Laugh tracks started out as something unavoidable in the world of comedy. Pantomimes (the historical equivalent of sitcoms), plays, and early TV shows with studio audiences would have natural laugh tracks because there would be a real, laughing audience. Somewhere along the way, audiences got so used to being prompted when it’s time to enjoy a joke that laugh tracks went from being a side-effect of comedy to something that now needed to be inserted.
Television executives of the 50s and 60s had such a low opinion of the general viewership that they believed a comedy would get a bad reception if it didn’t have a laugh track. In a way, laugh tracks define what the public think is funny by instilling a sense of crowd mentality; if everyone else thought it was funny, why aren’t you laughing?
Sound engineer Charles Douglass was right at the heart of laugh track development, and worked on many sitcoms from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. As television switched from being filmed in front of a studio audience to being filmed in multiple takes with a single camera, Douglass found that the audience laughter was hard to control. The audience laughed at places that weren’t written to be funny, or didn’t guffaw their arses off for the last joke of the scene. Through this frustration, Douglass invented the laugh track as a necessity for smoothly and predictably editing his comedies.
Mainstream television isn’t quick to give up on something that audiences expect to see, and with sitcoms being among the broadest genre, it’s no surprise that laugh tracks still exist even though they’re widely hated by critics. An NBC report from 2011 says that research insists laugh tracks still work:
“We’re much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people,” says Bill Kelley, a psychology professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H, who has studied the brain’s response to humor. Hearing others laugh — even if it’s prerecorded — can encourage us to chuckle and enjoy ourselves more. In fact, a 1974 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that people were more likely to laugh at jokes that were followed by canned laughter.
Kelley’s own research compared student’s reactions to an episode of “Seinfeld,” which has a laugh track, to those watching “The Simpsons,” which lacks one. Brain scans suggested that people found the same things funny and the same regions of their brain lit up whether or not they heard others laughing.
For me, laugh tracks feel like an insult to my intelligence. They break the forth wall and add to the strange surrealism of sitcoms, and actually make jokes much less funny. And so, to make something I hate, I decided to cut all of the jokes out of the first few minutes of the first episode of Friends and leave it as a compilation of decontextualized laughter.