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Ooh, I Hear Laughter in a Can, Walking Hand in Hand with the One I Love*

May 18, 2010

Neil Sedaka shutting it down on Midnight Special

*sung to the tune of Sedaka’s Laughter in the Rain.

Random assault fire comedian Dennis Miller used to have a talk show which apparently aired for a lot longer than I remember. In the early part of its run, I was fortunate to spend some time as a live studio audience member. During this time of my life I worked various jobs leaving me ample opportunities to wander the streets of Los Angeles in search of television programs in dire need for a “live” studio audience. These shows were often shot on studio lots situated in more “colorful” and generally impoverish neighborhoods – definitely ripe for class analysis, but on another day and for another blog post – and unless it was high tourist season, studio audience pickings were quite slim.

The first time I was tasked with the job of laughing and applauding on cue, I was on Hollywood Blvd – back when it was still quite seedy, even in the daytime – buying plastic shoes and goth band tees when I happened past a storefront recruiting live studio audience members.

I mentioned that off season audience recruitment presented challenges, but I didn’t explain exactly what those challenges were. Most shows were film during the most “workies” part of the day, which meant generally speaking people with the time and inclination to be recruited for studio audience duties, probably found themselves considering the possibilities of a career in Heating/Air Condition Repair as described by various retired MLB vets, while awaiting the return from commercial break to hear the outcome of a civil dispute on The People’s Court. This is less of an indictment of the audience itself and more a jab at daytime programmers who clearly have some problematic ideas as it relates to the ambitions and potential of their audience.

But I digress.

My first day of sitting in the studio audience proved quite illuminating; I never realized how small, shabby and generally unglamorous most sets are. Thanks to HDTV, you don’t need to be a second shift worker wandering around Hollywood Blvd to fully experience the kindergarten class play stage design and glitter glamour of the average chat fest set. I also didn’t realize – thanks to the demographics of this particular live studio audience – most of Miller’s humor just didn’t garner laughs or wild applause.

why aren\’t there bitchy old muppets when you need them?

Nevertheless night after night, I would settle in to watch the very shows I had nearly fallen asleep while taping to see how the whole thing looked on television. Each night I was floored by the transformation. Jokes I recall being greeted with the appreciation of a fart in church suddenly enjoyed riotous laughter; mediocre guests – we’re talking the Robert Wuhls of the world – whose entrance wouldn’t so much as earn a nervous cough, now made their way to stage greeted with thunderous applause.

Full House clip sans laugh track:

Generally speaking, placing the adjective “canned” in front of any noun rarely denotes the presence of a high quality product. [canned laughter] Many folks feel comfortable scoffing at canned chicken, spaghetti, apologies and ham, while the most egregious example of a noun modified by “canned” – laughter – barely registers as offensive.

Rocky Balboa trailer with a laff track:

I won’t lie, I laffed like whoa and you know I love me some Balboasaurus!

Laughter, as described by Merriam-Webster1:

    to show emotion (as mirth, joy, or scorn) with a chuckle or explosive vocal sound b : to find amusement or pleasure in something c : to become amused or derisive

The late Charles Douglass, a sound engineer, is credited with introducing the world of television to counterfeit chuckles. In the olden days – back when comedic performances actually had to be funny – one did not require the artifice of spam laughter. When our houses started to get bigger and our dreams far more time consuming, television show producers were not convinced of our ability to laugh at their scripted humor.

I find the practice of canned laughter – the wonderbra of comedy – highly offensive, yet the concept itself tends to make like giggle. Essays about the business of manufactured chuckles yielded more authentic laughs from me than the jokes on 80% of the shows featuring the technology. The idea that television producers seriously believe laughs can be scheduled like teeth cleanings is well – funny. It takes a lot of cheek to blame the audience when your jokes bombs!

The nature of filming before a studio audience also contributes to the paucity of authentic laughter. Maybe the first three takes of a pratfall might result in a smattering of laughter, but after the fifth time the audience sees example #284 of Charles not being in charge – over the course of an hour – yeah, it’s just not going to be funny anymore. This is quite the blow, considering it wasn’t funny back when it was fresh from the package either. One thing that always annoyed me about laugh tracks was their use when the show’s characters were clearly NOT in a studio, but outside doing something where one would be quite unnerved to find a collection of unseen strangers – possibly situated in some bushes or up in a tree – laughing at their every word, deed or reversal of fortune. [canned laughter]

Many shows were chased off the air because they dared to resist the tyranny of the laugh track. Shows that did dance to the laff box, often felt pressured to do so, fearing repercussions and possible cancellation. M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart wanted his television adaptation of Altman’s film devoid counterfeit chuckles, “Just like the actual Korean War.”2. [canned “awww”] How dare he! Are there shows which utilized prefabbed yuks that were funny? Of course. Barney Miller and Golden Girls are two examples. There are countless others, which is why the whole business is so offensive. Audiences can be trusted! If you’re tickling our ribs, we’ll let you know!

the comedic stylings of the Ewing family.

