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The Insinuation of Laugh Tracks in Today's Sitcoms

Updated on September 18, 2011

Situational comedies. Sitcoms. Whatever you call them, they’re that half hour of humor that wraps up a whole story within the time allotted. They teach a lesson, resolve an issue all the while putting a smile on our faces. And they’re all different. Some revolve around families, other friends and workplaces. Still, a sitcom is a sitcom. And it seems a common tool maybe on its way out: the laugh track.

A laugh track is the laughter heard after jokes or funny situation on sitcoms that give home audiences the impression it was filmed in front of a live audience. Now, if you’re like me, you believed that to be true for the longest time, never really recognizing that the audience laughed the same way every time and the same audience was present across multiple shows. What bothered me the most about these live audience laughers was that they all laughed together. I always found myself laughing at odd times, against the norm of the laugh tracks and that made me feel alone in my humorous tastes.

And then I went to college for Communications and I learned a lot about those live laughers. Those made me feel a bit better about what I found funny, especially when viewing TV shows and movies in my classes and other people laughing at the same time as me. Who really needs a laugh track anyway?

Recently, I’ve noticed a decline in laugh tracks. I don’t know if that fact correlates with the more “realistic” approach as in the docu-comedies “The Office” and “Modern Family”. They never prompt us to laugh with artificial laughter, and yet we still do. Even a new sitcom “Friends With Benefits” decided to do without the tracks and it’s still funny. The more TV literate the public gets, the less needed the laugh tracks are because humor, on all levels, in every form are more readily available.

Yet, some of the biggest shows in comedy today utilize the laugh track. Shows like “How I Met Your Mother”, “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” all use laugh tracks. They follow the same norms of some of the favorites from the ‘90s.

In looking into the function of laugh tracks I stumbled across some interesting videos on YouTube. I pose the question “Would sitcoms still be funny without the laugh track?” and ask you to click the video below to weigh in:

Is it funny or just awkward now?

If you’re not familiar with “The Big Bang Theory” go to YouTube and type in other sitcoms that use laugh tracks, like “Friends” or “That 70’s Show” with “no laugh track” following the name and there are many other examples (that I could not embed due to ownership settings).

Does the fact that the mentioned notable sitcoms use laugh tracks cheapen their comedy because others, without laugh tracks make us laugh just as hard?

A giant part of me wants to say yes, wants to lead a revolt against the evil laugh tracks because I want to see great screenwriters shine but a life without laugh tracks seems unrealistic. Slashing laugh tracks from sitcoms would end up making me hate one of my favorite shows. Should I really let a simple audio track do that?

So what’s the difference? Does there need to be a categorization between the have’s and the have not’s? I think it’s clear there does. Coming into a show, knowing it’s got a laugh track or it doesn’t should change the way you view the humor. I like to laugh when it’s funny and not when I’m sitting there confused as to why the automated laughter is telling me it’s funny.


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    • profile image

      Viktoria 3 years ago

      the only thing i am recording for the new shows are: unbtlgeotafre, the middle, person of interest, nikita, prime suspect, and ringer. Some of my faves are warehouse 13, burn notice, white collar, against the wall, american restoration, and a whole bunch of other ones. Oh yeah and Damages that show is so great.

    • profile image

      Luke 5 years ago

      To be perfectly honest, the distinction between 'shows with a laugh track' and 'shows with a live studio audience' is pretty much negligible (when I'm watching, at least). In both instances I feel like I (the viewer at home) am being told how and when to react based on the judgments of others (be they editors or other viewers). The arguments against laugh tracks hold equally true against the laughter of a live studio audience.

    • profile image

      jensen 5 years ago

      the same with Big Bang Theory - it uses live studio audience which cannot be forced to o laugh at the "correct" moment.

    • profile image

      Blake 5 years ago

      Friends and Two and a Half Men are filmed in front of live audiences. I'm positive they didn't use laugh tracks. Get your facts straight.

    • profile image

      John q audio guy 5 years ago

      It's way more complicated than just a "simple laugh track." There are post production processes involved as well as planted laughers, to produce "bigger laughs." Proprietary libraries, laughs taken from previous tapings, and even ADR "laugh pro's."

    • KF Raizor profile image

      KF Raizor 6 years ago

      I went to see an episode of "Brothers" taped in the mid-80s. It was taped in front of alive audience, and before the show started they told us to just laugh at what we thought was funny. There were no applause signs and no "laugh, PLEASE!" signs in the studio.

      Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart did not want a laugh track on "M*A*S*H." They reached a compromise with CBS and had no laugh track in the operating room scenes. On the DVDs you can turn the laugh track off, which I greatly appreciate. Mark Hamill had a pre-"Star Wars" role in a TV series called "The Texas Wheelers," which did not have a laugh track -- it also did not have a long run.

      Personally, I don't think a laugh track is necessary. We don't have them in movies, and we don't have them on hour-long series that frequently employ comedy amid the drama. I think of shows like "Burke's Law" (my all-time favorite show), "Lou Grant," and even parts of "Hill Street Blues" (namely, Mick Belker) that had considerable comedic parts, and these shows never insert a laugh track for the comedy.

      I tend to agree with you that the laugh tracks are there because the shows lack comedy and therefore need to tell the viewers, to quote Foghorn Leghorn, "That was a joke, son."

    • BrittanyDeMauro profile image

      BrittanyDeMauro 6 years ago from Hiding in SC but originally from NJ

      Thanks Rob! I love Scrubs as well! Can't believe I forgot it.

      But seriously, check out sitcoms that have the laugh tracks removed on youtube. It's scary how unfunny they really are!

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      I've never liked the use of laugh tracks. I prefer comedies like "Scrubs" who don't bother with it.

      Are we all too dumb to know when to laugh or are the jokes just so unfunny that we need to hear someone else laughing to know that something funny was just said? Unless it's a live audience, I don't want to hear any laughter injected into the show.

      Excellent hub.