Some viewers hate the laugh track added to sitcoms. But for a show that uses them, a missing laugh track can be even more distracting.
The Andy Griffith Show, which I still think is one of the best shows ever produced for television, relied on prerecorded laughter for its eight-year run. But a curious thing happened to reruns from the show’s third season. At one point during a particular episode, the laugh track suddenly goes silent in mid-laugh. For the rest of that episode and for the next few shows, viewer are treated to a missing laugh track.
If you hate laugh tracks added to shows, you might think this is a good thing. But for a show that designed pauses to accommodate the canned laughter, it creates a very awkward silence.
Sitcom showrunners do have options if they decide they want to rely on that canned laughter.
Option 1: Bring in an audience
The first is the most obvious, though not always the most convenient. That involves bringing in an actual studio audience and having the actors perform the show as if it were a stage play. The first few years of All in the Family was recorded that way. I Love Lucy used a studio audience for its run as well.
But not all performers are fans of having the live audience. Andy Griffith once told an interviewer about his guest spot on Lucille Ball’s The Lucy Show. At the time, he wasn’t used to performing in front of a studio audience. His approach had always been to focus on character interaction and getting from Point A to Point B. Her approach with a studio audience, Griffith said, was to “face forward and yell.” He realized, just before the cameras rolled, that he had to shape his performance to her standard. He made it through the show, but it seemed to reinforce his dislike of the three-camera studio audience technique.
Having a studio audience means bringing in 200-300 people and typically involves hiring a “warmup” act to get the audience laughing and ready for the show. The warmup man will also step in and engage with the audience during production delays.
It can also cause delays if someone is misbehaving or is unusually noisy at the wrong moments.
Option 2: Play the episode to an audience after it’s recorded
As I mentioned, when All in the Family began, it was performed like a stage play with a full audience in place. During those years, the show ran a disclaimer recorded by actor Rob Reiner:
“All in the Family was recorded on tape before a live audience.”
Back then, the networks were concerned about authenticity. These days, most viewers don’t seem to care.
But for the last season, the show changed its production technique. It would complete the episode without an audience, then play the edited program like a movie with a studio audience watching the playback. Their responses would be recorded just as they had been the old way. That recording of their reaction was then added to the broadcast.
The show then changed disclaimers. This time, Carroll O’Connor read this message:
“All in the Family was played to a studio audience for live responses.”
The messaging was similar. Most viewers wouldn’t have noticed the subtle change in wording if they paid attention to the disclaimer at all.
Recording without an audience meant the cameras could get in closer. They could also tape out of sequence without mixing up the assembled audience. It led to more flexibility for the production staff.
The home audience, of course, didn’t know the difference.
Option 3: The laugh track
Andy Griffith preferred the third option of the three: working with one camera, filming like a movie and then adding a laugh track. Griffith reportedly wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a laugh track and even asked the producers to record a live audience’s reaction to a finished episode. That experiment was apparently too costly for the time, so Griffith ended up going with the laugh track instead.
Some producers and viewers hated the idea of laugh tracks. M*A*S*H producer Larry Gelbart didn’t want a laugh track, but he couldn’t defeat the tradition…with one key exception. He persuaded CBS that a laugh track would be wholly inappropriate during surgical scenes in the operating room.
The show is funny without laugh tracks in those scenes. I don’t find the show unfunny during scenes outside the O.R.
When I was a kid, plenty of shows used laugh tracks (or a real audience). A handful used a combination of the two: a live audience was there, but when their reaction wasn’t “big” enough, the producers might call for a laugh track to “sweeten” the response.
Laugh tracks, to me, aren’t a turn-off as long as they aren’t over the top compared to the reaction you’d expect the joke to receive.
But when a show is supposed to have a laugh track and the track goes missing, things sound amiss.
The case of the missing laugh track
There are four episodes of The Andy Griffith Show from season four where the laugh track is missing for at least part of the episodes. There’s no official explanation as to why the laugh track is out. We can assume it was some kind of dubbing error.
But when you’ve seen those shows as many times as I have and you suddenly hear them without even canned laughter, the show sounds strange.
There are pauses where laughter should be. The pauses stand out in a big way. The jokes still work to a point, but the silence where the fake laughter belongs is all the more obvious. The realization that it’s missing actually takes away from the humor of the moment.
I think fi the show had never used a laugh track, it would have worked fine. But once you know the laughter is supposed to be there, it’s weird not hearing it.
But do most people think laugh tracks help or hurt?
In 2007, researchers at Cleveland State University’s School of Communication studied the four episodes of the show that lacked the soundtrack. In fact, they played the shows to an audience both with and without the laughter.
The audience rated three of the four shows as funnier with the laughter. But for one of the shows, “Opie the Birdman,” in which Griffith’s character’s son accidentally kills a bird and must raise its hatchlings, the audience found that episode much funnier without the laugh track. I’ve seen that show and there’s plenty of emotion in it. But there are still jokes that — at least for me — fall flat during those pauses where the laugh track was meant to be. A sparing use of the laugh track for that show would make the difference for me.
Still, the fact that three of the four shows seemed funnier with the canned laughter says a lot about how it worked. I don’t think any of us need the sound of an audience laughing to know when a joke is supposed to be funny.
But I think it can still supplement the humor of the moment.