Since I was talking the other day about laughs that sound fake even when they’re real, I should link to Earl Pomerantz’s post about the history and purpose of the laugh track. He talks a lot about when a show uses canned laughter (it’s not just to “save” jokes that don’t work) and the editing issues involved with the laughter mix; he also addresses the fact that even a real live audience doesn’t sound real when you’re watching at home:
Laughter recorded from a live studio audience sounds “canned” even when it isn’t. Why? Because the recording system is, I believe the technical word for it is crappy, making actual laughs sound otherworldly and fake.
The other reason is – and you’ll have to take my word for this – jokes and comedic situations are exponentially funnier when you’re witnessing them in person. That’s why the studio audience is still cracking up, while you’re at home going, “I’m finished with that. Move on.”
Trust me. It’s funnier when you’re there.
All the methods he mentions — live audience, canned laughter, and playing back to an audience after it’s shot and edited — are still in use today. Canned laughter isn’t particularly prevalent on network TV, but it’s all over the Disney Channel type of shows, and How I Met Your Mother uses the Burns and Allen method of shooting without an audience and then bringing in an audience just for the purpose of providing the after-the-fact laugh track. (Extra historical note: Burns and Allen’s head writer, Paul Henning, used this same method for the pilot of his show The Beverly Hillbillies, but the audience was so loud and obnoxious that it covered the dialogue and hurt the episode; he switched thereafter to a canned laugh track.)
Speaking personally, I have a more tolerant attitude to straight-up laugh tracks than perhaps I should; one of my earliest blog posts was called “Bring back the laugh track!” Some single-camera shows would be spoiled by laugh tracks, but I think others probably need a laugh track to fill in dead spots; shows now use music where the laugh track would ordinarily be, and I think laugh tracks sometimes work better. I have no problem saying that M*A*S*H works better when you watch it with the laugh track than when you turn the laugh track off (and sit through pauses and reactions that would have been shortened in the editing if there had been no laugh track to begin with). And among today’s shows, I would say that the struggling Samantha Who? would be better off with a laugh track: this is a show with quite a few over-long pauses and awkwardly-placed music stings, and it could use a laugh track to brand it as something other than another one of ABC’s “dramedies” and to keep those long reaction shots from becoming boring.
I mean, The Office is better off without a laugh track because it would wreck the mock-documentary format. 30 Rock wouldn’t be ruined by a laugh track, but the editing and pacing is done with the assumption that there won’t be any laughter slowing it down. But for a slower-paced show that’s just a sitcom that doesn’t happen to have an audience, I do think a laugh track is sometimes appropriate for the purposes of branding the show and improving the pace.
That said, I don’t want to get too carried away with the defence of the laugh track: it is annoying (but so are the music stings and sound effects that have replaced it), and I would never suggest adding a laugh track to a show that had already become successful without one.