Andrew Ellard on Laugh Tracks


Maurice Moss

  • Wednesday 10th July 2013, 7:40am [Edited]
  • England
  • 120 posts

It's a long criticism of a fairly crap article by Catherine Gee on Miranda (a show which I don't like myself personally) - but this bit about laugh tracks, which I find quite interesting.

Canned laughter isn't simply a laughter track. Studio audiences come and watch sitcoms, laugh out loud and that laughter is recorded. That's not canned. That's free-range laughter you're getting.

Canned laughter refers to a pre-recorded bank of laughs used on certain shows. Miranda, unsurprisingly, doesn't use it. It's massively rare in situation comedy these days. For a very, very long time it has been felt that people can spot a fake track and tell the difference.


"Once upon a time, audience laughter was used to signal where the jokes were, when producers thought that viewers wouldn't be able to figure it out for themselves."

This is not what a laugh track is used for. It never has been. Are we really happy ascribing this kind of crass motivation to producing talents like John Lloyd, Paul Jackson and Geoffrey Perkins? They really thought so little of their viewers, and the scripts they were filming, that they added the aural equivalent of 'laugh now' captions?

I've heard show makers say that a live audience tells the makers to be funny. I like that. It guides performance, just as in good theatre, and lets you get a feel for what's working. But let's skip past even this - entirely reasonable - point because, I'm sure, the counter-argument would be the fabulously disingenuous "Why not just hire people who know how to be funny without the crutch of an audience?"

Here's the thing: Saying a laugh track is there to tell you a joke is funny is like saying background music is there to tell you a scene is sad. Film and TV music, done right, conveys emotion and context - but it's with you, alongside you, it's not 'signalling' you. It's not intended to point out so much as to underscore.

Nobody, least of all a musician by the name of Thomas Wanker*, needs to tell me that Buffy dying to save her sister is huge, dramatic and upsetting. His music wasn't a signal, it was a relief. The show was with me. We were in it together.

Similarly, a laughter track is inclusive. It's there to engage, to make the viewer part of a communal experience. Does seeing a comedy in the cinema require a large audience? No. Does a stand-up's material get weaker in an unpopulated venue? Not intrinsically. But go see either in an auditorium of three people - you laugh less. You just do.

You enjoyed Friends and Men Behaving Badly right along with the rest of us. If you think you've since grown beyond audience sitcom, I think you're nuts, but go ahead. Quit watching Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd and feel for-some-reason superior for doing so. But don't create a fake history of television, and fake motivations for its makers, to justify it.


PS: I think Aaron made a great post along the same lines (not exactly, but more or less) - which I agree with.

PPS: Can't seem to use BBCodes here? That's really annoying then :/


Maurice Moss

  • Wednesday 10th July 2013, 4:18pm
  • England
  • 120 posts

I had used

, but for some bizarre reason that just showed up as it is.



  • Wednesday 10th July 2013, 4:32pm
  • Royal Berkshire, England
  • 68,746 posts

Yes, an error due to the square brackets you'd put to denote the snipping of the Douglas Adams quote. Never been able to work out why it does that.


longtime firstime

  • Monday 15th July 2013, 2:57pm [Edited]
  • Glasgow, Scotland
  • 37 posts

The kids watch the terrible iCarly with all its mixed messages about how important/totally important/like totally important it is to be cool/be part of the crowd/have cool friends/be good looking/sassy/smart mouthed/be yourself/harbour murderous rage.

The already poor show is made even worse by the literally constant laugh track which rolls across the 'zinging' dialogue like waves across the sea.

The odd thing to me is that like on Hannah Barbera cartoons the 'laughs' are provided by adult voices and not the children of limited intelligence the show is presumably aimed at.

I blame iCarly and (to a lesser extent) Victorious for a lot of problems in today's world.