The Laff Box

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
For nearly five decades, the laugh track was ubiquitous on television sitcoms, but in the early 2000s, it began to disappear. What happened? How did we get from the raucous canned laughter of the “Beverly Hillbillies” to these silence sly joke, every 20 seconds of “30 Rock”. The curious story of the laugh track starts with one man who created the laugh track as a homemade piece of technology that took over the sound of television and then fell out of fashion with the rise of a more modern sense of humor. What happened to the laugh track is just one of the cultural mysteries that are being explored on Slate’s new monthly podcast Decoder Ring. Here presenting the first episode of Decoder Ring called the Laugh Box is host Willa Paskin.

(Pink Panther theme song plays)

Willa Paskin:
When Paul Ireson was eight years old, he would come home from school, turn on the TV and watch the “Pink Panther” show. It was 1982 and Paul was watching the show in syndication on WGN in Chicago. Some channels aired versions of the laugh track and some aired versions without.

Paul Ireson:
I always watched the ones that had the laughter because I guess as a child it was communal to me. I said, “There’s people watching with me and they sound like adults. They don’t sound like children.” (laugh track)

Willa Paskin:
He loved the show so much that he would tape it, but he didn’t have a VCR, so he would use a tape recorder one that only captured the sound. Even though the “Pink Panther” show has very little dialogue. What you’ve been listening to, that’s mostly what the “Pink Panther” sounds like.

Paul Ireson:
What I was doing was allowing myself to hear the laughs rather than watch the show visually, like watching a show with your eyes closed. And I basically started studying. I said, “Who are these people laughing? Why are they laughing in the same order as they did last time?

Willa Paskin:
Paul’s early encounters with the “Pink Panther” or fostered a lifelong interest in laugh tracks. Paul lives in L.A. and works as an account manager at an insurance company, but he’s a passionate laugh track hobbyist. Paul taught himself everything about laugh tracks, how they’re made, who made them, the difference between them, even how to make them for himself.

Paul Ireson:
“The Monkees” is a great show to think of because they killed the laugh track halfway through the second season. One of my goals in life is to re-add the laugh track and not just add it, but try to add it as it was during that season, using those same laughs. It’s really a very strange obsession because there’s so few people you can tell it to, but I love recreating them. I love isolating these clips and putting them on anything I possibly can.

Willa Paskin:
One of the shows that Paul tinkered around with is the ABC sitcom “Modern Family”. It doesn’t have a laugh track, so Paul gave it.

(Clip from Modern Family)
Haley Dunphey: “I just never had a teacher not like me before.”
Phil Dunphy: “Well, Miss Davis?”
Haley Dunphey: “Please, she’s a gym teacher. She is to teaching what Dr. Seuss is to medicine.” (laugh track)
Claire Dunphy: “And to think she didn’t like you.” (laugh track)

Willa Paskin:
“Modern Family” premiered in 2009 but if it had arrived just five years earlier, it would have something like that. From the 1950s to the early 2000s sitcoms had laugh tracks, period. And then when laugh track free shows like “Arrested Development” and the American version of “The Office” made it to network TV, they mostly disappeared. Most sitcoms today don’t have one except for a few big hits like the “Big Bang Theory” and reboots like “Roseanne”. When we talk about laugh tracks now it’s mostly to make jokes about them, but when Paul was growing up and every show had a laugh track, people didn’t talk about them very much. They were kind of a secret.

Paul Ireson:
So few people knew about it or discussed it. Everybody hears it, everybody is aware of it. Why won’t anybody talk about it?

Willa Paskin:
Today, we’re going to talk about it.

Willa Paskin:
Growing up I never thought much about the laugh track one way or another. They were just always there. But as a TV critic, I watched laugh tracks become contentious and deeply uncool. It’s always fascinated me that something we barely noticed for so long, something that we maybe even kind of liked could become so annoying to so many people so quickly. What changed? Why did they exist in the first place? Did we just realize they were really lame, and if so, what took us so long?

