For most Baby Boomers, television laugh tracks were at one time as much a part of the viewing experience as a black and white picture with bad reception. What is surprising is not that laugh tracks have almost completely faded away, but that it has happened with little fanfare. Surely, something that played such a significant part in TV history deserves some kind of acknowledgement, if not a decent burial.
For our confused younger readers, laugh tracks (or canned laughter) were audio recordings of audience laughter which were inserted onto the soundtrack of television shows, either to enhance the response of a live audience (known as sweetening) or used to provide all of the guffaws for comedy programs produced without any audience at all. The first use of the laugh track dates back to the age of radio, where its origin came about almost by accident. Bing Crosby was the first performer who taped broadcasts of his popular radio show, allowing his producers to edit portions of the show prior to its airing. One week in 1946, a hillbilly comic named Bob Burns was drawing enormous laughs while doing his routine, some of which needed to be edited out due to time considerations. A few weeks later, when another comic sequence was not getting much of a response, a scriptwriter came up with the idea of recycling the earlier laughs, which had been preserved on tape, and over dubbing them onto the current show. This was the beginning of the laugh track.
It was only a matter of time before producers figured out that canned laughter could be used as a substitute for a real audience. In the early days of television, shows that were not broadcast live were filmed using the single-camera technique, a system which could not be used with an audience present. When a program was performed live in front of an audience, the spectators would not always respond in ways that the producers and performers had hoped. It was CBS sound engineer Charles Douglass became the first true master of the laugh track, as he became an expert at reworking the soundtracks of various shows, adding, subtracting, stretching or reducing laughs when needed, as well as recording laughs from various sources, building a virtual laugh library. (The Red Skelton Show was a favorite of Douglass for gathering chuckles, as Skelton always included a pantomime segment, which contained no dialogue to edit out) As sitcoms began to dominate the network airways by the late 1950’s, laugh tracks became increasingly common, almost making the live audience obsolete. One of the few holdouts was Lucille Ball, as “I Love Lucy” continued to film in front of actual people throughout the decade. It was Lucy’s co-star, husband Desi Arnaz who decided to forgo laugh tracks, feeling that Miss Ball worked best in front of a crowd.
The 1960’s became the heyday of the laugh track, as almost all of the top sitcoms put the process to work. “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Donna Reed Show” all relied on canned laughter to simulate the existence of a live audience, even through location footage made it hard to believe that the audience was somehow present during outdoor filming. Although many of the laughs were supplied from Charles Douglass’s database, different shows had distinct tracks. “Ozzie and Harriet” used the same laugh over and over again for over ten years, while “Amos and Andy” relied on a looped soundtrack, where the “audience” could be heard talking among itself between laughs, with the words “oh yeah” being heard roughly every 20 seconds.
By the late 1960’s, some shows experimented with airing television comedies without the use of an added laugh track. The producers of “Hogan’s Heroes” had two different test audiences view the same episode of their program, one with a laugh track, one without…the audience overwhelmingly preferred the version that included the laughs. Charles Schulz was asked by CBS to include a laugh track on “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but he refused. Even the Monkees stopped using canned laughter during the second and final season of their show, but the laugh track still dominated the television landscape by the end of the decade, branching out to cartoons (The Flintstones), game shows (Hollywood Squares), and even comedy variety shows (Laugh-In). But, starting in 1970, things began to change.
Making its debut in 1970, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was filmed in front of a live audience, as was “All in the Family,” which premiered in 1971. The tremendous success of both programs started a new trend towards real audiences, putting the long term future of laugh tracks in question. As the 1970’s rolled along, an increased number of sitcoms went the live audience route, a tipping point coming in 1976 when “Happy Days,” in its third season, switched from using laugh tracks to filming before a live audience. Since M.A.S.H. was filmed in the traditional single camera style, which made a live audience impractical, producer Larry Gelbart convinced CBS to limit the use of canned laughter on most episodes.
By the 1980’s and 90’s, laugh tracks had become less common, as more sitcoms either relied on live audiences (“Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” Friends”) or tried the unique approach of having neither a live audience or a laugh track (actually, “The Simpsons” was among the first shows to do this, although you can’t really call it a sitcom). Currently, “The Office,” “The Middle,” “Modern Family,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are examples of going without laughs of any kind. “How I Met Your Mother” is not filmed in front of a live audience, but the completed film is shown to a live group, and the resulting laughter is included on the soundtrack when the program reaches television. As of this writing, use of the laugh track is currently limited to enhancing audience reactions, and is rarely used as a complete audience substitute. Since the laugh track is now 65 years old, maybe its retirement is appropriate.
Trivia: One episode of “The Twilight Zone” included a laugh track. “Cavender is Coming,” which aired in May 25, 1962, featured Carol Burnett playing a comic role. Because CBS was considering using this particular “Twilight Zone” installment as the basis for a series, canned laughter was employed to give it a sitcom look.
Note: Laughter and applause are not the only sounds that networks edit onto their broadcasts. In 2000, it was revealed that CBS Sports, during its golf telecasts, had been piping in the sounds of chirping birds, usually heard when the hushed crowd would be watching someone putt. Apparently this practice came to light when a viewer, watching a golf tourney that was being held in Michigan, noticed that the bird he heard singing was a species indigenous to a region in Texas (yes, golf fans are sometimes bird experts). CBS was forced to admit that birdcalls were dubbed in to provide “ambient sound.” At least, whenever a professional golfer would miss a putt, they didn’t resort to the laugh track.