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Canned Laughter

If you’ve ever watched a TV sitcom, you know what canned laughter is. It’s the laughter of the audience in the studio that is heard after the actor says a funny line or does something hilariously funny. This is done on the so-called laughing track, which is separate from the other audio tracks of the rest of the show.

The invention of the laugh track

Canned laughter was first introduced by a man called Charley Douglass, an US audio engineer who worked on a lot of TV sitcoms back in the ‘50s. What he learned then was that stage plays had a lot in common with TV sitcoms, but that there still was something missing to the experience when watched on a TV at home. The jokes just didn’t function at home as they did in the studio while the show was taped.

Later, he figured out that this dissonance of perception occurred because of the absence of an audience in front of the television. Of course, there are people watching, but it differs greatly from the experience when 50 or 60 people watch it in the studio. The togetherness of this kind of experience is the key factor as to why the humor functioned in the studio but not in the homes of the viewers.

Actors need feedback; just like when watching a play, they feel the audience the same way the audience feels them. This chemistry between actors and audience was there in set, but got lost somehow when transferred to TV. Charley Douglass noticed that and came to the idea to record the audience’s reactions (their laughter) and put it on a separate track with the show. And just like that, the laugh track was born.

People sitting at home would now get the same atmosphere as the folks that were watching the show live. They could laugh at the same bits and were reminded when something funny had happened.

Laugh track vs. canned laugh

Shortly after the first success with Charley’s invention of the laugh track, other sitcoms came on board and started using the same principle. This invention was so popular, it made TV history and became one of the standards for many TV sitcoms to come. Technically speaking, a laugh track is an editing term that indicates an additional audio track in the sound editing process. Charley Douglas recorded the laughs and reactions of the audience in the studio and then put them onto a separate audio track in the editing process.

However, over time, this technique was substituted by the so-called laugh machine (also invented by Charley Douglass). The machine played pre-recorded laughs and reactions, making it possible to have a laugh track even if the given show was not viewed by any audience whatsoever. And so, the canned laugh was born. Many TV shows started using it in order to have the appeal of a live recorded TV sitcom even if it wasn’t taped as one.

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The part of canned laugh in TV

After the invention of the laugh track and canned laughter as a concept, TV shows were much easier (and cheaper) to produce. While the classical TV sitcoms that the laugh track was invented for used a three camera setup, the canned laughter process made it possible for TV sitcoms to be shot with one camera, making the whole process much more straightforward. Additionally, through canned laughter, the TV sitcom was no longer bound to the audience in the studio, which meant that TV sitcoms could now be made with much less preparation time than the ones where you had to invite an audience and tape the show in front of them.

Criticism of the canned laughter

When, in the 60’s, TV shows started using a laugh track that wasn’t actually from a live audience - that is to say, when canned laughter took over and replaced real people in the TV studios - some critics took notice and started criticizing the whole process of canned laughter. The notion that something that isn’t there could be represented as real was always the main motivation for art, but the way canned laughter did it was considered a form of cheating by many.

However, the main reason why this kind of editing technique was kept in shows that don’t have live audience is the notion that it’s a cheap show from the start and thus has no quality whatsoever in any other aspect of it.

The comeback of the live audience

Although laugh tracks have always been around since their invention, the 70’s where a time when live audiences came back to the TV studios. TV sitcoms where, once again, taped in front of an audience with their real reactions and, most importantly, their laughter. Canned laughter seemed like a thing of the past, since every TV sitcom was inclined to show that they weren’t cheap.

Despite the taping in front of a live audience, TV producers, studios and editors still resorted a lot to canned laughter. Sometimes, the audience’s reaction simply wasn’t the one that worked best on TV, so canned laughter became somewhat of a augmented reality tool which took different aspects of people’s reactions and mixed it with the canned laughter they had on their hands.

Canned laughter today

Canned laughter has made a full circle since the 60’s. With many comedy TV shows that simply stopped using it, canned laughter started to indicate those shows which were in the classical TV sitcom tradition. There are still a lot of shows taped in front of a real audience, but many sitcoms only rely on canned laughter as a way of telling people that the show is meant to be a sitcom. Canned laughter now lives on as a comical gimmick but also as an important part of TV history.

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