Imagine you’re standing in a room with your friends. One of you makes an offhand comment, maybe a quick joke. Suddenly, you hear echoes of laughter. It’s not yours, it’s not your friends’. It doesn’t stop. It gets louder, it continues, it happens again. Slowly it drives you into madness, until all you can hear is the shadows of ghostly laughter ringing in your ears. This may sound like a nightmare, and to many (myself included), it is. But this isn’t the topic of the next Jordan Peele hit or a Hitchcock classic. No, this is the horrible reality of so many sitcoms and so-called comedies, a vehicle of pure torture: The laugh track.
The laugh track was first used in the “Hank McCune Show” in 1950, and it has plagued the TV-watching public ever since. First developed by CBS sound engineer Charley Douglass to “sweeten” audience laughter, the laugh track was initially used as a way to amplify natural audience laughter and polish it for a more unified sound. Now, the faux chortles are generally called upon to make drab, overhyped shows that employ misogynist tropes and unoriginal storylines appear funny. And yes, I am talking to you “The Big Bang Theory.”
Laugh tracks have become so ingrained in popular television that one may not even realize the effect it has on the show they are watching. Tuning in on the laugh track is like shattering the glass on a friend’s annoying habit: Once you notice it, there’s no going back. Take a look at what happens when the artificial laughter is removed from an episode. Without cues on what is and isn’t supposed to be a joke, all that’s left is an awkward and unsettling dialogue that feels as pitiful as looking into the living room window of a bachelor pad in Fort Wayne.
So why are these tracks so hated? General consensus points towards an annoyance at the induced chuckles, but studies show they still work. Some of the most beloved comedies have used laugh tracks, including “Seinfeld,” a show even a canned-laughter-hater like myself cannot help but enjoy. The success of laugh tracks relies on psychology and a bit of insecurity. In an interview with NBC, Dartmouth psychology professor Bill Kelley claimed “We’re much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people.” You hear that sheeple!? We’re all so obsessed with being accepted and included that we need others to decide when we should and should not laugh. To that I say: No more.
Some of the best comedies of the past and current decade are void of a laugh track. “30 Rock,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” “Veep” — the list goes on and on. Comedy has found its home in the mundane and the absurd, not the slapstick and the obvious. Why are the previously mentioned shows so popular? Why do they cause uproarious laughter without falsified cues? Because laugh tracks aren’t real life. They are an artificial corporate method that makes a TV show feel like a TV show. Yes, shows like “The Office” or “Curb” often implement some slapstick methods, but their humor comes in the fact that everyone can see their own lives in these characters, if not amplified versions. Everyone has seen outrageous antics in their place of work or ridiculed the way the government is run. We’ve all wondered what goes on behind the scenes of our favorite TV shows or poked fun at the bureaucracy. We’re already laughing — we don’t need sound engineers to tell us why.
Imagine if there were inserted gasps at every plot twist in “Westworld,” or inputted screams at every gunshot in “The Sopranos.” It would be a world of absolute entertainment chaos. Those who favor the laugh track will scorn this take, and lament why everyone can’t just enjoy what they want to. That is fine, everyone has different tastes, but I would like to add one more thing. Due to Charley Douglass’s monopoly on the laugh track, most of the soundbytes used today are the same ones used in the mid to late 20th century. Most of the laughs you hear today are coming from people who are now dead. Perhaps mortality is really the greatest joke of them all.