Fake Laughs, Real Laughs, And All The Laughs In-Between - Macleans.ca

Fake Laughs, Real Laughs, And All The Laughs In-Between


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.

Filed under:

Fake Laughs, Real Laughs, And All The Laughs In-Between

  1. The Armed Forces Radio Service began using prerecorded laughter and applause tracks during the 1940s. US radio broadcasts were edited to remove commercials and anything that might date the programs. (They circulated on 16″ discs and might be heard by the Armed Forces months after they were originally aired.) Prerecorded tracks were used to smooth over edits. The AFRS also produced their own shows, variety series such as COMMAND PERFORMANCE, USA!, MAIL CALL, and JUBILEE. These were heard in half-hour form, but the raw recordings often ran much longer. These were also edited using pre-recorded laugh tracks to cover the cuts.

    Actors who worked with George Burns noted that he was very good at judging how long a pause needed to be left for the laugh that would be inserted later. He would tell them to count to four or to ten or whatever after a “laugh line.” It’s interesting to note in those shows that if you watch scenes between George and Gracie, other than their tag scenes, she’s almost invariably doing something as they talk, apparently to give the film editor some “business” to focus on if a joke didn’t get quite the reaction that was anticipated.

    This method of getting a live audience reaction onto a show filmed without an audience was very popular in the early-mid 1950s. (Even I LOVE LUCY used it on two occasions.) The problem with it is that the recording was done in a theater setting, and the mikes that were picking up the audiences’ reaction were also picking up the soundtrack of the film being shown, which meant the film editor was stuck with what he got. There could be no moving a laugh from one point to another. It could also cause an ever-so-slight echo effect on the final mixed soundtrack. THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET tried to get around this by having the audience listen to the show’s soundtrack via headphones, but this led to very self-concious, subdued reactions. People tend not to laugh out loud so much when they can’t hear other people.

    To end a parade of trivia on a trivial note, Stan Laurel never liked the way his and Oliver Hardy’s films played on television. They had been edited originally to allow for the audience laughter they got when shown in movie theaters. (Careful notes on audience reactions were made during test screenings. These notes were utilized when final edits were made.) For that reason, Laurel thought the films played much too slowly on television, where people at home don’t react in the same way they do in a movie theater. He once made an offer to “recut” them for television, at absolutely no charge, but no one ever took him up on it.

  2. On 22 we do our desk bits in front of the audience and also play back in front of the audience pieces we have filmed earlier in the production week.

    When we put the whole show together, after the audience leaves, we try to put things in the best order (we think ) for the tv show. That means sometimes pieces play in a different order than in the live show. So there are laughs from a previous piece still being picked up by our host’s mike. So we turn down those laughs, not too quick or it sounds fake, and we can’t leave the laugh on to long without fading because then it looks like our host is oblivious to the laugh and that looks fake too. So if anything we cut down laughs for the tv show, even though they actually existed,

    And yeah, real laughs from real audiences do sound fake. On the semi-infamous piece we did in March, when we played the piece in front of our audience it did really well. Still, many think those are fake laughs, when they are just the studio audience.

    In fact that hardest pieces for us to do from a sound mix perspective is when we parody just for laughs gags (I bet those are all geo-blocked here in Canada or I’d send you a youtube clip) where part of the joke is that the laughs are fake, so we crank it up but then the real audience laughter muddies it, so it’s a bit of a struggle.

    Hope this all makes some sort of sense


  3. The laugh track on “Square Pegs” is unnerving.