Willa Paskin:
From Slate magazine, this is “Decoder Ring”, a show about cracking cultural mysteries. I’m Slate TV critic Willa Paskin and every month I’ll take a cultural object idea or habit and try to figure out where it comes from, what it means and why it matters. Today, what happened to the laugh track?

Willa Paskin:
Imagine it’s the 1950s. You’ve just gotten your very first television set. It weighs a ton and it’s the size of a bureau with wood paneling and a couple of dials on the side. You set it up in the living room and you call in the whole family and you turn it on.

(Clip from The Jack Benny Program)
Jack Benny: “It’s too late now. But ladies and gentlemen, I must tell you…”

Willa Paskin:
It’s “The Jack Benny Program”. Originally a hit radio show, the series stared Benny a onetime vaudeville performer and comedian as a version of himself, a radio star. And now that show from the radio, it’s on your television and even though you’ve heard it before, you’ve never seen anything like it. Before, when you watched a performance, it was in public with an audience and now it’s happening in your house. Think about how strange, how new that must’ve been and then listen, you hear it. Something recognizable, something reassuring, something that tells you what you’re watching. Laughter.

(Clip from The Jack Benny Program continues)
Jack Benny: “It was my sponsor who didn’t have the nerve.” (laugh track)

Willa Paskin:
That’s how most early TV comedies were recorded, in front of a live audience, oftentimes in studios in New York. By the early 50s as the TV industry moved away from New York and into Hollywood, executives wanted to move away from this traditional approach of broadcasting what amounted to live stage shows. They wanted to shoot comedies on film, comedies that weren’t live, but that still sounded live.

Willa Paskin:
The solution to this problem, the laugh track and the person who came up with the solution? Charles Douglas. Carlie. Douglas was a mechanical engineer who had worked on radar for the Navy in World War II, so we knew his way around audio and electronics. In 1950 “The Hank McCune Show”, a mostly forgotten series from NBC, had used a rudimentary laugh track, but by 1953 Douglas had developed a better way to insert a laugh into a show.

Willa Paskin:
If you’ve ever watched an old sitcom, you’ve almost certainly heard his work.

Old Sitcom Clip:
No, we lift up the dryers and see how their hair turned out. (laugh track)

Willa Paskin:
I asked Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center, formerly the Museum of Television Radio, what he knew.

Ron Simon:
Charlie Douglas took the concept that just adding laughter probably from a transcription disc to create a machine that could do it, and he created this little box using laughter from Marcel Marceau and from Red Skeleton, from the silent sequences, and create a tape loops that could then be injected into film comedy to make it a live experience.

Willa Paskin:
Douglas then poured over these laughs at his kitchen table night after night. He spliced them into analog tape reels that can be played on a patented device Douglas had built himself out of household appliances, organ parts, and vacuum tubes. The device was about three feet tall, the shape of a filing cabinet very heavy and had slots for 32 reels, which could hold 10 laughs each. It was officially named the audience response duplicator, but it became known as the Laff Box and that’s laff spelled it the goofy 50s style L-A-F-F.

Ron Simon:
The Laff Box, just this weird machine that’s closer to, we’ll say steampunk than it is to modern electronic technology. It’s like an adding machine where you just press these dials and laughter would happen. Eventually, it would evolve into more of a typewriter thing where you would punch keys.

Willa Paskin:
The Laff Box could chuckle (chuckle). It could laugh with sighed relief (relieved laughter). It even had a reel controlled by the foot pedal that was just titters. Tiny little one person laughs (tiny laugh). At its most sophisticated, the box had 320 laughs. It could play one laugh at a time by pressing one key or by pressing multiple keys together. It could play a bunch of laughs at once.

Paul Ireson:
So if you thought something was remotely funny, it’s here. Let’s have this guy laugh right here (single person laughing). And he just had that going, and maybe he’d come back and watch it and say, “You know what that wasn’t quite as funny as the producer’s going to want it.” So maybe he would add a second sound like this (more people laughing). And then he would add it all together and mix it together. So you hear the full product. (crowd laughing)

Paul Ireson:
Three separate clips overlapped. What would happen was the producer or the director would come back and see his work and say, “You know what, that could use a much louder laugh. Can you give it a louder guffaw?” And he’d say, “all right, sure.” (amplified chuckle) So he’d throw something in. Just like that.

