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The Laugh Track:
Directing Emotions Since 1950

by Byron Browne
The joke wasn’t that funny. I don’t recall what it was however, I do remember that I saw it coming down the street well before the laugh track indicated that it had arrived. But that’s frequently the way with television sitcoms. The jokes, stale, predictable and well traveled, are often punctuated not with another joke or some sort of vaudevillian pratfall but announced or even identified by the familiar pairing of unconscious, canned laughter. However, we have all become conditioned to expect and accept this accompaniment. Laugh tracks have, after all, been a component of television programming since the 1950s, becoming, in a sense, another character of the show. Likewise, for movies particularly, theme music offers the same sort of guidance and direction for our emotions and attitudes about a scene’s action. But there was something about this particular television episode, something about that particular moment that just didn’t sit well with me and after a moment it hit me. I didn’t like the idea of someone telling me what was funny; or, in this case, supposed to be.

The man behind the laugh track is Charley Douglass. It was his idea, way back in the 1950’s, in television’s infancy, that particular shows needed punching up. So, following through with radio’s notion and need of a fabricated audience, Douglass brought the technology to television. In fact, the Hank McCune Show, circa 1950, was the first to employ the technique that would become standard industry practice.

We’re all familiar with it. The sudden sweep of laughter following even the most callow of jokes, oftentimes sounding as if it has traveled down a long, metallic tube (which, of course, it has) and ceasing with sudden, mechanical precision. The “laff box” as Douglass’s peers nicknamed it, was, and is, capable of producing any sort of snort, guffaw, peal or snicker you can imagine. Whatever the degree of the joke, the laff box stands ready to illustrate for us just how, exactly, we are to respond to the situation. The instrument is able to create laughter that is male or female dominated, soft, tickled rib giggling, undulating, sustained hilarity or uproarious, thunderous claps of amusement. The device and its effects have become such a factor in television’s presentation that actor’s cues have even been directed not so much by the people on the set but rather by the length of the laughter inserted in the editing room. Just rent and watch some old Flintstones cartoons or M.A.S.H episodes with the laugh tracks removed (read the back covers to find if that is an option on the DVD) and witness the awkward pauses of Alan Alda as he waits for the chuckles to fade away or the now not so funny antics of Barney Rubble.

Some shows, Barney Miller and anything Bob Newhart come to mind, are hilarious with or without a laugh track. Jack Benny will elicit a smile from just about anyone even if he is simply staring at the camera. On the other hand, some fall short even with the assistance of emotive direction. One story, from the early days of television and the laff box in particular, tells of Milton Berle while in the post-production room watching as editors cut and spliced segments from one of his show’s episodes. A joke he had told falls flat, no one from the audience had letting loose of so much as a chuckle. The editor then adds the laugh track to the sequence and Berle quips “See! I told you it was funny!”

In the 1960s and 70s television executives, artists and directors began having the philosophical discussions about just this sort of thing, i.e. the intrusion into a show’s artistic integrity by the heavy-handed, forced directive of the laugh track. By way of compromise, many shows, All in the Family for one, began staging their shows in front of a “Live Studio Audience.” However, not thrilled with straight, honest audience responses, editors still augmented the reactions with post-production laughter. (Notice also how many groups’ “Live” albums have been over-dubbed in the studio after the performances; wrong notes corrected, pitch raised or lowered, etc.) Producers still wanted authority over the intrusion of the fabricated hilarity and many shows suffered cancellations after refusing to incorporate the laugh track. Indeed, M.A.S.H.‘s creators insisted on no canned laughter during the operating room scenes regardless of whether a joke was part of the dialogue or not.

Recently, programs such as The Office and its offspring have begun eliminating the laugh track all together, relying instead on camera angles and close-ups to punctuate and draw attention to particular jokes. In fact, a good drinking game could be made of the show Parks and Recreation with its reliance on the close-up as a form of response manipulation. However, these swooping camera shots are not used sparingly, you’d be good and couched by the first set of commercials; keep the water handy.

The laugh track, however, is not the sole agent involved with managing an audience’s responses. Accompanying musical soundtracks are also a prime motivator for editors and directors. This instrument is less intrusive than the laugh track and often only amplifies the experience rather than intruding upon it. In many cases the music accompanying a show is meant to flow along with the action. Not ordinarily is its intention to sway opinion but, rather, to enhance the existing sentiment. Other times, of course, a musical score foreshadows events or illustrates the terminal point of some sequence of plot. Nevertheless, its intent is frequently to dictate the appropriate emotion-at least that of the show’s producers.

Not too long ago my wife and I saw the film No Country for Old Men at a local Austin theatre. Produced by the Coen brothers, themselves no slaves to traditional filmmaking techniques, the movie offered no accompanying soundtrack for the majority of the film. When, at the final segment, one of the lead characters is involved in a disastrous car crash and simply walks away as the scene, and movie, ends, one audience member was moved to jump to his feet and announce to us all, “I don’t get it!” Poor sop, there was no music dictating how to react to such a violently strange scene. Where were the cops? Where was the voice-over narrative relating the rest of the story? Where was the scrolling text telling us what happens over the course of the next few months or years? Sadly absent was any sort of clarifying detail. We were left only to our own thoughts and summations which, at times, can be as lacking as a good joke. There was only the image of a broken villain, a long stretch of sidewalk and a brutal story that was left, seemingly, unfinished.

Somewhere, in between that sitcom’s attempted manipulation of my emotions and a decent Coen brother’s movie purposefully ignoring them, lies the truth. Somewhere in there lies a degree of separation that we can all live with. Someday it will show itself and I’ll applaud it when it does. Until then, excuse me. I’m going to the kitchen and get my bottle of scotch and a jug of water. Parks and Recreation is on soon.

© Byron Browne
Notes From Over Here
March 1, 2010 Column
Byron Browne can be reached at Byron.Browne@gmail.com

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