eli5: Why were laugh tracks so widely used on sitcoms in the past? Did people not know when they were supposed to laugh?

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I’m rewatching some older sitcoms and the laugh track is so odd to me. I remember thinking nothing of it growing up, but now that I’ve been watching sitcoms without it, it feels completely pointless. Who thought it was a good idea and why?

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15 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Sometimes the audience reaction isn’t loud or sustained enough to be worth using in a broadcast. A quick guffaw or chortle can be more of an disruption of a scene than a laugh that goes on for a few seconds. And sometimes a joke just doesn’t land, but they need to fill in the pause that was supposed to be there for the audience reaction. Hence using a laugh track to “sweeten” the reaction.

Something that doesn’t get talked about too often is that there’s also the reverse, where audience laughter gets toned down (desweetened) if it’s too loud or goes on too long.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Charley Douglass thought it was a good idea. And the answer is: no, sometimes people don’t know when to laugh. At least in the minds of the creators/writers of the show. So, if the live audience didn’t react appropriately he added or removed laughter as needed to make it so the audience reaction was what he felt was appropriate for a given joke.

At this time, this was just manipulation and augmentation of live laughter. Eventually they just decided to create canned laughter to use with shows and achieve the same effect as a live studio audience.

EDIT: And while you may feel it is pointless, some A/B testing at least show that certain shows did better with a laugh track than without.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Mostly applied to sarcastic comedy, which a lot of American producers thought the majority of viewers wouldn’t get.

Maybe it’s true? Maybe they wouldn’t. However, I remember also reading a report, many years back, that said the sound of laughter was psychological in making the viewers more likely to think it WAS funny. Others laugh, viewer hears laughter, must be funny, laughs also.

Came from a throwback to comedies being filmed in theatres, in front of an actual audience.

Anonymous 0 Comments

I seen a video once where a sitcom writer explained but I cant remember all the details, He said that when studios showed new sitcoms to groups they performed better when a laugh track was added something about it inducing a positive response from audiences. He also said there is evidence that shows with laugh tracs have higher ratings.

After all laughter is contagious

Anonymous 0 Comments

Originally sitcoms were filmed with an audience, and you would hear their reactions. In the 60s, TV networks tried inserting laughter into sitcoms, and discovered that focus group audiences found the shows much funnier than with only “natural” laughter. So yeah, it does work. Laughter is contagious. Humans are weird.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The podcast Stuff You Should Know did a good show on the history of laughtracks. A big part of it is consistency (versus live studio audiences). It also allows more freedom with shooting scenes since you can spread out location and shooting times.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Even weirder is watching a cartoon with laugh tracks. Scooby Doo and the Flinstones both had them

Anonymous 0 Comments

Apart from “telling” you when to laugh, the laugh track indicates when to *stop* laughing, so that you don’t miss the next punch line.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Things are funnier to you when you hear other people laugh at them. Strange but true. Therefore, adding laughs makes the show funnier.

(If that doesn’t work anymore, it’s probably because we’re jaded to the canned laugh concept, after hearing too much gut-busting after too many not-that-funny jokes, and/or just because it’s no longer common, so hearing it makes us notice the laughter itself instead of just enjoying the show. But to an audience who was used to hearing audience laughter on shows (due to the live studio audience), the canned laughter didn’t seem as unnatural, and would have had all the benefits with fewer negative side effects.)

Anonymous 0 Comments

Many sitcoms still record in front of a live audience, so the laughter isn’t exactly “artificial” – but laughter from one bit of the show might be used in a slightly different bit to meet production needs. For example, say the first take of a scene gets a big laugh but there’s a technical problem that means you need a second take: the audience already knows the punchline! So naturally the laugh won’t be as big. It’s not really “dishonest” or artificial, IMHO, to use the laugh from the first take in the broadcast version.