Willa Paskin:
Because Laff boxes were patented and handmade by Douglas, it wasn’t like just anyone can make or use one. There were only a handful of working models at a time and he basically had a monopoly on the process.

Willa Paskin:
By the 1960s almost all sitcoms were single-camera shows filmed without an audience and tricked out with a raucous Charlie Douglas laugh track. The boxes supplied laughter for tens of thousands of episodes of television – tens of thousands – maybe even more. Everything from “The Munsters”, “Bewitched”, “The Beverly Hillbillies”, “Gilligan’s Island” to “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Cheers”. For decades their sound was ubiquitous, but Douglas didn’t want to talk about his device.

Ron Simon:
Douglas, whenever he went to a show would cover it over and no one would actually see him at work. There is something embarrassing. It was certainly part of history, but not maybe part he wanted to talk about. Really actually talk about, you know, how the last sausage was actually made.

Willa Paskin:
Douglas hardly ever gave interviews or spoke about his work. A 1966 piece from TV Guide titled “The Hollywood Sphinx and His Laff Box” in which the Sphinx is Douglas describes the mystery surrounding the man and his device. The author wrote:

Narration:
“If the Laff box should start acting strangely, the laugh boys wheel it into the men’s room, locking the door behind them so no one can peek. I mentioned the name Charlie Douglas and it’s like Cosa Nostra. Everybody starts whispering. It’s the most taboo topic in TV.”

Willa Paskin:
I want to say here that every knock on the laugh track that you’ve ever heard, that it’s fake, that it’s corny, that it’s cheating, that it’s not funny, that it thinks audiences are dumb. People have been saying since the beginning. And that’s part of the reason for Douglas’s silence. But listening to Douglass’s laughs, hearing Paul tried to recreate them, it changed how I thought about them. I’ve always prided myself on being open-minded about the laugh track. A funny show is a funny show with or without one, but even so, I always thought of them as automated, mechanical. But they aren’t really that at all. They’re a craft. Charlie Douglas played his Laff Box like it was an instrument. Literally.

Paul Ireson:
A lot of people think it was just a bunch of laughs thrown into a tape machine and someone’s pushing the button. It was an art. I mean, he took it very seriously.

Willa Paskin:
Here’s one of Charlie’s laughs. It was used in the late 60s and 70s including in the pilot for “MASH”. (laugh track)

Willa Paskin:
You hear the laughter trailing off at the end. I love that. It tells a story in a single laugh. There’s a joke, but one guy in the audience, he doesn’t get it right away. He’s a split second late and then he lasts a little bit longer here. Listen to it again. (laugh track repeats)

Willa Paskin:
Charlie Douglas wasn’t just a sound engineer, he was a psychologist.

Willa Paskin:
The rap on the laugh track is that its fake laughter from a fake audience, but that’s not quite right. The laugh track doesn’t just represent a bogus audience. It represents an audience of one, of Charlie Douglas. He definitely goosed laughs at producer’s instructions, but to a large extent, he and the people who worked for him followed their guts. It’s incredible that one man’s taste and sense of humor were so important in pacing an entire type of television comedy. But it’s true.

Willa Paskin:
So how did the laugh track-driven era of TV come to an end? How did the laugh track go from being a tittering companion to an annoyance? To answer that I think we need to think about the laugh track as not just a habit or an object, but an idea, an idea about why we laugh.

