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.)