcast.
As the use of laugh tracks for Saturday morning series became more common, Douglass eventually added several 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 morning kids' 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.
Current Disney Channel-produced sitcoms and studio-created laugh tracks are primarily recorded in front of live audiences, Nickelodeon – Disney's top competitor – utilizes a laugh track for shows such as iCarly and Victorious since closing the original studio facilities fitted for live audience seating.
Glenn Martin, DDS, an adult-oriented claymation show produced by Nickelodeon, utilized a laugh track for its first seven episodes only before eliminating it. Series creator Eric Fogel commented, "It took too much internal thinking".
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 mainly produced with lower budgets and studios 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 custom laugh tracks were controversial and contemporaries and historians questioned the sensibility and realism for the use of these tracks.
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 start of the 1971–72 season, when HB employed their limited laugh track using a MacKenzie repeater machine, which cued up to five laughs repeatedly. Mixed with a tinny, metallic sound, it included three mild laughs and two uncontrollable belly-laughs (one contains a woman laughing prominently at the very end). HB used these laughs regularly over the next decade on nearly all of their Saturday morning fare.
Several shows featuring the HB laugh track are listed as follows:
- Harlem Globetrotters (CBS, 1970–71; used for the second season episodes)
- Help!... It's the Hair Bear Bunch! (CBS, 1971–72)
- The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show (CBS, 1971–72)
- The Roman Holidays (CBS, 1972)
- The Flintstone Comedy Hour (CBS, 1972–73)
- Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space (CBS, 1972–74)
- The New Scooby-Doo Movies (CBS, 1972–74)
- The Addams Family (CBS, 1973–74)
- Jeannie (CBS, 1973–75)
- Hong Kong Phooey (ABC, 1974)
- Partridge Family 2200 A.D. (CBS, 1974–75)
- Jabberjaw (ABC, 1976–78)
- The Scooby-Doo Show (ABC, 1976–78)
- Dynomutt, Dog Wonder (ABC, 1976–77)
- Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (ABC, 1977–80)
- The Super Globetrotters (NBC, 1979–80)
- Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo (ABC, 1979–80; first installment)
The HB laugh track affected several television specials as well, including The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park, The Flintstones Meet Rockula and Frankenstone, The Flintstones' New Neighbors, and Casper's First Christmas. On occasion, the studio would slow down the laugh track for a greater effect; this was done for the second season 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 (Wait Till Your Father Gets Home was the only television series produced by Hanna-Barbera to have included that specific belly laugh track).
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/re-recording mixer 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. It is a shame that a company as powerful as Hanna-Barbera — who, at its peak, practically owned Saturday mornings — thought so little of their audience by dubbing such an inferior laugh track for so long a period."
Animation studio Rankin/Bass, best remembered for their Christmas specials, also experimented with fitting their Saturday morning animated series The Jackson 5ive with a laugh track in 1971. Like Hanna-Barbera, Rankin/Bass isolated several snippets of canned chuckles from Douglass' library and inserted them onto the soundtrack. The laughs initially consisted of only loud eruptions; mild jokes received unnatural bouts of laughter, while other times, the laughter would erupt mid-sentence. The studio had improved the process by the time production began on The Osmonds in 1972, using more modulated laughs culled from Douglass's 1971-1972 library. Laughs did not erupt mid-sentence like The Jackson 5ive and were better timed by Rankin/Bass sound engineers. Unlike HB's laugh track, Rankin/Bass provided a better variety of laughs and did not sound metallic.
The studio ended the practice when production on the two series' ended.
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, often 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 bypassed Douglass' familiar laughs. New laughs, chuckles and applause were recorded for the first few episodes so they would sound fresh and new. Some of these laughs were provided by the actual cast and crew members reacting to dailies of episodes; 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 production complexities (the NBC sitcom ALF was also difficult to produce and utilized only a laugh track); he also notes that because of the series' vaudeville inspiration, having 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 commented about the pilot episode not having a laugh track, saying "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."
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.
After The Muppet Show ended in 1981, most Muppet projects were produced in the U.S. due to the demise of ATV Studios' owner Lord Lew Grade, who had financed the show as well as the first two theatrical Muppet movies. Post-Muppet Show fare then turned to Douglass for audience reactions; one-shot specials such as The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show and The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years were given full audience by Douglass's son, Robert, who by that time was running Northridge Electronics following his father's retirement. Robert Douglass also orchestrated the audience for Disney's unsuccessful Muppet Show reboot, Muppets Tonight.
Comeback of television programs recorded before an audience
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 (such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Mayberry RFD) and the rise of socially conscious programming (such as All in the Family, M*A*S*H and 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 act 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 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/laugh track historian historian Ben Glenn, II, used the sitcom Alice (CBS, 1976–85) 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."