Willa Paskin:
I’m going to get to another idea about laughter later on, but this first one, I think it makes the laugh track of the 50s and 60s make a lot more sense. Here, I want you to listen to something, something that people once thought was really funny. (cornet playing followed by hysterical laughter)

Willa Paskin:
That menacing sequence is from the Okeh Laughing Record. Okeh, O-K-E-H is the name of the record label that released it in 1922. It was recorded a few years earlier in Germany and is the sound of a cornet being interrupted by a hysterically laughing woman who is joined by a hysterically laughing man. That’s it. It goes on for two and a half minutes, two and a half creepy, creepy minutes. But in 1922 people thought it was hilarious.

Willa Paskin:
The Okeh Laughing Record was a huge novelty hit. There’s speculation it sold over a million copies. It spawned an entire mini-genre of novelty laughing records.

Willa Paskin:
The laugh track, it’s a version of the Okeh Laughing Record. It’s trying to make you laugh just by listening to other people laugh. What’s funny must be the laughter because it’s not the joke. There is no joke. But this particular approach to humor, it’s not that popular right now. To find someone to defend it I had to talk to one of Paul’s friends, Ben Glenn. He’s an art historian by training, but he’s also a devoted laugh track enthusiast. He and Paul are in the same Charlie Douglas Facebook group.

Ben Glenn:
If you think about a show that relies heavily on the laugh track, like “Bewitched” or “The Munsters”, if you didn’t have it just wouldn’t be funny.

Willa Paskin:
Well, does that mean that show’s just actually bad and it was using this crutch?

Ben Glenn:
Yes, yes. Partly, but somebody getting a pie in the face and then there’s silence is not funny. Somebody getting a pie in the face with the huge laugh. That’s funny.

Willa Paskin:
I found this “does a tree falling in the forest to make a sound” Zen koan of sitcom laughter genuinely perplexing. Is a pie in the face funny if no one laughs? Is an episode of “Friends” funny if no one laughs? That’s what I wondered after coming across this video posted on YouTube by the user sboss of “Friends” without a laugh track.

(Clip from Friends without laugh track)
Joey: “Where is the waitress? I’m starving.”
Chandler: “It’s a buffet, man.”
Joey: “Here’s where I win all my money back.”

Willa Paskin:
You can hear what the rhythm of the show is supposed to be. How the pacing depends upon there being laughter. Without it “Friends” sounds weird and unnatural. If there’s no audience laughter, it’s suddenly stark how odd it is that the characters aren’t trying to make each other laugh. “Friends” needs its laughs to be funny even if some of them are fake.

(Clip from Friends with laugh track)
Ross: “Has anyone seen a Rach?”
Monica: “She’s upstairs not doing the dishes, and I’ll tell you something. You know, I’m not doing them this time. I don’t care if these dishes just sit in the sink until they’re all covered with… I’ll do them when I get home.” (laughter)

Willa Paskin:
The transition away from the laugh track started slowly. In the 70s with Norman Lear sitcoms, like “All in the Family”, comedy started to be taped in front of a live studio audience again. The audience’s laughs would be smoothed out, edited, or boosted. This is a process called sweetening, which Douglas had done a lot of and still happens all the time. But the aim already was that the laughs should sound more realistic.

Willa Paskin:
In the 80s and 90s some shows like the “Wonder Years”, “The Larry Sanders Show” and “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” started to experiment with dropping the laugh track, but TV’s biggest hits shows like “Cheers”, “Seinfeld” and “Friends” still had them.

Willa Paskin:
By the late 90s with the rise of cable and unlaugh-tracked animated series like “The Simpsons”, even the networks started contemplating making different kinds of comedies, setting up a collision between the old idea about comedy and the typical way of doing things and a new idea about comedy and a new way of shooting a TV show. Caught in that collision, Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night”.

(Clip from Sports Night)
TV Announcer: “You’re watching Sports Night on CSC, so come on back.”
TV Crew: “We’re out.”
TV Crew: “Two and a half minutes back.”

Willa Paskin:
In 1997 Sorkin sold “Sports Night”, his first TV show to ABC. It was a comedy set behind the scenes of an ESPN-style sports network. Sorkin and the director, Tommy Schlamme wanted to shoot it like a single-camera show. The set had four walls, the camera moved and they wanted to shoot it without a laugh track. ABC, not so much. They wanted to do something different but not that different. Here’s Schlamme.