I find nothing humorous about the use of artifice to turn something subjective – humor – into something objective. If your jokes don’t get the yuks, you need better jokes or maybe an audience open to your brand of humor. You don’t need a machine containing the aged sounds of humor most likely captured from the time of Kubrick’s bone wielding monkeys with the goal of shaming audiences into appreciating a joke they just don’t find amusing. [canned laughter]

Growing up, I was confused by shows like Dallas, which often caused my parents to laugh, but did not feature canned chuckles. On the other hand, La Mommie could go an entire episode of Mork and Mindy and barely smile; that thing was all about the laugh track. When I asked her why she didn’t laugh at Mork and Mindy, she pursed her lips and said, “Because it’s not funny.”

____________________________________________________________
1 – laugh. (2010). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
Retrieved May 18, 2010, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/laugh

2 Review of M*A*S*H . Thankfully the DVD comes with a choice of canned or free range laughter.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2010 7:52 am

    This post — and the whole subject of the laugh track — is funnier than the shows that needed it. I’m very amused that we needed to be told what parts of the Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island were funny, and how long to laugh at them. Definitely a case of blaming the victim.

  2. May 18, 2010 7:56 am

    Friends: Funny or not? You be the judge. Take agency over your chuckles, people!

  3. May 18, 2010 8:34 am

    “the wonderbra of comedy”

    This is so true… laugh track sitcoms have conditioned me to think every line needs to be perky and uplifted. Now that I’m aware of it, I find unsupported levity to be a lot more authentic, and more satisfying.

  4. badhedgehog permalink
    May 18, 2010 8:36 am

    They could have a brightly coloured flashing and blinking full screen banner reading “FUNNY! FUNNY BIT!” come up on screen after the joke.

    With a laugh track, or even with a recording of genuine audience reaction, the audience at home are listening to someone else’s reaction – their experience of the humour is mediated by someone else’s experience of the humour. That’s one thing, and for sure you can compare the mediated experience with the immediate experience that you have when the only laughs you hear are your own and those of people in the room watching TV with you, and you can compare the nature of live shared laughter with the one step removed shared laughter of a live studio audience. The weird and jarring thing with canned laughter is that the shared laughter is entirely fake. You aren’t laughing at the same thing these people are laughing at, so you don’t have that shared experience at all. And even good canned laughter sounds fake. It often isn’t the right kind of laugh for the gag. It’s jarring. Uncanny, if you will. Now I suppose that one could carefully pick clips of laughter that sound like the right kind of laugh for each gag, make the simulation more realistic, or one could spend that effort instead on making the kind of gags that actually get a real laugh.

  5. badhedgehog permalink
    May 18, 2010 8:46 am

    Thinking about reality and simulation and shared experience and mediated experience just then, I had a funny thought. I would LOVE a copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation with a laugh track. Like a little button in the inside cover that you could press for a quick hurr hurr hurr.

  6. May 18, 2010 8:48 am

    They could have a brightly coloured flashing and blinking full screen banner reading “FUNNY! FUNNY BIT!” come up on screen after the joke.

    [audience applauds]

  7. May 18, 2010 9:59 am

    snarky! you made the WP front page! rock on!

  8. May 18, 2010 10:12 am

    also, hold up a hot minute! there’s a NEW rocky movie?? why?! why milo ventamigla, why?!

  9. May 18, 2010 10:13 am

    What!!! Full house used a laugh track!! Why that’s impossible. You are telling me that my laughs were prompted by sounds generated by the shows producers? I could have sworn the show was hilariously funny…CUT IT OUT!! This fact has now changed my laugh and my childhood. I feel as if I were lied to!! Maybe when Michelle would say “You got it dude,” it wasn’t even funny. Or or or, maybe when Stephanie would say, “How rude” it didn’t even deserve a chuckle. This is very depressing. My gosh, maybe Steve Urkel wasn’t even funny…:-( What is really funny on TV?

    Great blog post!! And very true…I totally agree with you on the laugh track when characters are outside…

  10. May 18, 2010 10:14 am

    Now I suppose that one could carefully pick clips of laughter that sound like the right kind of laugh for each gag, make the simulation more realistic, or one could spend that effort instead on making the kind of gags that actually get a real laugh.

    Exactly. It’s cheap. It’s like the old practice (before minds were changed about the relative health merits of soy and beef) of adding extenders to hamburger.

  11. May 18, 2010 10:37 am

    Watching these clips of “funny” sitcoms sans laff track is downright unbearable.

  12. IrishUp permalink
    May 18, 2010 10:41 am

    “Now I suppose that one could carefully pick clips of laughter that sound like the right kind of laugh for each gag, make the simulation more realistic, or one could spend that effort instead on making the kind of gags that actually get a real laugh.”

    Or, you could go with the all-I-gots-izza-hammer approach, and just insert Dyan Cannon laughing:

    I mean, if you’ve decided that you care neither about the quality of the material nor the subtleties of the reaction, you may as well just go with one of the most infectious belly laughs out there.

