Laugh with, Not at, the Laugh Track

Unpopular Opinions is a bi-weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it’s asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.

Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience.” Those are welcoming words to people of a certain age. They make you think about a home cooked meal after soccer practice. Or a sack of McDonald’s you happily shoved down your throat while waiting for your mom and dad to come home from their weekly night out. Or the can of still beer you guzzled by yourself after stealing it from the front yard of a frat house when you were 11 years old.

Most of all, if you’re like me, it makes you think about how this television show about a group of lonely people who hang out together in a bar in downtown Boston made you feel less alone, through its stories and its characters and, most importantly, its funny jokes. Jokes that I think could have only been as funny, as poignant and as well performed as they were, because they were delivered in front of a live studio audience whose laughter was being recorded to be affixed to the broadcast.

The laugh tracks on shows like Cheers, All In The Family, I Love Lucy, Everybody Loves Raymond and, sure, even Seinfeld (an undeniably classic show whose laugh track was weirdly often a mixture of live and fake audience reactions) were crucial for shaping the pacing, acting and humor of these shows.

I spoke to a legendary television producer, who has sitcoms, live sketch shows and standup specials to “his” name, to find out just how important laughter is to the creative process of these shows. To show you how controversial the “Laugh Track” subject is, the producer would only speak with me if I promised to keep “his” identity a secret.

“For a performer, [a live audience] is paramount to honing [his or her] own routines,” responded the producer. “Obviously, by the time they are taping in front of a live audience they should have spent months and in some cases years perfecting that performance. …I’m one of those people who totally believe in showing everything in front of an audience, even if it’s just to work out timing or work out the beats or make the actors more comfortable with their characters.”

You can tell, with those classic shows, that a lot of those jokes really, really hit hard because they were beat out and, oftentimes, rewritten right in front of the audience’s eyes. And as a show like Cheers or Everybody Loves Raymond went on, the jokes and the characters became stronger and stronger as the actors continuously perfected the timing of these well-worn, classic characters in front of a live studio audience.

Let’s take a step back here. I’m not saying I prefer sitcoms with a laugh track to single-camera shows. And I’m not attempting to defend modern day multi-camera sitcoms that use entirely artificial laugh tracks to “sweeten” their jokes or use a drunk, slaphappy crowd to cover up bad writing and Jim Belushi’s almost Dada-esque lack of charisma.

What I AM trying to say here is that there was a golden age of laugh tracked, multi-camera sitcoms and during that time, there were several classic, incredible shows produced that wouldn’t have been nearly as funny if they were single-camera shows.

Laughter is incredibly important for comedy. I’m a standup comedian. I can tweet a joke and have it get a dozen retweets and 50 “faves,” but if I read that Tweet on stage and it continually bombs, it’s not a good joke.

To get inside that psychology a bit, I spoke with a fellow standup comedian, the hilarious and always gracious comedy veteran John F. O’Donnell:

“Laughter is the ultimate goal of doing standup comedy. Obviously, it’s a wildly important part of shaping a good joke and routine. With standup comedy, there’s this great opportunity to say whatever it is you want to say. …But you have to earn that right by making it funny.”

And the best multi-camera jokes have the feeling of classic standup comedy performances. You don’t get that with single-camera shows. That doesn’t mean a show like Community is any less affecting than a show like Cheers. Or that Parks & Recreation, at its best, doesn’t make you laugh and cry just as much as the best moments of Everybody Loves Raymond. Simply, the live energy of a joke, something aimed both at the truth and the audience, isn’t there with a show being filmed on a closed sound stage – just look at the overwhelming vitality and dynamism of the most recent 30 Rock live episode.

Just because laugh track-driven, multi-camera shows have become a symbol for everything that’s wrong with Hollywood today (the hyperbolically sacrificial cow placed on the funeral pyre next to Law & Order spin-offs and whatever fad in reality TV is most loathed this month), doesn’t mean we should write some sort of revisionist history of comedy that leaves out classic shows. And we shouldn’t feel like apologists either (fuck the “for its time” modifier, I Love Lucy is a great show).

So yes, I think the laugh track-driven multi-camera sitcom is worth defending. Is it worth saving? Even the legendary producer doesn’t think so. As “he” puts it, thanks to advancements in HD shooting technology, it became too easy to reshoot things in front of an audience, over and over again. “The immediacy isn’t there anymore. Anything can be rewritten, redone, reshot right in front of the audience.”

I think that makes sense. Laziness and convenience killed the laugh track sitcom. And that’s a damn shame.

If you have your own Unpopular Opinion you want to make a case for, send a pitch to Jesse David Fox.

Lukas Kaiser is a senior writer for Spike TV. He’s also a stand up comic in New York City whose monthly show, House Party 5, goes down every 2nd Friday of the month in a theater space set up in the living room of a loft apartment in SoHo. 

Laugh with, Not at, the Laugh Track