Correct television taste revolts against the laugh track. By some combination of nostalgia and contrarianism, however, of late I find myself pleased by the sounds of a comedy’s audience in shows like The Big Bang Theory. Anxiety has long attended such sounds, and recent developments in sitcom form and style have made them an issue for anyone interested in TV aesthetics. Whether live or recorded, authentic or manipulated, an audible audience has endured in broadcasts since the 1920s. But, as Elana Levine and I discuss in our book Legitimating Television, the fashion for the single-camera sitcom in the last decade has offered a more aesthetically distinguished alternative to the classic format — including the rejection of audience sounds — in an effort to upgrade the cultural status not only of sitcoms, but of TV. Now comedies come in two types: the multi-camera shows aiming for a traditional wide audience and the single-camera shows aiming for a more upscale viewer. As in many other instances of television’s legitimation, the upgrade of the situation comedy depends on class distinction.
One common complaint about sitcom laughter is that it insults intelligence: “I don’t need to be told when to laugh.” But single-camera shows like Scrubs and Parks and Recreation replace the audience laughter with other cues: musical phrases like scene-ending drum fills, conspiratorial glances at the camera. The deeper problem people have with laugh tracks might not be cuing, but undue persuasion and even manipulation. What if stupid TV shows succeed in making us feel we have been entertained by sweetening the audience laughter or adding laughs where none existed? A clip of The Big Bang Theory with the laughter left out circulated awhile back on YouTube, with pauses interrupting the dramatic pace, and the less charitable view was that it showed that sans laughter, the show isn’t any good. Such suspicions tap into longstanding fears about television’s fraudulent nature, part of a wider mass society critique that holds television in contempt for its ill effects on people’s ability to think freely.
These feelings led, in the late 1950s, to a short-lived ban on the laugh track by CBS. The quiz show scandals focused public scrutiny on TV’s deceptive practices, and the use of canned laughter was part of a wider sense that television would do anything to hold onto an audience to be served up to advertisers. The commercial imperative would trump any aesthetic consideration, and creative types were known to loathe the canned laughter. But the laughter — real or canned — persisted, becoming one of the sitcom’s most identifying and durable conventions. Some of television’s most beloved classics, from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld, have been laugh track comedies. Performers might bemoan the device, but networks and producers stuck with a format that was proven to work.
Psychologists offer the laugh track as evidence of “social proof,” a “tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it” (Cialdini, 116). Social proof is one kind of influence or persuasion, and the laugh track is effectively an appeal to audiences at home to respond as audiences in the studio (or for canned laughter, simulated audiences) have already done. TV hardly invented the practice of encouraging an audience’s responses this way. 19th Century French theaters had hired claques and rieurs whose jobs were to clap and laugh. Unlike theater audiences, however, the TV audience is typically in a private, domestic space and the presence of audience sounds can serve not only to coax a positive response, but also to provide a sense of a surrogate or virtual public experience. The contradictory status of television as a private view of public events (see Spigel’s “Home Theater” chapter of Make Room for TV) is massaged by audience sounds.
One reason laugh tracks might seem even more passé and dispensable today than in the past (though I don’t know that they ever have been well received) is that our ideas of television aesthetics have shifted. We have moved far beyond the time when liveness was taken as TV’s essence. Live here means events broadcast as they unfold, but also programs shot live and broadcast later, and performances filmed or taped before a live audience, like many sitcoms. Sitcom laughter may not always be authentic but is generally plausible as the response of an audience present at the performance. But as TV is legitimated, its aesthetics are moving away from liveness and performance and toward textuality. This makes TV seem more like cinema, especially the more legitimated forms of TV like prime time dramas and single-camera sitcoms. DVDs, DVRs, and BitTorrent or iTunes downloads offer us an experience of television not as ephemeral flow, but as a textual object we can possess, can slow down for analysis, can rewatch at will, can treat as a thing rather than the fleeting experience of a moment. TV was once imagined as a medium for transmitting performances to a national audience viewing alone but together. Despite the continued relevance of Super Bowls and similar events, and despite the function of social media to return us to shared moments, TV’s identity has moved away from this ideal. Textuality — the materiality of television shows as objects to to be read and reread, to be studied and preserved — is opposed to liveness. The laugh track perseveres as the product of an old aesthetic of live performance transmitted to the home, but its presence seems to violate our current sense of decorum, and it reads as a product of another time, an earlier era of electronic popular culture.
Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (William Morrow, 1993).
Newman, Michael Z. and Elana Levine. Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (Routledge, 2012).
Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (U of Chicago P, 1992).