The history of the laugh track

In a nutshell

  • The first-ever laugh track was first used when Bing Crosby’s show’s producers used recorded laughter to enhance less-than-enthusiastic audience reactions.
  • Today, the inclusion of a laugh track is controversial, with some arguing that it’s a cheap trick to get people to laugh at a joke that isn’t worthy of laughter.
  • With the trend toward more cinematic television, the use of laugh tracks isn’t common.

Have you ever watched a clip from a TV show with its laugh track removed? Awkward pauses alert you that something is missing, and the jokes suddenly become way less funny. But why is that? And why is the laugh track there in the first place? This article explores the history of the laugh track. We’ll look at its origins in radio, its effect on the audience and its evolution over time. We’ll also explore why some directors outright refuse to use a laugh track and why laugh tracks don’t show up in feature films.

With that, let’s begin at the beginning and look at where the laugh track came from.

The first laugh track

It all goes back to the early days of radio and a crucial piece of technology — the tape recorder. As the story goes, Bing Crosby wanted to pre-record his radio shows using new magnetic tape technology. His show “The Bing Crosby – Chesterfield Show,” which ran from 1949 to 1952, was one of the only radio shows at the time to be pre-recorded. This gave the show’s producers an opportunity.

When comedian Bob Burns appeared as one of Crosby’s guests, his controversial jokes were cut from the show. However, the laughs they got from the show’s studio audience were saved for later. These canned laughs, according to legend, became the first-ever laugh track. It was used elsewhere in the show to enhance less-than-enthusiastic audience reactions to tamer jokes.

From there, Charley Douglass brought the concept to television production. Dissatisfied with when and how much audiences laughed, Douglass developed a practice called “sweetening.” In this process, Douglass would add and subtract laughter from a show’s recording to better suit the story — and his own tastes. He even invented a device called a “laff box.” It consisted of a large wheel with taped snippets of laughter attached to it, ready to be added to a soundtrack at a moment’s notice.

Creator of the ‘Laff Box’, sound engineer Charlie Douglass. Wikimedia

But why?

So, the origins of the laugh track can be found in producers’ desire for control over the studio audience. But why was the studio audience there in the first place? We need to go back to before radio and television when performance-based entertainment was most often experienced collectively.

Back then, audiences congregated in theaters and comedy clubs, laughing at jokes together in a communal space. Early broadcasts tried to replicate this experience. Studios would air recordings of live shows and record studio shows in front of a live audience. This way, they could include laughter and other reactions from the audience to benefit those tuning in at home.

Eventually, even shows not filmed in front of a live audience started to simulate the group viewing experience. Studios soon realized the benefits of recording without an audience present. It became commonplace for TV shows to completely fabricate an audience with pre-recorded laughter.

Does it make the show funnier?

While a laugh track can’t change the content of a joke to make it funnier, it does change the context surrounding the joke. And that can greatly impact how we, as viewers, react to it. It has been shown that we are much more likely to laugh in a social setting. In fact, just hearing others laugh can prompt our own chuckles. Laughter, it turns out, really is contagious.

Thus, when you watch a show with canned laughter, even if you are watching the show alone, the canned laughter makes you feel like part of a group. Subconsciously, the added laughter can make viewers more likely to laugh along.

This doesn’t make a show objectively more comedic, but it can enhance our experience. If we watch comedy TV to get a break from the stressors of daily life, more laughter can only be a good thing.

Laugh track backlash

While science supports the effectiveness of laugh tracks, not everyone agrees with their use. Many directors see canned laughter as a cheap trick to make the audience think a bit is laugh-worthy when it isn’t.

Even in its early days, the laugh track had its detractors. David Niven, co-producer of the 1950s anthology series “Four Star Playhouse,” was notably disdainful of the practice. He has been quoted as saying, “I shall blackball the notion if it ever comes up. Not that it will. We shall carry on without mechanical tricks.” And on a different occasion, he said, “The laugh track is the single greatest affront to public intelligence I know.”

For viewers, the addition of these laughing cues can feel patronizing, as if the show doesn’t trust them to see the humor on their own. Both creators and audiences against canned laughter argue that the viewer should be allowed to absorb and enjoy the show in their own way and at their own pace.

Then and now

Despite mixed opinions, the inclusion of a laugh track became the default for TV comedy from its first appearance in the 1950s all the way through the 1980s. Today, however, it’s much less common. As tastes and humor have changed over time, the laugh track just doesn’t fit as well as it used to.

Increased awareness is another factor pushing the canned laughter out of favor. While the laugh track may have once faded into the background, today’s viewers are much more aware of — and annoyed by — its presence. The more people draw attention to the practice, the more the laugh track has gained a reputation as both antiquated and manipulative.

As proof, YouTube videos that remove the laugh track from shows like “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory” reveal how different our experience of a show can be without this social cue. It works the other way, too, as this laughter-infused montage of clips from “The Office” demonstrates.

When laugh tracks are used these days, it’s often with a wink and a nod to the audience, like we see in “Kevin Can F**k Himself.” Otherwise, laugh tracks usually show up in throw-back sitcoms and reboots, like “Fuller House.”

No place in cinema

So far, we’ve focused on the use of the laugh track in TV and radio, but what about film? How is the laugh track used in cinema? Here’s the answer: It isn’t. That’s because, while we experience radio and TV in isolation, we watch cinema collectively in a movie theater. That means there was never any need to simulate the collective viewing experience. It wasn’t until relatively recently that viewers started watching movies alone, but by that point, the conventions of cinema had already been established. No laugh track.

This connection to the more prestigious format of the feature film could be another reason TV laugh tracks have fallen out of fashion. With a general trend toward more cinematic television, it makes sense that the very TV-feeling laugh track would be eschewed.

What’s next for the laugh track?

The laugh track emerged first as a subtle way to enhance the real reaction from a live audience. Over time, however, it took on a life of its own, adding a phantom audience to productions even when no real audience existed. Now, audiences are wary and often resentful of the laugh track’s tactics. Still, canned laughter lives on in throw-back sitcoms and self-referential comedy.

Nicole LaJeunesse
Nicole LaJeunesse
Nicole LaJeunesse is a professional writer and a curious person who loves to unpack stories on anything from music, to movies, to gaming and beyond.

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