Tommy Schlamme:
The economics of television, and certainly half-hour television, was so massive for shows that had had traditional laugh tracks that they were really very nervous about giving that up completely.

Willa Paskin:
What did you feel like the laugh track meant about your show?

Tommy Schlamme:
Here’s what it is. The sort of base tone of a situational comedy is the laugh track. I think we’re familiar with it. I think it sort of resonates in a certain way, but I think it is kind of establishing a conceptual idea about a show that is saying it’s not real. This is a theatrical presentation. I’m there with this group of people. We’re all laughing. It’s fun. That was not the idea of the way I think Aaron wrote or what I think “Sports Night” was about.

Willa Paskin:
Here’s a clip of the laugh track from the Sports Night pilot.

(Clip from Sports Night pilot)
Dana: “Yeah, but the point I’m making is that I can, who, who, who is this?” (laugh track)
Jeremy Goodwin: “I’m Jeremy Goodwin.”
Dana: “Oh, you’re here for the associate producer job.”
Jeremy Goodwin: “Yes. And let me just say…”

Willa Paskin:
“Sports Night” was one of the first shows that as a viewer, I could really feel that the laugh track was holding the show back. “Sports Night” is fast. It doesn’t want to pause to wait for the audience’s laughter. So the laughs have to be shoehorned into the rare breaks in Sorkin’s dense dialogue where they sound even faker than usual, dispatches from a whole other sensibility.

Willa Paskin:
What you could hear starting to happen with “Sports Night” is the laugh track changing from background noise into an impediment. It’s actively keeping “Sports Night” from being as funny and fast, from being as good as it could be. After it’s first few episodes, “Sports Night” stopped being taped in front of an audience at all and the laughter got even fainter. Here’s a clip from an episode at the end of season one.

(Clip from Sports Night)
Sports Night: “Yes, yes. You’re breaking up now. Hello? You’re breaking up. Now you’re not there at all. There’s nobody there at all yet. Yet I’m still talking.” (laughter) “All right.”

Willa Paskin:
For a second season, ABC let the show drop the laugh track entirely, but it was canceled at the end of that season anyway in 2000 just ever so slightly ahead of its time.

Willa Paskin:
The laugh track-free British version of “The Office” premiered in 2001. In 2003 “Arrested Development” started airing on Fox. In 2005 the American adaptation of “The Office” started airing on NBC. The first huge hit without a laugh track. That same year “Everybody Loves Raymond” won the Emmy for best comedy. That’s the last time sitcom with a laugh track has done so. The end of the laugh track era.

Willa Paskin:
So what changed? I want to talk about another theory about laughter that’s different from the pie-in-the-face theory I mentioned earlier. In this theory, laughter isn’t a fundamentally social activity, something that we do just because everyone else is doing it. It’s something deeply, wonderfully individual and idiosyncratic, a reaction to the quality of the joke itself. Representing this point of view is a TV writer, Andy Secunda. Andy’s now a writer on the current ABC sitcom, “The Goldbergs”, which doesn’t have a laugh track, but his first show, the 2004 UPN sitcom “Love Inc.” about modern-day matchmakers did.

(Clip from Love, Inc.)
Clea: “But that’s not fair. I have a dream too.”
Barry: “What’s your dream?”
Clea: “To have 10,000 more dollars?” (laugh track)
Barry: “I’m talking about $10,000 to help improve the human condition.”
Clea: “Well, $10,000 will help improve this human’s condition very much.” (laugh track)

Willa Paskin:
Before working on “Love Inc.”, Andy had been a writer for “Conan” and a teacher and performer at the improv comedy powerhouse, Upright Citizens Brigade.

Andy Secunda:
I was an alternative comedy snob, coming out of the New York scene. Already was every show with the laugh track other than Seinfeld, passe, a dinosaur.

