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I personally don't like to watch shows with laugh tracks, but we do know that a crowd can be "warmed up" to laugh at almost anything, laughter is contagious, and people can thus enjoy the group laughter.

But is there any widely accepted sense inside the TV industry that putting a laugh track on a show is a cheap way to make it funnier? E.g., that it can get away with lower quality writing? That less content is required because there are constant pauses for "audience reaction?" That it demands less skill of actors? Or are laugh-track sitcoms considered equally legitimate forms of the art that can be as demanding as any other comedy?

This might seem a little opinion-based, but I'm looking for widely accepted general opinions from within the TV industry itself or thoroughly backed studies about the general impression those kinds of shows make on the TV industry. But some possible ways to approach this question a little more objectively might be:

  • Do sitcoms typically have lower budgets when they have a laugh-track?
  • Is the use of a laugh track always pitched along with a sitcom concept, or is it ever added on after the fact to cover up shortcomings? (E.g., "This script isn't very funny." "No worries, we'll add a laugh track!")
  • Do/have networks commissioned shows with laugh tracks to retain a viewer demographic that doesn't enjoy a comedy without? (E.g., "We're losing the X demographic. Add more laugh tracks to this season's lineup!")
  • Would producers be surprised to hear that a writer or actor rejected a job with a comedy solely based on the show having a laugh track?

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Considering the rabidity of Seinfeld fandom, I think you'd be hard pressed to generally call shows with laugh tracks less legitimate. – Catija Nov 16 '16 at 17:21
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    This might be considered to be primarily an opinion question. It might be interesting to get considered & researched answers backed up with examples though. – iandotkelly Nov 16 '16 at 17:26
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    Is "theater" a lesser form of art because it's done in front of an audience? – Oliver_C Nov 16 '16 at 17:39
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    @Oliver_C Clearly, film is lesser because you can do it a million times before it ends up in the final cut. Theater must be done perfectly all in one go while in front of an audience. :D – Catija Nov 16 '16 at 17:41
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    @Oliver_C - That's a step towards an answer. For example, I don't think there's any question that vaudeville is a lesser form of theatrical art. Perhaps another way to look at the question: "Are there meaningful numbers of writers or actors who would refuse to work with a show that has a laugh track on that basis alone, because it is perceived as cheap and/or low-brow?" Just as there were plenty of theater professionals that would not dare associate themselves with vaudevilles? – feetwet Nov 16 '16 at 17:44
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I would say so. Yes, audiences can be warmed up and put into a jovial mood, but, ultimately, the laughter you'd hear with a live audience would be a reaction to something that just happened, and the degree of reaction will depend on the quality of the writing/performing.

Compare that to just inserting the same laugh sound at the end of every line, which results in hearing laughter no matter whether the line or performance merits any reaction at all.

Just like an actor that puts themselves into a state of mind where they feel emotion, and cry, and maybe that effects the reactions of other actors, is going to have a stronger audience effect because of its realism than an actor blandly reciting a line then having the camera shot cut back to them after their face is artificially moistened.

As to whether or not they get pitched with that aspect, no idea from me. There are enough actors with personal quirks or demands that I'm sure someone has refused to do a project because of a laugh track, but I can't verify that.

Along the same lines, to illustrate the connotation it carries, Chevy Chase was rightly disgusted by how the sequel, Caddyshack II, turned out and said to the director, in disgust, "call me when you've dubbed the laugh track."

Caddyshack II Trivia - IMDB

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    A parallel might be film directors who rely on sound cues to create tension vs.directors who only rely on the narrative to create tension. (The first example could be viewed as a form of "cheating" that works b/c audiences tend to be unsophisticated in their awareness of film techniques.) – DukeZhou Nov 17 '16 at 20:45
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Lower quality writing associated with network shows is more likely a factor of the high number of episodes in a given season. (Note that shows regarded as "high quality" such as on HBO, Showtime or AMC have an extremely limited number of episodes. Gary Shandling talked about this at length in regards to the Larry Sanders show, which was one of the early templates for the new breed of higher quality television programming. Essentially, because they were not bound by weekly deadlines, they could take more time to hone the material.)

Network comedy has to be what is sometimes referred to as "broad", b/c the viewership of traditional broadcast television was, and likely still is, incredibly diverse. Thus network shows generally have to cater to what is known as the "lowest common denominator".

Laugh Track shows, which are normally shot in a studio with a live audience, are almost certainly more expensive to produce than "single camera" shows, such as Louie or Curb Your Enthusiasm, for a number of production related reasons. (Both of the shows I mentioned use a large number of locations, but because they are shot in a "vérité" style, they almost certainly do not require major resources. Quentin Tarantino has discussed keeping his budgets as low as possible in order to maintain artistic freedom. Low budget production is probably the only way someone like C.K. can get away with such an unconventional sitcom format.)

Aesthetes like me consider laugh track shows to be unwatchable--they offend me on so many aesthetic levels, even when the writing is fairly strong. But this is purely subjective. My parents watch the dumbest shows imaginable and laugh their respective butts off.

With that said, laugh tracks are definitely used as a method of "cheating", making scenes appear funnier to less sophisticated viewers. (My understanding is that was a primary purpose in creating them.)

It would not surprise me if actors with a little bit of what is known as "f*ck you" money turn down opportunities to star in such shows. However, the current trend, even with broad, network comedy, seems to be away from laugh tracks.

  • How does a viewer get educated? – nilon Dec 7 '16 at 10:32
  • @nilon Please clarify--not sure what you're asking... – DukeZhou Dec 12 '16 at 16:57
  • Quality appreciation may require a certain learning, an acquired taste. On the other hand, low quality products can offer an immediate stimulus, and that's what massive public likes, because they don't know other wise. You point out on the sophistication of audiences: the more learned, the more awareness of film techniques, and hence attention to use of cheap shortcuts. So an educated viewer is one who learns how to acquire this knowledge instead of being gullible. How do you get their? By interest, and practice maybe. What do you think? Why are you and your parents different at this? – nilon Dec 21 '16 at 13:26

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