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What is Canned Laughter?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: May 23, 2024

Canned laughter, also called a laugh track, is a sound track added to television comedies. It is used during parts of the show when one would expect an audience to laugh, and it may punctuate jokes or moments of slapstick comedy. Not all television comedies where one hears laughter after jokes use canned laughter; some shows record episodes in front of a live audience.

The first use of canned laughter was in the 1950s television series, The Hank McCune Show. The laughter came from a box invented by Charley Douglass. His sound machine was called the Laff Box and delivered a variety of laughs, from giggles, to chuckles to tear producing laughter. Types of laughter could be played separately, much like playing a sample keyboard.

Today’s laugh track is more sophisticated since sound technology has advanced so much. It can be inserted virtually anywhere in an episode, and samples of laughs can range dramatically. Early added laughter often began to sound the same after a while. For example, it’s fairly easy to recognize the same laughs over and again on shows like The Brady Bunch.

Though canned laughter was most often employed on 30-minute sitcoms, sometimes it was used in hour-long shows as well. One unusual use of it was for the series Eight is Enough, which often was not comic. More often, hour-long series like The Love Boat were punctuated with canned laughter that may have helped some laugh along with its comic material.

The idea behind a laugh track is that it provokes the laughter of an at home audience. Laughing can be enjoyably contagious. However, some find the prospect of fake laughter somewhat annoying, as it subliminally attempts to get laughs for comic lines that may be relatively undeserving.

Some recent comic television shows have veered away from canned laughter. Both the British and American versions of The Office, for example, did not employ it. Some claim they enjoy these shows more because they give the viewer an opportunity to laugh freely, without being influenced by an imaginary audience.

Not all shows that are recorded in front of an audience completely use the audience’s laughter. If a joke does not seem to provoke a large enough response, laugh tracks may be added. This is usually referred to as "sweetening" the laugh track.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon958170 — On Jun 25, 2014

It's like in Annie Hall when Woody Allen says Max is adding a laugh track because the show is not funny. I cannot watch a show with a laugh track.

By anon334707 — On May 14, 2013

I wonder how to stop that mediocre stupidity, and why all the shows are doing that too? I would like to see some shows decide not to do it, just to be free minded, independent, and show everybody is not a copy cat.

By anon257745 — On Mar 28, 2012

The IT crowd doesn't use canned laughter. It's filmed in front of a live studio audience whose reactions are recorded to fill in and compensate for the pauses that are caused by actors having to wait for people to stop laughing.

This is how it is in most of the series that you've decided use canned laughter. The only time where you can outright tell it isn't real laughter these days is if it's in an animated program.

By anon224642 — On Oct 24, 2011

Canned laughter very often tries to make up for a weak script. There have been many examples of this, largely during the 1990s.

By anon213138 — On Sep 10, 2011

Canned laughter is a scam in that it allows the production to get away with delivering less product. Take away the time spent on commercials and the time taken up with canned laughter and there's not much left of the 30 or 60 minutes of the program. This is why the Simpsons is so much funnier than shows that use canned laughter. It is a contemptible practice.

By anon192240 — On Jun 30, 2011

A really talented laugh track operator could select from a list of different types of audience responses and make it sound fairly natural. Sometimes a minor joke only deserved some polite giggles, while a big sight gag would get a longer and louder burst of guffaws and screams. These were mostly recorded during comedy shows in the early to mid 1950s, so TV audiences in the 70s were still hearing the reactions of people watching the Red Skelton show or “I Love Lucy.” If the show announced that it was recorded in front of a live audience, however, most of the reactions were genuine. The only problem would be getting the audience to react the same way take after take.

Seeing Fonzie crash through Arnold's window on his motorcycle may have been funny the first time, but not the fifth time after the set was rebuilt. The producers may have used studio laughter recorded during an earlier take, so in a sense it was still a canned (recorded) laugh track.

By anon158486 — On Mar 07, 2011

I think laugh tracks are designed to teach people about what is funny. In a way, it's a mild form of mind control.

By anon148406 — On Feb 01, 2011

Who actually coined the phrase "canned laughter"?

By anon109336 — On Sep 07, 2010

canned laughter is so idiots know where to laugh.

just watched "the IT crowd" -- great show ruined by canned laughter. you can easily spot it, it starts instantaneously and ends just as abruptly but the thing that makes it really obvious is it happens every three seconds, especially when nothing funny has happened. it's for morons. Please make it stop.

By anon87817 — On Jun 01, 2010

Nothing is more annoying to me than to listen to constant canned laughter that attempts to portray lame dialogue on lame sitcoms as being very hilarious.

I can just imagine a canned laughter audience sitting in a theatre with blank emotional stares when a truly clever and witty satirical program is performed for them.

By anon55705 — On Dec 09, 2009

Why must canned laughter be so often absurdly overdone? It is as if some idiot is trigger happy with it.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia...
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