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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?

Why?

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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
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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 27 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
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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
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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
    
I have seen a few videos with the laugh tracks removed from the Big Bang theory. Completely cringe inducing, to be mild, and you can get a similar effect from Friends and any other show where they have the actors pause to let the laugh track roll. – Kosmos Jun 29 at 22:01

Graham Lineham, sitcom writer behind several successful Irish and British sitcoms, wrote an article on this.

This seems the most important point (my bold):

Audience laughter, when it's deserved, acts as a sort of fairy dust that makes funny moments not just funny, but joyous. It also takes the edge off moments that otherwise might tip over into tragedy; imagine Basil Fawlty whacking his car with a branch or goosestepping around a hotel lobby to complete silence and you're imagining not a comedy, but a fairly grim account of mental collapse.

It's a stylistic thing that changes the tone of a scene. As the asker says, without laughter, MASH is quite a grim account of some of the horrors of war, which is interesting, but not what the creators wanted.

Contrast it with modern sitcoms that don't have laughter, such as The Office, Peep Show, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm etc - these tend to be more like comedy-dramas with humour frequently based on tension, where laughter would kill the drama and the tension. Comedies that do choose to add laughter tend to be comedies that are lighter, sillier, or more knowingly over-the-top (especially Lineham's).


It's worth noting that Lineham's sitcoms, and I believe most sitcoms with a laugh track, are filmed in front of a live audience - the laughter is a genuine audience reaction that the actors can hear and are responding to, it's not "canned laughter" added in post-production. It's also usually taken from the first take, since that's usually the biggest and most genuine laugh.

He also gives some reasons that are specific to live audiences:

  • it pushes me to make the show funnier... Under the threat of such an unpredictable group of people, any line that doesn't get a laugh stands out like an old guy at a party.

  • There are some actors who come alive in front of a crowd, and if you've cast it right, there's an energy between cast and audience

A lot of the comic timing of sitcom actors in sitcoms filmed in front of a live audience is based on responding to the audience, which is part of the reason why it can be so painful to watch these when the audio track from the mics pointed at the audience is turned off: the actors are reacting to something that isn't there.

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