Willa Paskin:
But Andy didn’t have the clout to keep “Love, Inc.” from having a laugh track. The show was performed in front of a studio audience and they had some real laughs, but then a sound editor came in to sweeten it, boosting and manipulating all of them. So the real laughs were replaced by a laugh track. But Andy didn’t want to use that laugh track in the typical way.

Andy Secunda:
So I guess my take was, well since we’re doing this anyway, why don’t we just decide what’s funny? To me, I was with like, “If it’s going to be this creation, this false thing, why go halfway? Just make the whole thing a fiction. I want to train the audience that’s watching at home who’s not really paying that much attention anyway in my head.”

Willa Paskin:
In other words, Andy wanted to rig the laugh track to reflect what was really funny. He understood how the laugh track is supposed to work. That it’s supposed to make people laugh at what other people are laughing at. But he wanted to retrofit it to account for this second theory of laughter, to tell audiences, “Hey, some jokes are just funnier than others and you should laugh at those.”

Willa Paskin:
Andy didn’t succeed, his boss wouldn’t have it. But even so you can see, he may be skeptical of the laughter of the crowd, but he believes in the objective quality of the joke.

Andy Secunda:
You may be able to get a big laugh out of an audience and be not that great a comic. I mean a lot of comics would argue, if you get a laugh, then you are a great comic. I disagree because I’m a snob.

Willa Paskin:
Andy may be a snob, but his perspective has become widespread. This is how lots of people think about comedy now. Me included. Some jokes just are better than others and you can’t tell simply based on what got the biggest laugh, especially when that laugh comes from a laugh track.

Willa Paskin:
For decades, TV was ruled by this idea that laughter is socially contingent and then that idea was surpassed by this other idea that laughter is idiosyncratic and individual. But this was a big transition. For some viewers, the laugh track didn’t just stop encouraging laughter. It started inhibiting it. The laugh track broke.

Willa Paskin:
Today, shows with laugh tracks have been almost entirely cut out of the critical conversation, but they still have their modern day defenders and uses, especially in the revivals of beloved shows that had laugh tracks like “Will and Grace”.

Willa Paskin:
Netflix’s 2017 reboot of Norman Lear’s “One Day at a Time”, a show about a divorced Cuban-American veteran with PTSD raising her son and teenage daughter while living with her mother is great. It’s smart, it’s charming, it’s queer and it has a laugh track too.

(Clip from One Day at a Time)
Mother: “He has to have a quinces. How else will we know the day that our little girl becomes a woman?”
Daugher: “You missed it. I was 12. I was in gym and ironically it happened at first period.” (laugh track)

Willa Paskin:
So just so you know, this is a podcast we’re doing about the laugh track. I’m wanting to talk to you guys because you do a great show that has laugh track.

Gloria Calderon Kellett:
It doesn’t have a laugh track, it’s actually a live audience.

Willa Paskin:
I knew you were going to say that, but we’re going to talk about all that in detail. That’s Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, the showrunners of “One Day at a Time”. They’re right. Their show is filmed in front of a live audience as was the original. Mike and Gloria say their sound editor cuts down on the ahs and the more excessive whoops for Rita Moreno and even trims down some laughs, but they say there’s no sweetening in their show.

Willa Paskin:
When I said it was a laugh track, like why does that bother you so much?

Mike Royce:
Some people just don’t like to hear other people laughing because it feels like they’re being told what to do. But part of that comes from, I think, feeling like the laughter is somehow fakely added on.

Willa Paskin:
Mike is right. That is how some people feel about the laugh track – that it’s a false advertisement trying to sell you a bad joke as though it’s a good one. And sometimes that is what the laugh track is. So I asked why it was worth risking, that kind of reaction.

Gloria Calderon Kellett:
For me, it’s about a shared experience. So I feel like it’s an opportunity to experience a play in the comfort of your home, but you’re experiencing it as though you are a part of a community. We want them to experience the emotions audibly. There is something about that, the crying too, by the way.

Willa Paskin:
For Gloria and Mike, the laugh track is a reminder that other people are there watching with you even when you’re all alone just like it has been from the very beginning.

