You know the term canned laughter, or fake laughter? Yeah you know, what you hear on comedy sitcoms and talk shows? Well, it’s known as a ‘laugh track’ and the editing process in post-production is known as ‘sweetening’, by the way. Have you ever asked yourself why you get that whether-you-like-it-or-not kind of artificial ‚flavouring’ on your favourite program?
The guy who came up with the idea was the son of a sound engineer by the name of Charles Douglass (1910 – 2003) who got his Bachelor degree in Sound Engineering in Nevada – albeit not in Psychology. It was he who invented that gastly device they call the ‘laff box’, which went up for auction in 2010 for the equivalent of 10’000 dollars. The modern-day laff-box is, of course, much more sophisticated, with hundreds more, shall we say politically-correct human noises, and other audience reactions including people moving around in their seats, and is now as compact as your average laptop computer.
In the early stages of the laff-box, “since the tapes were looped, laughs were played in the same order repeatedly, [so that] sound engineers would watch sitcoms and kn[o]w exactly which recurrent guffaws were next, even if they were viewing an episode for the first time.” though regular ‚updates’ were made to it then too. *
Now, I have nothing against live, genuine, audience participation. But why does it still all have to be ‘enhanced’ with this pre-recorded fake laughter, giggles and guffaw, cackling and snickering and chuckling, heightened and timed applause? Why, they even go so far as to censor the human hecklers.
Who will defy me when I say that standard practices with prime-time sitcoms (et al) inevitably lead to a subjective type of brain-washing of viewers (they called TV programming) to a moral conformity of what is an ‘acceptable’ joke—don’t kid yourself, it’s not only in the USA but worldwide. (But who can actually prove it is harmful, right? ha! ha! ) Haven’t we enough of the bombarding of images from commercials at lightning speed? Or the news broadcasts of wars heightened by the very fact that the cameras are on the subjects…?
If not, at the very least, does it not underestimate our personal judgement of humour just a tad? And, since this ‚chatterbox’, or whatever you wanna call it, has been around for so long now—since the late 50s and throughout the 60s—why should we stop it now, right? Let me ask you this: Do you not already know when (and when not) to laugh by now? In any case, if this sickly ‚sweetening’ effect weren’t there, would we really be at risk of thinking the show might be a ‘serious’ one? Arguably, we might just miss a laugh whilst zapping through the channels for something more entertaining than…that which you zapped away from.
* – Wikipedia: (Iverson, Paul: “The Advent of the Laugh Track” Hofstra University archives (Feb 94)
Consider, by contrast, the newer series ‘Extras’ or ‘Office’ or ‘Life’s too short’ (all by Ricky Gervais), which don’t (in case you haven’t noticed) have any laugh track, and nevertheless are comedy series.
These, are just as funny or even funnier without the fake laughter, in my opinion. And at least you can hear yourself laughing, how you wish to laugh, and at what intensity.
Laugh-tactics have been around for so long that you might feel initially the sensation, when you don’t hear a laugh where there would otherwise be one, of being offended in some way. Animated parody comedies like The Simpsons and South Park have also opted to reduce the laugh track.
It’s so absurb, really, that I think this technique could be banned altogether since it causes not a sweetening but a deadening of our objectiveness and even perhaps of our sense of intuitions. (I dare put an ‚s’ on intuition here, since I’m sure we don’t all have the same intuition.) Or at least TV ‚producers’ ( programmers) should make the laugh-track as optional as are the subtitles, not for the ‚hard-of-hearing’ but ‚the hard-of-humour’.
Incidentally, did you know that the more a show is prime-time, the more laughs they add?