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In the early days of TV people used to go to theaters and enjoy vaudeville where there was a live audience. TV programs in the early days were mostly recorded in front of a live audience so the reactions and laughter were genuine.

Then at some point TV producers decided to "sweeten" comedy shows because people were not laughing at the right places so they added artificial laugh tracks. I was lucky enough to get a DVD boxed set of MASH without the laugh track and the show is totally different. The harsh reality of war was not hidden and the contrast of laughter was set against the war theme made the show much more interesting.

Other shows in recent years like "My name is Earl" were brilliant and they have no laugh track. In fact a lot of shows are not even recorded in front of a live audience anymore and they still ADD a laugh track.

What is the reasoning behind adding a laugh track when we are in a living room, not in an audience, we ALL know the laugh track is fake and we don't need to be told when to laugh.

Yet they still add it?


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New York Magazine article Please Chuckle Here - The return of the sitcom laugh track: If the show’s funny, a laugh track doesn’t make any difference. If it’s not, the [laugh track] may help. – Oliver_C Mar 27 '13 at 11:23
@Oliver_C nice find, in Germany when I was a kid their laugh tracks are even weirder, they are applause, not laugh tracks – user4371 Mar 27 '13 at 11:33
Good question. One small comment though (not sure if you're aware of this), many shows still have a live audience and record the laughs therefrom.. – poepje Mar 27 '13 at 16:40
Does anyone know a current show, other than How I Met Your Mother, that uses a laugh track even though it's not filmed in front of live studio audience? At the moment I can't think of one. – Oliver_C Mar 28 '13 at 11:02
@Oliver_C In the end I think even in "How I Met Your Mother" it isn't that penetrating as it used to be in classic '90s sticoms. – Napoleon Wilson Mar 28 '13 at 13:53
up vote 26 down vote accepted

Because hearing laughter when watching comic shows makes people inclined to regard them as funnier than they would normally. Really. Even when they are intelligent. Even when they know it's fake, canned laughter. I know this is hard to believe, but behavioural psychologists have run the tests, and the results are unambiguous: laugh tracks work, no matter how informed or intelligent the audience is. (Only have pop-sci books as sources for that, ask on Cognitive Science if you want the primary sources.)

As for why some shows do it and others don't: fundamentally, people who find a program funnier are more likely to keep watching, ergo more ad dollars. The downside is that some people might find the laugh track offensive and not watch out of spite. Clearly different producers have different expectations of which effect will predominate, which leads to different choices; the production cost of adding laugh tracks is rather small, and probably not decisive.

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So $ for the Lols ;) – user4371 Mar 27 '13 at 10:23
I can't find an example right now but you can clearly see this effect when a laugh track is added to a serious scene. Even if you know the scene is serious and that the laugh track is inappropriate it is virtually impossible to ignore the change in tone. – KennyPeanuts Mar 27 '13 at 14:54
I would content that the psychology aspect is as clear cut as you say. Otherwise it would be a no-brainer to add a laugh track to every comedy show. - There are, and have been, quite a few highly rated shows that didn't use a laugh track, and canceled shows that had a laugh track. It seems that if a show is good people will watch it wether it has a laugh track or not, if a show is bad, a laugh track ain't gonna save it. I think today a laugh track has little effect on ratings. – Oliver_C Mar 28 '13 at 10:58

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