Where Are the Laughs? A Farewell to Live Audiences and Laugh Tracks
By Jason Rothberg
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Before laughter started pouring out of our TV sets from live studio audiences and pre-recorded laugh tracks, there were claquers. Claquers were members of an organized group of professional audience members, called a claque, who were paid by theatre and opera owners to attend performances and sweeten the reception of whatever was playing. By the 1830s, a theatre manager could order a certain number of claquers to attend a performance, with some being hired to lead applause, others to laugh at jokes, and some to hold handkerchiefs to their eyes and summon fake tears. Why would a theatre owner pay people to react as they deem appropriate? For the same reason we’ve had live audiences and laugh tracks projecting laughter into our homes from I Love Lucy to The Big Bang Theory: because laughter can be infectious.
Up until the late 1950s, the laughter heard on TV comedies came mostly from studio audiences reacting spontaneously to the events unfolding in front of them. Then videotape came along and made post-production editing more feasible, giving birth to a practice called “sweetening.”
Sound engineer Charley Douglass created a soundboard of laughter which was first used on The Hank McCune Show in 1950 to bridge the gaps in laughter that occurred when the live audience was less enthusiastic than the producers desired. (This technique was even reversed sometimes: inappropriately loud laughter was removed via “desweetening.”)
As studios tried to cut production costs in the sixties, Douglass’ laugh tracks increasingly replaced to studio audiences. TV shifted from primarily live audience reactions, to being sweetened with canned laughter, to mostly canned laughter. Some viewers had no problem with their own laughter being supplemented by TV laughter, but Douglass remembers some objecting to the insertion of a big laugh after a failed joke by Milton Berle, after which Berle said “See? I told you it was funny!”
But what was the TV Academy’s response to this evolving trend?
The first program without projected laughter to win the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy series was The Monkees for its first season in 1967. On the basis of that reception, canned laughter was cut from most of the episodes of season two — but, when the show began to fail and was eventually canceled, some blamed this creative decision.
In 1970, My World and Welcome to It, which was entirely devoid of a laugh track or a live audience’s response, won not only that prize, but also the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series (William Windom), marking the first time that a show without projected laughter was rewarded with an acting Emmy.
It wasn’t until 18 years later, though, that a show with neither a laugh track nor a live audience was awarded the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series: The Wonder Years ran for 115 episodes and reached as high as ninth in the Nielsen ratings.
Throughout the 1990s, laugh tracks remained quite prevalent on popular family comedies such as Family Matters and Full House. But, as the 21st century approached and arrived, the new “silent comedy” gained increasing critical and popular acceptance. Thanks to the rise of HBO, with bold and new sorts of comedies like Sex and the City, Entourage, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, it soon became more or less the norm. (HBO has received 25 noms for Outstanding Comedy Series none of which were for shows with laugh tracks.)
2004 marked the first year that a majority of Outstanding Comedy Series nominees shunned any form of projected laughter. Since 2006, each of the category’s winners has done the same, and in 2013, only one nominee had not: The Big Bang Theory. Since the turn of the century, only four of the category’s winners employed projected laughter, compared to nine which did not.
This trend continued across the board in the Emmys’ comedy categories.
Since 1998, every winner of the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series has been “laughter-free.” The same was true of all of its 2013 nominees, 30 Rock, Girls, Glee, Louie, and Modern Family. The category of Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series has produced similar outcomes: only one winner since 2000 featured projected laughter, Everybody Loves Raymond in 2003 — and c’mon, everybody does love Raymond!
A bigger split is apparent in the acting categories. A good actor isn’t tied down by bad premises or weak jokes, but rather shines through them. (My doctor said I had to stop watching The Big Bang Theory because of the increased cluster headaches, but I’ll be damned if Jim Parsons isn’t a fabulous actor. His body language, his clipped exclamations, his everything — Jim Parsons is Sheldon Cooper.)
In the 21st century, there have been seven winners of the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy series from shows with projected laughter, and six winners from shows without it. Pre-2004, a majority of nominees contained laughter; post-2004, most of the shows did not. 2000 was the last year to have all nominees with projected laughter.
2013 was the first year in which every nominee for the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series hailed from a show without projected laughter. 2006 was the last year the category featured a majority of nominees from shows containing laughter. And, in the 2000s, six winners have come from shows with laughter and seven have not.
In the 2000s, the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series has had six winners from shows with projected laughter, and seven from shows without it. 2006 was the first year a majority of the category’s nominees came from shows without added laughter.
Meanwhile, the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series has been all over the map. 2001 was the first year that a majority of nominees came from shows without laughter. In the years since, six of its winners came from shows with projected laughter, while seven came from shows without it.
In all areas of Emmy recognition for comedy, there has been an undeniable preference-shift toward programs without laughter-prompting. This may be due, in part, to efforts by today’s comedy showrunners to distinguish themselves from the guffaw-filled programs of the past and to create true and enduring “art.”
Shows like Louie and Girls aim to use comedy as a vehicle to tell meaningful stories, not just to entertain. Their creators seem to feel that goading viewers to laugh isn’t conducive with that goal. And viewers, voting with their remote controls and/or Emmy ballots, seem to agree.
There’s still a place for laugh tracks, but right now it seems as if it’s a place we’d rather vacation to than live in. Long live laughing — at our own discretion.