Comment: In Defence of the Laugh Track

Eddie Atkinson defends a television staple that has become laughable

(Image: Ben Griffiths, Unsplash)

For too long the laugh track has been low-hanging fruit, the easy first joke of an awkward conversation with your housemate’s new significant other, an object of mutual derision that allows a seminar group to become the family it was destined to be. No longer! Someone has to stand up for an institution that has defined some of the greatest (and worst) television of the last century, and that someone is me.

What the laugh track’s detractors ultimately fail to appreciate is that its main function is providing a sense of community, an opportunity for the viewer to add their voice to the clamour of appreciation for a sitcom’s comedic stylings, or the gasps at its shock twists. 

When, as an intimidating youth of 13, I first saw Chandler and Monica of Friends become romantically involved I was flabbergasted. I was glad that, alone though I was, I could share my shock and excitement with people who knew how I was feeling. In the laugh track I found human connection, the reaction of those who shared my investment in the development of these characters that had been brewing for four series. 

When the Fresh Prince of Bel Air uses the same footage of DJ Jazzy Jeff being thrown out of a house for the fourteenth time, one needs the reassurance of their peers that the bit is still funny and they are not going insane.

Sitcom viewers yearn for the feeling that their enjoyment is being shared with others. There’s a reason we show our friends our favourite episodes of The Office, gazing expectantly at them, waiting for the rush of serotonin as they giggle at the fourth ‘That’s what she said’ of the episode; we want to experience the joy of great comedy with someone.

It’s important to note that sport fans recognise this need for community far more than their situational comedy cousins. Cast your mind back to late 2020: as lockdown loosened and football returned to our screens, something was missing. With crowds unable to attend games, viewers reported that fixtures felt flat. 

What did sporting authorities do? Did they tell their viewers that actually sitcom fans felt that hearing audience reactions was ‘forced’ and ‘unnecessary’? No! They did everything they could to replicate the sound of the fans, to provide lockdown viewers with the sense of community they were lacking. Simulated crowd noise was played through speakers or added in production, and some clubs even went so far as to have tiny teddy bears sitting in seats across their stadia. Moving beyond how undeniably adorable this is, something can be learned from the fact that sporting fixtures needed the presence of an audience to be felt in their broadcast, even though it was less genuine than the live-recorded laugh tracks found in traditional sitcoms.

On top of this, sometimes audience reaction is needed; the art of the true cameo has been lost alongside the live audience. When Brad Pitt appears in an episode of Friends playing Ross’ childhood playmate there should be a huge cheer as he enters and prepares to say something brazenly misogynistic, when an NBA player appears on the Disney Channel they should have to leave a huge pause before they deliver their one line. Nowadays, when Rob Brydon shows up in the Barbie movie I’m supposed to ‘stop yelling Gavin and Stacey quotes’ and ‘leave the cinema’. Losing a laugh track means losing the sense of star power that was so crucial to the golden age of situational comedy.

A much cited grievance against canned laughter is that it conceals bad comedy, that when one watches footage from a show without the laughter , one realises there was nothing that funny there to begin with. 

I say, if a laugh track makes something seem funnier, let it. Why must I limit my laughter and ration out my joy, waiting for the resolution of a complex three episode farce to let out a chuckle of appreciation? If removing canned laughter makes you realise something is bad don’t remove it. Sit in your delusion. I know that Sheldon Cooper repeatedly yelling ‘Bezinga’ isn’t funny, but let me live in a world where it is – just for a few blissful moments. While sit-coms can have great artistic merit, often they are simply light entertainment; why deliberately reduce the enjoyment you receive from them?

Another overlooked merit of the laugh track is its value as an historical artefact. Classicists and oral historians have spent centuries attempting to understand how audiences would have reacted to performances of the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh, painstakingly drawing conclusions from the texts themselves to help them learn about the civilisations which birthed them. This is not an issue for the sit-com viewer; an audience’s laughter at a joke that rings uncomfortable to a modern ear, just as insensitive then as it was now, can illuminate not only the problematic attitudes of a series’ immediate context but also how intolerance can mask itself today.

Of course, a laugh track doesn’t work for every medium; shows like Modern Family and The Office, with their mockumentary format and reliance on awkwardness, would not be a good fit, but it has so much more to give us, so many more worlds to conquer. 

There has been much discussion during awards season about classifying The Bear as a comedy. Without getting too mired in this debate, it’s safe to say that if there was a huge laugh break every time someone dropped a pan, they wouldn’t be having any issues. While that point is obviously facetious, the fact remains that comedy that declares itself to be so, that tells its audience something is funny and dares it to disagree, can make a refreshing change to the thoughtful, angsty programmes that have come to threaten its existence. 

Artfulness is important and, in many ways, the last ten years has seen a golden era of televisual content. However, when it comes to the light entertainment that a sit-com promises, sometimes you can’t beat being told what’s funny by a studio audience dutifully following a producer’s cue cards.