Leave the laugh track alone

Sunday, March 15, 2020 - 9:40pm

NOSELL

Sony Pictures Television

You know those television shows that begin by stating they were filmed in front of a live studio audience? Until recently, I never understood the significance of it — not just what it meant for that particular show, but also for television as a whole. 

I missed out on the time period when my generation rediscovered and resurrected shows like “Friends” and “Seinfeld” for whatever reason. Of course, I eventually fell in love with them, but long after the rest of the world. With absolutely no justification for missing out on the cultural craze that surrounded these shows, I regretted dismissing them. This feeling of cultural isolation led me to drastically rethink how I decide what to watch. Even then, I still made the mistake of dismissing any show with a laugh track. 

Erasing the laugh track or “canned laughter” from multi-camera situation comedies is not an option, nor should it ever be one. It has been a staple of the genre since its inception. In the 1940s and ’50s, most radio shows were taped in front of a live audience, meaning that actors had to leave pauses in dialogue for laughs to allow for a natural transition for both the actors and the viewers. With the emergence of television, the multi-camera format was created to evoke a sense of liveness, so viewers at home could feel like they were with the audience when they laughed. Today, the general consensus toward laugh tracks is that they’re outdated and distracting. I used to hold this same belief — I told myself if something was funny enough, I didn’t need someone else to point it out for me. 

On my spring break trip to Los Angeles, I attended a live taping for ABC’s “The Conners,” and it was quite the experience. Regardless of how you feel about a laugh track, attending a live taping is something everyone should do at least once if given the chance. At the same time, it was extremely inconvenient for pretty much everyone involved. The experience of being part of the laugh track can feel more exhausting than being one of the actors, from what I can tell.

Given that this process has been going on for over half a century, it’s funny to see how inefficient parts of the process can be. The taping officially began at 6 p.m., but the producers recommended that we arrive at least 90 minutes before — I arrived around 2:30 p.m. just to be safe — and wait in a garage with benches until given further directions. There were already people in line, including some who attend the live taping every week. Others, like myself, were out-of-towners who wanted a taste of being in a live audience.

At 4:30 p.m., I was brought to the soundstage and asked to turn in my phone. Inside the soundstage, the audience sat on a set of bleachers that faced the main sets of the living room and kitchen. There was even a “hype man” who riled up the audience before the taping began and kept the crowd entertained between takes by giving away props from the show or throwing out t-shirts.

The most interesting part of the whole process was seeing all of its intricacies. Around 7:30 p.m., they fed us sandwiches, but we could only eat between takes. I never knew how fast someone could eat a sandwich until I saw the guy in front of me. The “hype man” reminded us that whether it’s the first take of a scene or the fourth, we should always be laughing at the same level. There was even one scene where the audience genuinely gasped out of surprise, but when they re-did the take, we had to recreate our gasps.

Hearing others laugh, even if it’s prerecorded, can make us enjoy the show more. Even though television has changed dramatically over the last decade, the “live audience” aspect is something that will always be important to the foundation of television. No matter your opinion on shows with laugh tracks, attending a live taping is certainly worth adding to your bucket list. If not for the actual show, do it for the sake of seeing a form of television that is becoming increasingly obsolete — we owe Lucille Ball that much.