Most of us have watched TV comedy at one time or another. The Big Bang Theory, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, Hogan’s Heroes, The Good Life, etc, etc. They’re all filled to the brim with crowds of laughing people. Now… probably the oddest thing to me about laugh tracks is the fact that they feel so natural. It’s habit – we see something slightly amusing or tickling, and then someone else laughs, and then we’re splitting our own sides as well. But what is a laugh track? It’s a pre-recorded excerpt. Some crowd of people was watching something super funny one day, and someone (Charles Douglass) had the bright idea of taking their laughter and engineering it into other things.
So again: what is a laugh track? It’s a dusty, overused copy of some random crowd’s laughter about something totally unrelated to what we’re watching right now. But the thing is, it still (usually) feels completely natural. It’s often quite hard to pick out the times when laugh tracks are used, because we’re laughing right along with everyone else.
I think the thing that really intrigues me about laugh tracks is really something very simple. It’s stand-up comedian rule #1: don’t laugh at your own jokes. If they flop, they flop – move on. Laughing at your own jokes is poor sportsmanship. Is it doable? Sure, but people think you’re a fool and start laughing at you rather than with you. But then comes another side to the definition of laugh tracks: they are the illusion of someone other than the writer laughing at the situation/joke. It’s one of the most important of the magician’s rules: if you’re doing something sneaky with one hand, make sure you are very strongly encouraging your audience to either think nothing of it or look somewhere else. Sure, it’s a laugh that the writer/director inserted, but does it sound like the director or the writer? Nope, it sounds like a general crowd of other people responding to the piece. And it’s that fact that does it for us. If there was only one person laughing, we’d not laugh along with it. We’d scratch our heads and look for the source, discover that it’s Joe, then puzzle over him for a moment or two before making wisecracks at him or simply telling him to shut up. But if an entire crowd starts laughing, we’re sucked in. It’s peer pressure at its most curious – a couple of hundred invisible voices have cracked into laughter, so we feel the peasant-urge to follow along.
A simple flick of the wrist. A snapshot into human psychology. A minute observation that has made trillions of dollars for comedy shows worldwide. For years, stand-up comedians have been quite successful and side-splitting without laugh tracks prompting anything; laugh tracks are the cheapest and most effective way of persuading us to feel and think that even poor humor is simply hilarious.
One slice of comedy to two slices of peer pressure. Sometimes even worse ratios.
But will that prevent us from laughing along with everyone else? Probably not. It’s instinct. But now that you’ve read this post, I tell you one thing for sure regarding laugh tracks: ignorance was bliss. Too bad, eh?