Some producers, like James Komack, however, followed Lear's approach. Komack, who was involved in the short-lived sitcom Hennesey, was a longtime critic of Douglass' laugh track, believing Douglass' chuckles were too predictable and could hinder the effect of the sitcom's humor. Komack instead employed music to counteract the sweetened laughs. Shows produced by Komack, such as Chico and the Man (NBC, 1974–78) and Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC, 1975–79), utilized background music during scene transitions (obvious locations for sweetening) and made sure that Douglass' laugh track was barely audible in the studio audience during post-production. Komack later commented, "If you ever try to do a show without a laugh track, you'll see a huge difference...[I]t flattens. The only way to get away from a laugh track is to use music, which can indicate when something is funny."
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), Barney Miller (ABC, 1975–82), Laverne and Shirley (ABC, 1976–83), Soap (ABC, 1977–81), Taxi (ABC, 1978–82; NBC, 1982–83), Newhart (CBS, 1982–90), Cheers (NBC, 1982–93) and its spinoff Frasier (NBC, 1993–2004).
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.
Even game shows were sweetened during the 1970s and early 1980s, often played when a contestant or the host says something considered to be funny and only a small reaction comes from the live audience. Douglass' laugh track was especially heard in Chuck Barris' game shows (i.e. The Gong Show and The Newlywed Game), whose shows were designed mainly to entertain the audience; the "prizes" were often rudimentary or derisive. Game shows that were produced at CBS Television Studios and NBC Studios Burbank were also sweetened, often to intensify audience reactions, including shows like Press Your Luck (used especially during "Whammy" segments).
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.
Although Douglass had a monopoly on the laugh track, he eventually faced competition by 1977 when other sound engineers began to offer laugh tracks that differed from Douglass' distinctive laughs. Most notably, engineer and Douglass protégé Carroll Pratt started his own company, Sound One. Pratt and his brother had been working under Douglass since the early 1960s, but began to notice that Douglass' technique was falling behind as advances were made in production technology. Pratt commented that after years of constant use, an audible hiss could be heard when a laugh was being cued up due to Douglass' tapes wearing out. 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' (Pratt's recordings were on cassette tape, Douglass' on an older magnetic tape). With the advent of stereo television, Pratt's stereo recordings matched the sound quality of television shows being filmed or videotaped in that audio format, whereas Douglass attempted to convert previous mono analog recordings to stereo. Pratt introduced an innovative laugh track that contained more realistic (though less distinctive) reactions. While Pratt's laugh track had its share of recognizable chuckles as well, they are more quiet and subtle than Douglass', which had become so familiar and ubiquitous that they sounded trite. Several sitcoms switched to Pratt's laugh track after 1977, including M*A*S*H and The Love Boat. Several live sitcoms, such as Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days, also chose Pratt over Douglass for the sweetening process.
The competition from Pratt caused Douglass to retool his library after the 1977-78 television season, using more extreme reactions almost exclusively, some recordings over a decade old. The combination of classic loud guffaws, mixed with his own new, less invasive recordings, had middling results.
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 without an audience, live or 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.
Other non-laugh track sitcoms in the U.S. are as follows:
- 30 Rock
- Arrested Development
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine
- Curb Your Enthusiasm
- Even Stevens
- The Goldbergs
- It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
- Lizzie McGuire
- The Middle
- The Mindy Project
- Modern Family
- New Girl
- Parker Lewis Can't Lose
- Parks and Recreation
- Real Husbands of Hollywood
- Sex and the City
- Shasta McNasty
- The Simpsons
- Zeke and Luther
- Zoey 101
Animated shows like The Simpsons, Futurama, King of the Hill, South Park, American Dad!, Bob's Burgers, and Family Guy, have also gone silent, except on the rare occasion that canned laughter is used, usually as a parody of a sitcom. Animated shows that used to employ a laugh track, such as Scooby-Doo, had dismissed the laugh track altogether by the 1990s. However, sitcoms made by It's a Laugh Productions, such as That's So Raven, use laugh tracks.
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 seven-second delay (the same crew is also used to mute swear words and controversial statements from award winners).
Holliston, an independently produced multicamera sitcom on Fearnet, uses laugh tracks to mimic the look and feel of popular sitcoms from the 1980s and 1990s. Creator Adam Green has also expressed interest in using a live studio audience in the future.
Controversy, bucking the trend
The practice of simulating an audience reaction was controversial from the beginning. A silent minority of producers despised the idea of a prerecorded audience reaction. 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 three seasons. 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 special first aired on December 9, 1965, it was a surprise critical and commercial hit.
- Rocky and His Friends (ABC, 1959—61; NBC, 1961—64 as The Bullwinkle Show) was originally broadcast with a laugh track, against the wishes of creators Jay Ward and Bill Scott, who disputed the laugh track with ABC; given the rapid-fire pace of the show's dialogue and humor, the laugh track slowed the timing. After getting support from sponsor General Mills, Ward and Scott convinced ABC, and the laugh track ended after its fourth episode; while current syndicated prints of these episodes still retain the laugh track, it has been subsequently removed from the DVD release.
- 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 the conclusion of its second season, citing the missing laugh track as a major factor. Peter Tork commented in 2013 that "we didn't want it from the beginning, but NBC insisted. I thought it was a stroke of genius when it was eliminated in the second season."
- 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 two seasons.
