Laugh Tracks...I don't like them.
A couple days back, I asked some friends about laugh tracks and what they thought, as well as posting the question "On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does a laugh track annoy you?" to Facebook and Twitter. The overall response I got back was not surprising: those primarily used to the standard American sitcom format saw no big deal with them (and ranked the annoyance about a 2 or 3) and those who have seen comedies that eschewed them rank the annoyance around the 9 or 10 mark. For me, let's say the annoyance is a 7 or 8 but adjusted based on the quality of a given laugh track, and regularly gets up to the 9 or 10 mark depending on the show.
The laugh track is one of those things you do not learn to hate until you have lived without it. Anyone not annoyed by them, try out shows like Spaced, Arrested Development, The Office (US or UK works), and Better of Ted for a few weeks and then put in something like Everybody Loves Raymond or Big Bang Theory and notice the difference. In the latter examples, you are forced to admit gags where there are none. Is Ray Romano trying to sneak up the stairs? BETTER LAUGH AT THAT! Is a character watching an animal sit down in a chair like a person might? LAUGH! LAUGH! OH, GOD, LAUGH!
In the former bits, say Arrested Development, you might even have a few jokes that you do not notice the first time through. There is nothing more comforting than re-watching a series and learning new things. The traditional—laugh-track laden— method makes it impossible to miss anything. You might still laugh the second time through, but it is like a book with heavy annotations. You know the secrets. You are scripted just as much as the comedy is.
This does not mean every laugh track is bad and even shows with horrible laugh tracks (like some episodes of the Big Bang Theory) can be quite funny once you get used to it. Some work and some don't. I cannot always tell you which is which, or why some work and some don't, but a laugh track that seems to really represent personal enjoyment of a show works while one that forces enjoyment seems to be the most flawed. Give me that one annoying laugh in the background that represents someone who just loves humor a little bit more, and others be damned. Let a particularly dumb joke get a couple of boos or ignored. Never, EVER, say "awwwwwww" and something drivel. If someone is just walking up some stairs, maybe skip the laughter a bit. Never let the laugh track overshout the actors. Realize that real people don't pause after saying things. I guess what I am saying is, make it natural to the show. If a character tells a joke, let the characters laugh a little rather than stand there stone faced for five seconds as the audience (and/or tape player) screams at the top of their lungs.
By the way, for those confused about the practice altogether, there is a single point in favor of laugh tracks that is strangely flawed. When we see a live show, comedy is one of the only two genres we are allowed to be expressive about (the other is horror, and people being too expressive with horror can be really annoying). Something about this fact leads us to be overly expressive at live shows. If a comedian is at least slightly funny, we will act as though they are the second incarnation of Jesus H. Gag himself and we will lose our shit sitting there, red faced and slapping knees because he is talking about, get this, his wife's underwear being pink. Maybe a box of cereal and how it is crazy that Tony the Tiger says GRRRRRRRRREAT. I could tell you, through this blog, what my wife had for breakfast this morning and you will probably not give a damn, much less find it funny. If I talk about it on stage, and you have people around, you will chuckle.
If you ever get a stand-up comedy CD that actually loops the audience laughter in (as opposed to just allowing it as incidence on the microphone), you will hear people laugh and laugh just because the comedian has walked on stage, or just because he or she has made a slightly funny face. A funny face. The thing that we stopped laughing at somewhere about kindergarten becomes hilarious when we are allowed to laugh as a group.
Therefore, it was reasoned (and it was reasoned, I am not just making this up): let's force this on the audience at home. Let's get them to think that others are laughing, too. We can re-introduce funny faces, for god sakes, we don't even have to worry about humor! We can drop the relative IQ of the show by a dozen points and it will still be funny because we have that instinct to laugh. And there you go, the reasoning behind the laugh track.
Except, you know, where is it in other genres? Where is the horror gasp track? Where is the drama crying track? Where is the sports cheer track? We do not use them, because we know it would ruin the mood and limit the show to the most visible emotions. It would force you to realize you are with a group and it would destroy the escapism. Isn't that weird, in all those other genres, even horror (where you gasp out-loud just don't ruin it for everyone else), you get to stay in the escapist mindset but with some comedy, the only escape made available is to falsely imply the truth, that you are sharing an experience with other people. God, how lonely are we? What Skinnerian lab created this? What cynical genius? Is this why it works with comedy and only comedy? Is this a form of mind control?
At any rate, I say down with the laugh track. And since most of them are just canned or are recorded on a different mike, give the audience at home the chance to turn them off. Maybe. I would hate to see some shows without a laugh track. It would be a guy making a pun, standing still for five seconds, and then the other guy would fall down, and everyone would stand still for a few seconds. Goo...that would be weird.
I want to try and find a historical book about laugh tracks, but for now, I'll have to deal with the Wikipedia entry. Still an interesting read.
Si Vales, Valeo
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