Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The real reason TV sitcoms stopped using laugh tracks

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Nowadays, you barely hear a single laugh track. In 2016, only three of the new U.S. broadcast network half-hour comedies airing in the fall featured them. Those series, The Great Indoors, Kevin Can Wait, and Man With a Plan, all aired on CBS. So what happened for TV to shift away from the laugh track? A few things, including the international community’s rejection of the tool. Some Latin American productions avoided using recorded laughter and instead hired professional laughers who filled the comedic silence. Mexican and Canadian productions balked at using the tracks, sometimes only adding them if their series were sold to a U.S. broadcaster.

That helped the growing movement of American creatives, who had been told that research supported laugh tracks for years. Bob Douglass, the son of the Laff Box creator, told the LA Times that the device not only helped the pacing of comedy series, but that, “They actually tested sitcoms during one night, two or three with the laugh track and one without, and the one without didn’t do as well because people come to expect it. There was a feeling that something was missing.”

A 1974 study found that jokes followed by laugh tracks increased ”conformity pressure” in test subjects, suggesting that we laugh along to fit in. The laugh track, then, somewhat prays on this (via The New York Times). But more recent findings that pinned the laugh-tracked Seinfeld against longer-running animated comedy The Simpsons found there wasn’t much of a difference in how viewers responded to the show without canned laughter, according to Science News.

The rise of the cringe comedy genre in the 1990s and 2000s also helped creatives make a more solid case for in-studio silence and at-home laughs. Beginning with the success of series like the U.K.’s The Office, American comedies like NBC’s 30 Rock and The Office, Netflix’s Arrested Development, FOX’s Malcolm in the Middle, and Bernie Mac passed on the canned laughs. Still, they found success, encouraging a whole new generation of TV shows to put a lid on their recorded laughs.

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