- 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). Though CBS initially rejected the idea, a compromise was reached that allowed Gelbart and co-producer Gene Reynolds to omit the laugh track during operating room scenes if they wished. Seasons 1–5 utilized Douglass' more invasive laugh track; Carroll Pratt's quieter laugh track was employed for Seasons 6-11 when the series shifted from sitcom to comedy-drama with the departure of Gelbart and Reynolds. Several episodes ("O.R.", "The Bus", ""Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?", "The Interview", "Point of View" and "Dreams" among them) 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." "They're a lie," said Gelbart in a 1992 interview. "You're telling an engineer when to push a button to produce a laugh from people who don't exist. It's just so dishonest. The biggest shows when we were on the air were All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show both of which were taped before a live studio audience where laughter made sense," continued Gelbart. "But our show was a film show – supposedly shot in the middle of Korea. So the question I always asked the network was, 'Who are these laughing people? Where did they come from?'" Gelbart persuaded CBS to test the show in private screenings with and without the laugh track. The results showed no measurable difference in the audience's enjoyment. "So you know what they said?" Gelbart said. "'Since there's no difference, let's leave it alone!'"
- 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".
- 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.
Outside the U.S.
In the 20th century, most sitcoms in the United Kingdom were taped before live audiences to provide natural laughter. Scenes recorded outdoors, traditionally recorded in advance of studio work, are played back to the studio audience and their laughter is recorded for the broadcast episode (occasionally, entire shows have been recorded in this fashion). 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 laugh track, but this was dropped after the programme's second series. 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 dropped as the show's producers felt 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 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).
In the 21st century, many sitcoms inspired by the new wave of British comedies of the late 1990s have not featured 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 do not incorporate a laugh track, although some programs, such as the sitcom Maniac Mansion (1990–1993) and the children's program The Hilarious House of Frightenstein (1971) had a laugh track added for airings in the U.S. despite being broadcast in Canada without one.
The children's sketch comedy series You Can't Do That on Television (1979–1990) had no laugh track during its first season as a locally televised program. However, when it entered the Canadian network realm (as Whatever Turns You On), a laugh track was added which was 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 of the series produced for U.S. cable channel Nickelodeon, used fewer 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.
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 co-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."
Dartmouth College psychology professor Bill Kelley gauged the necessity of the laugh track, particularly on U.S. sitcoms. He stated "we're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people." Kelley's research compared students' 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 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."
Legacy and support
Si Rose, executive producer for Sid and Marty Krofft, convinced the Kroffts to use a laugh track 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 interview, late 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 and laugh track historian Ben Glenn, II, commented that the laugh tracks currently used are radically different from 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 Douglass's death in 2003, 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."
Carroll Pratt confirmed Douglass's comments in a June 2002 interview with the Archive of American Television, saying that producers regularly wanted louder, longer laughs:
"In the beginning, it was terrible! It got to be a point where the more you laugh, the louder you laugh, the funnier the joke was. And that wasn't so. And that's why the press, the media, the public in general came down on laughs at all: it was just too much. And there are still shows that are required to do that, but now less is better. I think less in enthusiasm, perhaps, but not less in volume. It's been tried by some producers and some shows to lessen the volume until it was a whisper and that becomes a bigger irritation than having it too loud. A joke is a joke, but I've noticed that the public is more sophisticated now. They don't seem to be hand-fed as they were in the early days. Now, we take the light approach as far as trying to drive home a joke with audience reaction. I think that it's okay to back off a little bit especially on a live-audience show. Go with the show and let them tell you."
Few re-recording mixers have carried on the "laff box" tradition. In addition to Bob Douglass, Los Angeles-based mixers Bob LaMasney, Jack Donato, Charlie McDaniel, Paul Iverson and John Bickelhaupt currently specialize in audience sweetening. While current digital machines are not as cumbersome as Douglass's original machinery, Bickelhaupt confirmed they “are pretty anonymous, with [unlabeled] knobs and buttons. We like to remain kind of mysterious — the man-behind-the-curtain thing. We don't really like to talk about it too much." Bickelhaupt added that "most of the time, what we're doing isn't re-creating a studio audience; the audience laughter is already there. But in editing, when sections of the show are taken out, when they take out lines to make the show fit a time slot — we have to cover the bridge between one laugh and another by using the laugh machine." In reference to the quiet laugh track employed on How I Met Your Mother, Bickelhaupt commented that producers are increasingly “shying away from that big, full audience — the raucous sound that was more commonplace in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. They want a more subtle track.”
Steven Levitan, creator of Just Shoot Me! (a multi-camera series that used live and taped audience reactions) and co-creator of Modern Family (which does not utilize live or recorded audience laughter as a single-camera series), commented, "When used properly, the laugh guy’s job is to smooth out the soundtrack — nothing more." Phil Rosenthal confirmed that he "rarely manipulated the laughs" on Everybody Loves Raymond. "I worked on shows in the past where the 'sweetener' was ladled on with a heavy hand, mainly because there were hardly any laughs from the living. The executive producers would say, 'Don't worry — you know who will love that joke? Mr. Sweet man.'" Bickelhaupt confirmed this observation, admitting there are occasions he has created all audience responses.
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.
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