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What is a Laugh Track?

A laugh track is a pre-recorded collection of chuckles and guffaws that TV producers blend into shows to enhance humor and cue audience response. It's like having an invisible crowd in your living room, sharing the comedic moment. But does it genuinely make the jokes funnier, or is it a laughter illusion? Discover how this invisible audience shapes your viewing experience.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A laugh track, sometimes called canned laughter by critics, is a collection of pre-recorded audience laughs and applause sounds added to television programs during post-production. The main purpose of the track is to trigger a response from home viewers who may not understand all of the intended humor during a taped sitcom. The belief is that laughter creates laughter, so canned laughter supplements natural reactions to a set-up and punchline. Some television producers call this practice sweetening the track.

The first known use of a recorded laugh track is said to be in 1950, when the producers of the Hank McCune Show added canned laughter after the show's taping. Until that time, other radio and television comedies either used a live studio audience or no canned laughter at all. In 1953, a sound engineer named Charley Douglass invented the Laff Box, a small electronic device containing numerous loops of recorded laughter and applause.

Canned laughter can be used to punctuate jokes during sitcoms.
Canned laughter can be used to punctuate jokes during sitcoms.

It is rumored that Charley Douglass culled almost all of his laugh track material from in-studio recordings of several different comedy shows, including I Love Lucy, The Red Skelton Show and various live performances by mime Marcel Marceau. Douglass needed to record all different styles of laughter and applause without the sound of dialogue, so it's very possible that he recorded several of Red Skelton's silent clown performances. If this is true, then audience reactions on a modern sitcom may have actually been recorded over 50 years earlier.

A laugh track is a form of in-studio recording.
A laugh track is a form of in-studio recording.

Criticism of the laugh track reached a fever pitch during the 1970s. Many sitcoms chose to eliminate the practice altogether or mix live audience reactions with the canned laughter. Filming a show in front of a live audience became a badge of honor for a number of sitcoms. Use of a laugh track was viewed as an attempt to mask weak writing or performances. Even shows that still relied on audio sweetening made efforts to cut back on the practice. The problem was that live audiences did not always provide a usable response, especially after a long day of outtakes and retakes.

Today,the same company created by Charley Douglass offers an upgraded digital version of the original Laff Box. Not only are the original laughter and applause tracks still featured, but additional tracks for foreign audiences and children's shows have been added. Most sitcoms produced today are still recorded in front of a live audience, but a more subtle laugh track can be used to bolster inaudible or weak responses. In the audio world, the effective use of audio sweetening is considered more of an art than a science.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a laugh track?

A laugh track, also known as canned laughter, is a pre-recorded audio track used in television and radio productions to simulate audience laughter. It was originally created to evoke a communal viewing experience for shows filmed without a live audience, providing the illusion of a shared comedic moment. The use of laugh tracks became popular in the 1950s and 1960s with sitcoms, aiming to prompt viewers at home to laugh along with the recorded cues.

Why do television shows use laugh tracks?

Television shows use laugh tracks to enhance the comedic atmosphere of the program. According to psychological studies, laughter can be contagious, and hearing it can make jokes seem funnier than they would be in silence. Producers believe that laugh tracks can help guide the audience's response, increase the perceived humor, and create a sense of camaraderie among viewers, as if they were watching the show with a group of people.

How has the use of laugh tracks changed over time?

Over time, the use of laugh tracks has evolved. In the early days of television, they were almost ubiquitous in sitcoms. However, as audiences have become more sophisticated, there has been a shift towards more naturalistic comedy styles. Many modern shows now film in front of live studio audiences or forego laughter cues altogether, favoring a more authentic reaction. This trend reflects a growing preference for realism and a move away from the artificiality of canned laughter.

Are laugh tracks still popular in modern television?

While laugh tracks are less prevalent in modern television than they were in the past, they are still used in certain types of programming. Some contemporary sitcoms, particularly those with a more traditional or nostalgic format, continue to employ laugh tracks. However, there is a notable trend towards single-camera sitcoms without laugh tracks, as they aim for a more realistic and intimate viewer experience.

Can laugh tracks affect how funny a show is perceived to be?

Yes, laugh tracks can significantly affect the perception of humor in a show. Research has shown that the presence of laughter can make jokes seem funnier and increase enjoyment. However, this effect can vary depending on the individual viewer. Some may find laugh tracks helpful in highlighting the comedic moments, while others might perceive them as manipulative or distracting, potentially detracting from the show's authenticity and humor.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular WiseTour contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular WiseTour contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon178485

I don't see the point of a laugh track for any comedy show. I, for one, don't need to be told when to laugh at something, especially when it's not even funny to begin with. That's why I try to stay away from any show that has it. There's no point to have it and no point to listen to it.

DentalFloss

I find it sad that American television especially is still so reliant on recorded laughter in television. Some of the most brilliantly hilarious shows I have ever seen, such as Monty Python's Flying Circus, almost always were filmed entirely without laugh tracks. Audiences do not need to be told when to laugh.

mitchell14

I tend to avoid watching television shows where I find the laugh track sounds to be especially loud or false. Generally, if I do not notice the laugh track of a show, I prefer it. While the laugh track is still a commonly used tool in television show production, I think it often makes the humor involved seem too generic and forced; I like to laugh at things that the laugh track doesn't tell me to.

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    • Canned laughter can be used to punctuate jokes during sitcoms.
      By: icsnaps
      Canned laughter can be used to punctuate jokes during sitcoms.
    • A laugh track is a form of in-studio recording.
      By: imkenneth
      A laugh track is a form of in-studio recording.