Don't Cry for the Laugh Track

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'The Big Bang Theory'
'The Big Bang Theory' Credit: CBS/Monty Brinton

Forty years after she was in any position to make the sounds, the dead woman's laughter remains infectious, which is why you can still hear her distinctive "Uh-oh! Huh-huh-hoo!" as the fussy radio psychiatrist rhapsodizes over a bottle of Château Cheval '75.

The laughing lady is, or was, DeDe Ball, the late mother of the late Lucille Ball, and her anticipatory chuckle has been used to sweeten the audio tracks of sitcoms from "The Beverly Hillbillies" to "Frasier." And while her mirthful contribution to TV production is now largely remanded to the death-in-life that is syndication, DeDe Ball is hardly the only revenant who haunts the airwaves. The dead are an indelible part of the comedy-industrial

complex, and if you watch the standard American allotment of TV, chances are you're guffawing right along with them.

Because TV convention requires a laugh track, right?

There's actually very little research to justify the practice. The last comprehensive study to suggest that a laugh track could precipitate genuine peals of merriment was published in 1974, or a good three years before DeDe Ball chortled her last. A far more recent inquiry into the matter arrived at a different conclusion; a 2011 study of British and Norwegian subjects found that contemporary viewers have all but built up an immunity to laugh tracks, characterizing them as "cheesy" and "manipulative."

While there's something inherently funny about including a bunch of stoical Viking types in a study about comedy, don't take Lars and Astrid's word for it. Most of the people who write and produce sitcoms don't seem to care much for contrived yuks either, although they also would argue that the 100% prerecorded laugh track is about as dead as Leif Erikson.

"I think one of the reasons why people don't like laugh tracks is they don't like to be told how to react," said Mike Royce, the co-showrunner on Netflix's "One Day at a Time." "It's an American thing: 'Don't tell me what the fuck to laugh at!' "

A veteran writer and producer, Mr. Royce has worked on multicam comedies that were filmed in front of a studio audience ("Everybody Loves Raymond," "Lucky Louie") and a single-camera series that dispensed with any sort of chucklebot trickery altogether ("Enlisted"). As such, he has a pretty good ear for discerning between laughter generated by organic lifeforms and the processed cheese-food variety.

"My experience has been that I've never used canned laughter at all," he said. "When you do multiple takes in front of a live audience, sometimes you have to edit the laughs to fit the cut, but that's been about the extent of it. It's never been a matter of amplifying the laughter—in fact, on 'Raymond,' the problem a lot of the time was having to reduce the audience reaction."

Of course, Mr. Royce's perceptions may be colored by the fact that he's worked on a lot of genuinely funny shows. Most network comedies aren't exactly citadels of hilarity; with your average multicam, the laugh track appears to be there simply to indicate where the joke would have been if anyone had bothered to write it.

Another comedy vet who has worked in both show formats is writer-producer Eric Gilliland, whose credits include hits like "Roseanne," "That '70s Show" and "The Wonder Years." (The last show was one of the first popular network sitcoms to eschew the live audience/laugh track convention.) Currently an instructor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and a writer on an upcoming Netflix historical-comedy series, Mr. Gilliland says that while the laughs on every multicam are sweetened to some extent, the outright fakery of the '60s and '70s is a thing of the past.

"I don't want to say that the networks didn't give the audience enough credit, but 'The Flintstones' had a laugh track," Mr. Gilliland cracked. (For the record, the last comedy to use wall-to-wall piped-in laughter was "How I Met Your Mother," a rarity inasmuch as it was a multicam that was not shot in front of a studio audience. The requisite titters and tee-hees were furnished in retrospect by viewers whose reactions were captured while watching the final edits.)

If the laugh track convention seems to be falling out of favor (of the top 20 broadcast comedies, only seven include an audience feedback loop), the practice will never die off entirely as long as CBS keeps flying the multicam banner … and the belly laughs are genuine.

"The people in the studio for 'The Big Bang Theory' are fanatics," Mr. Gilliland said. "There is nothing fake about that laughter."

Anthony Crupi is a veteran TV reporter.

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