  13. May 18, 2010 12:20 pm

    Once the non-laugh-track sitcoms started becoming popular, I realised that I really can’t stand watching shows with a laugh track. I enjoy watching older shows for nostalgia purposes, but a lot of them (ok, well, some of them…ok, well…, like, 2 of them) hold up a lot better than today’s shows.

    Once I started watching shows like The Office, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, and Modern Family (I came to those later in their airings), I was completely spoiled. I tried watching some laugh-track comedies, and wanted to stab myself in the eyes with a used Taco Bell spork.

    One of my favorite non-hobby hobbies is watching shows like “Saved By The Bell” and counting how many times you get the different “sounds”. Like when Slater makes a “playfully-misogynistic-but-endearing” comment to Ms. Jesse Spano. The variety of “ooooooooohs” “aaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwws” and “whhhhhhhhhhoooooooooooooo!s” are a never-ending source of amusement for me. That and Zack Morris’ hair.

  14. May 18, 2010 12:33 pm

    Once the non-laugh-track sitcoms started becoming popular, I realised that I really can’t stand watching shows with a laugh track. I enjoy watching older shows for nostalgia purposes, but a lot of them (ok, well, some of them…ok, well…, like, 2 of them) hold up a lot better than today’s shows.

    It is so painful to watch “sweeten” sitcoms. They feel so forced and insulting. When I started watching shows that didn’t have them – regardless of the genre – I found their absence refreshing and realized just how intrusive their presence tends to be.

    I wonder how people who laughed at Friends can live with themselves knowing the laff box made that show “funny” and not the actual jokes themselves.

    I guess this explains why I find Curb Your Enthusiasm funny – albeit frequently problematic – and never got the appeal of Seinfeld (though I’m sure I must have pretended to at some point, since I’ve seen a lot of episodes).

  15. May 18, 2010 12:43 pm

    I guess this explains why I find Curb Your Enthusiasm funny – albeit frequently problematic – and never got the appeal of Seinfeld (though I’m sure I must have pretended to at some point, since I’ve seen a lot of episodes).

    I think Seinfeld is one show that would have done OK without a laugh track — Jerry Seinfeld was a very successful standup comic before the show started. Part of what made the show funny is that the characters and situations weren’t the usual sitcom fare. I still laugh when I think about Jerry’s mixed feelings around helping Keith Hernandez move furniture (“but he’s a nice guy“).

  16. May 18, 2010 12:59 pm

    True, Redlami. Though the funny groove on Seinfeld didn’t hit until well into their run, which meant without the laugh track it’s unlikely it would have ever made it to the era where it was pretty funny.

    Now I don’t feel so bad for not liking 2 1/2 men. I can blame its fail on the use of a laugh track.

  17. May 18, 2010 2:13 pm

    Great post. A pox on laugh tracks. How stupid do these people think we are?

  18. shortweird permalink
    May 18, 2010 4:01 pm

    Ha ha! Love it! Great post!

  19. J.von permalink
    May 19, 2010 11:10 am

    I love this. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is the worst example of laugh grafting I’ve heard recently. It must pad the shows out to twice their length just giving the audience time to whoop, clap and holler anytime one of them says ‘For The Win’.

    This also reminded me of an old comedy show I’ve been re-watching recently called ‘This Morning with Richard not Judy’, that was filmed live in front of an audience. This exchange from one of the shows seems to sum up how you just need a comic cue to make people laugh (whether it’s a joke formula or a laugh track):

    Stew: ‘…Yeah, women are always attracted to short ugly men who drag blow up dolls with them everywhere they go.
    Rich: ‘Worked for Mick Hucknall!’ *Audience Laugh*
    Stew: ‘What does that mean? None of those things apply to Mick Hucknall.
    Rich: ‘They laughed Stew! That’s all that matters!

  20. May 19, 2010 11:21 am

    ‘Worked for Mick Hucknall!’ *Audience Laugh*

    Ha! Mick Hucknall. This had to be a UK show where audiences would have known Mick to be the lead singer of Simply Red. I actually laughed reading that, though I’m pretty sure Hucknall keeps his blow up dolls – if he has any – at home. He seems like that kind of chap.

    I love this. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is the worst example of laugh grafting I’ve heard recently. It must pad the shows out to twice their length just giving the audience time to whoop, clap and holler anytime one of them says ‘For The Win’.

    I keep hearing this about Big Bang Theory; I haven’t seen the show. Pretty much everyone says the canned laughter is so intrusive and overtly fake they aren’t always sure if it’s on purpose, but they’re always sure that it is annoying.

    Great comment. Thanks for stopping by.

  21. May 19, 2010 10:36 pm

    I really enjoy the British versions of Coupling and The Office. They are truly funny. But that might make me an anglophile kind of snob. Wait, I am exactly that!

  22. May 21, 2010 12:32 pm

    Although I do have to say I do list ‘laugh tracks’ as a guilty pleasure – when they are done right, like on old 60s/70s shows. I sometimes find them pretty charming and harmless.

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