Chuck Klosterman Doesn't Know What a Laugh Track Is - Macleans.ca
 

Chuck Klosterman Doesn’t Know What a Laugh Track Is


 

One of my pet peeves, as a sitcom fan, is the inaccurate use of the term “laugh track.” A laugh track is laughter added to a show to simulate the effect of a live audience, even though it was shot without one. It is not the sound of actual people in the audience laughing at the material as it is filmed. And yet you constantly hear people talking about studio audience laughter as if it’s exactly the same thing as laughter added in post-production. Worse, you hear people criticizing the “laugh tracks” on shows whose entire style, rhythm and timing are influenced by the decision to shoot with an audience, and would clearly be very different if there were no audience present (and therefore no laughter) on the soundtrack. Then you get people who tell us that show X would be better if they would stop using such fake-sounding laughs, when the laughing is real and the actors are obviously reacting to it.

What I’m getting at is that Chuck Klosterman, who spent an entire interview pontificating about the meaning of “laugh tracks” when he clearly has no idea what a laugh track actually is, has become a pet peeve of mine. (“What took you so long?” I hear you say.)

What’s especially phony and silly about all this anti-laughter talk is that you never hear the same principles applied to stand-up comedy, or The Daily Show. (The earliest episodes of The Daily Show didn’t use an audience, and no one misses those days.) Everyone knows why stand-ups need to work in front of an audience, that their timing would not be the same without the audience. Yet people will not only prefer sitcoms without audiences or laugh tracks (that’s fine) but talk as if a sitcom done with an audience is completely indistinguishable from one without an audience, to the point that you’ll hear people say things like “I wish I could see Seinfeld without the laugh track.”

As a sort of antidote to this attitude, here’s an excerpt from a NewsRadio DVD commentary, where creator Paul Simms and writer Josh Lieb (who ran the show in its ill-fated final season) answer a question about whether they would still do the show in front of an audience. Simms is the first guy to speak; Lieb, who now writes for The Daily Show and is the author of that book with the long title, is the high-voiced guy who says “it’s very hard for a single-camera show to make me laugh.” I don’t think, though, that their comments are meant to exclude any particular type of show; Simms came from The Larry Sanders Show and has worked on Flight of the Conchords. The point is simply that the choice of shooting style is not some kind of pointless affectation, and the show would not be the same if you took away the “laugh track” (which is not a laugh track).

One more thing: one point that’s often made against the use of the studio audience is that movie comedies don’t need an audience to be funnier. But of course, they do: movie comedies are screened in front of audiences, and if the audience doesn’t laugh at a scene, it gets cut or changed. TV shows don’t have time to be pre-tested like that, so the audience is there to inform the actors and producers. They might change a joke if the audience doesn’t laugh, they might change their timing to suit the audience, or they might huddle and realize what kind of jokes need to be de-emphasized in the next episode. But the instant-feedback element is one reason why multi-camera, studio-audience shows tend to have more big belly laughs than their single-camera counterparts. (The most successful and enduring single-camera shows are often the ones that will forego “hard” jokes in favour of smaller moments and a pleasant atmosphere: Leave It To Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, M*A*S*H and The Office are examples of shows that aren’t usually out to compete with I Love Lucy in the slapstick-jokes department, and instead are going for something more realistic and down-to-earth than you can get with multi-camera.)


 
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Chuck Klosterman Doesn’t Know What a Laugh Track Is

  1. Actual or not, sitcom laughter has always seemed pretty forced to me. Even watching my favourite episodes of my favourite sitcoms, I've never laughed even remotely as hard as the audience. And I think that makes it seem a lot more artificial and less "real"

  2. It's true that being at a taping makes you feel more obligated to be more generous with out-loud laughter, but it's also true that when jokes don't work, they don't work. There are times when the audience still doesn't laugh and that's when you know a joke really needs to be fixed. Besides, people always laugh harder at a live show than watching things on television — when you're there in person, everything feels more spontaneous and surprising. You can't begrudge people their reactions just because you are one step removed from where they are.

  3. I think your last paragraph misses the stronger argument about movies versus TV: movies are ore often watched in a communal situation where others are laughing with you. The main reason I think sitcoms use laught tracks is that they are presenting what is a quite theatrical kind of comedy in a distinctly non-theatrical mode of presentation.

  4. Just to qualify my previous comment – you do mention that movies are seen in front of audiences, but it's more in the context of judging a joke during the production or testing of the reaction. I'm referring to to he way laughter influences our reaction as an audience after the show or film is complete.

    I think the criticsm of laugh tracks – live or faked – comes from the many shows where the writing is so weak it shouldn't really sustain any laugh. Viewers at home resent that and become aware of it; but they tend not to notice laughter in, say, Seinfeld. Yet the impression that they don't like "laugh tracks" lingers.

  5. Heard "Who's on first?" when I was a kid and the audience makes it funnier.
    Heard it without the audience and it really sounds scary.
    Those two guys really hated each other.

  6. Very thoughtful and interesting post. I remember seeing "Duck Soup" with an audience for the first time, after many video viewings; the Groucho stuff worked about equally well in both settings, but the physical bits with Harpo and Chico (especially their fight with Edgar Kennedy) came to life in the presence of a "live" audience. It was clearly timed with "out loud" laughs in mind.

    I wonder if anyone else has ever gotten mad at a studio audience for NOT laughing. I felt this just last night, when The Daily Show audience failed to react to a joke referencing the Catholic Church's child-abuse scandal. It was at least worth a groan, if not a laugh, but was greeted with utter silence, which I found irritating–"Don't you get it, you dummies?"

  7. But why add a laughtrack to a standup who is unfunny and not getting enough real laughs during their live performance (ie the show 'Comics'). Surely its wrong to just gloss over how awful the product is.

  8. If you bothered to read Klosterman's essay on the laugh track you would understand that he is saying that a live studio audience has the same effect as the laugh track to the viewer at home. They are both forms of canned laughter that tells you when to laugh.