Willa Paskin:
I want to go back to that scene from earlier when you turn on TV for the first time and saw “The Jack Benny Program” and it was so new and strange. When you heard the audience laughing, it was a cue that you should laugh too. Yes, but also it was a sign, a sign that you weren’t watching alone.

Willa Paskin:
The laugh track was trying to bridge the bizarre new distance between the audience and the performers, between the audience and other members of the audience. The thing you have to remember, and this is so different than now, is that the laugh track was trying to overcome a defect of television, which is that unlike vaudeville and the movies, you watched it all by yourself. Now that defect that you don’t have to go anywhere or interact with anyone while you watch it. That’s one of TV’s biggest selling points

Willa Paskin:
And the laugh track, it helped us to get to that point. For a long time, the laugh track seemed permanent, but it was really more like training wheels. Something that taught us this new skill of watching and laughing in solitude. It might have stuck around way too long, but it did its job really well.

Willa Paskin:
By the late 90s and early 00s when the numbers of shows on cable started to skyrocket and the TV audience began to fragment, we were totally ready to move from one theory of laughter to another, to embrace the idea of ourselves as individuals with idiosyncratic comedic taste who did not need or even want the laugh track’s lame chortle of approval to know what was funny. These days it’s the laugh track that seems weird and vestigial, a sound from another time. Unless we’re specifically after the theatrical communal throwback experience of a show like “One Day at a Time”.

Willa Paskin:
The laugh track has always been a tool and nearly 70 years after it was invented, there’s nothing to fix. Watching TV alone isn’t the weird activity. Watching together is. As multi-camera comedies with laugh tracks have faded out, single-camera comedies without laughs have only gotten more and more adventurous, leading to a whole upheaval in what constitutes a comedy, full-stop. Many of the buzziest, most well-regarded comedies like “Atlanta” and “Girls” and “Transparent” are more funny adjacent than laugh out loud funny. They aren’t after that big, big laugh.

Willa Paskin:
Making people laugh is really, really hard. One shortcut from decades ago was to fake that laughter. A more modern fix is not to worry about whether audiences are laughing at all.

(Clip from Girls)
Shoshanna: “My littlest baggage would probably be my IBS and my medium baggage should be that I truly don’t love my grandmother.”
Hannah: “Like you don’t love her at all.”
Shoshanna: “Mm-mm” (negative).
Hannah: “So what would your biggest baggage be?”
Shoshanna: “I’m a virgin obviously.”

Willa Paskin:
Even if they’re not laughing, audiences are finding makeshift ways to watch communally. If you’re looking for the present day, technological equivalent of the laugh track, look at social media. Sitting on your couch reading Twitter while you watch “Atlanta” or a football game or “The Bachelor”. Those tweets are a signal about what’s good and what’s interesting. Sometimes they’re just a show’s best jokes tweeted verbatim. Often those tweets will make you laugh. They’ll definitely keep you from feeling like you’re watching all alone.

Willa Paskin:
Learning the history of the laugh track, thinking about it as a way to foster a feeling of togetherness. It really made me wonder, is solo binging with headphones on while the person in the very same room as you watches something else really better than gathering around one of three channels politely putting up with canned laughter? And one of these experiences that you definitely get to decide what’s funny for yourself, but you really are doing it all alone.

Willa Paskin:
I think this is part of what drives laugh track aficionados like Paul Ireson. When he tinkers with laugh tracks and adds them back into old episodes of the “Pink Panther” or “The Monkees”, he’s recapturing the spirit of a different time, a different way of watching television when laughter wasn’t a judgment, but a companion.

Willa Paskin:
When I asked Paul what his favorite Charlie Douglas laugh was, he had one of course. He got right to the heart of it.

Paul Ireson:
It was basically a deep man’s laugh that was used sparingly and then it started to get used more regularly. And it sounds like this. (deep man’s laugh) When we heard that one my sister would say, “There’s your friend.”

Roman Mars:
You’ve been listening to “Decoder Ring” hosted by Willa Paskin. “Decoder Ring” is a brand new podcast from Slate. It was produced and edited by Benjamin Frisch. You can find out more about the show at slate.com/decoderring or just go subscribe to it wherever you get your podcasts. It’s good. You’re going to like it.

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Decoder Ring is a monthly podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every month they take on a cultural object, idea, or habit and speak with experts, historians and obsessives to try to figure out where it comes from, what it means and why it matters. Decoder Ring explores questions and topics you didn’t know you were curious about.

Comments (16)

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  1. rohana

    I really enjoyed this episode. I’ve always noticed the laugh track on sit coms. When I was a kid in the 90s my mum wanted me to turn off the TV, she said “you don’t even get any of the jokes!” she was right, of course, but I couldn’t let her know that. So I started laughing along with the laugh track. She thought I was finding it hilarious, and never realised what I was doing!

  2. While I remember Sports Night for its overall breakout qualities, I’m a little suprised that the reporting here didn’t mention the handful of M*A*S*H episodes in the 1980’s that Larry Gelbart negotiated to have no laugh track. For those who don’t know, M*A*S*H was a show about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean war, and ran for 8 seasons. I was a hard-core addict of M*A*S*H in my adolescent years and remember the first time they aired an episode with no laugh track – it was a big deal covered by TV-reviewers at the time. Looking around the internet briefly, I don’t see those reviews but there is a nice overview here: http://mentalfloss.com/article/56777/why-did-mash-have-laugh-track.

  3. Rob

    You refer to the UK television series “The Office” as notable for its lack of a laugh track. In fact there are many earlier examples of such “mockumentaries” on British radio and TV – e.g. “On the Hour”, “People Like Us”, and “Brass Eye” were all very popular in the 1990s. A laugh track wouldn’t fit with this the faux-documentary format.

  4. Zach

    I felt the producers omitted Scrubs as one of the early successful US shows that did not feature a laugh track. Scrubs appeared in 2001, four years before the US version of The Office and a year and a half off the heels of Sports Night.

    The 2005 Scrubs Episode My Life in Four Cameras parodies the staged sitcom format and has a Laff track which is quite a contrast to their typical format.

  5. I believe the Okeh Laughing Record mentioned in this episode was considered funny because the trumpet being interrupted was playing funeral music. That’s the joke. It’s not funny because people in the 20s just laughed at simpler things, it’s funny because the context was so serious. It’s the dark humor of its time.

  6. Joshua

    I must be the most dedicated 99pi listener. I’m sure I’ve heard all of them. My top 99pi episodes are: Wild Ones Live & Sanctuary (Church and State).

    Also, “Frontline” was an Australian comedy series from 1994 with no laugh track. It’s like “The Office” except a decade earlier.

  7. Cassandra

    You should check out the Canadian show “Just for Laughs” there is no talking, people are playing gags on others and the only sound is the laugh track.

  8. eyeguy99

    1) It would be interesting to know if most people watching a comedy tv show alone at home will laugh out loud at something funny vs if they are watching with someone else

    2) It would be an interesting experiment to do this:

    Invite 200 people to a live comedy. Instruct the first 199 people walking into the audience room to only laugh at every second funny joke. Don’t say anything to the last person arriving. Video tape the crowds reaction to the performance and see if that last person always takes cues from the group about when to laugh or not.

  9. Michael Palumbo

    All in all I enjoyed this podcast, I love when documentaries like this focus on the elements of culture that are meant to remain hidden. Regardless of what people think of the laugh track, it deserves recognition for what it is and this was a great look at it. And while Sports Night may have been ahead of it’s time, I think however, that the podcast is remiss in crediting the UK The Office, Arrested Development, and the US The Office, while not mentioning Malcolm in the Middle (2000, preceding those other shows), Scrubs (2001), and My Name is Earl (2005) and how they succeeded where Sports Night could not (in attaining success with no laugh Track). Scrubs even created an episode that lampooned the sitcom laugh track formula showing the contrast between itself and the old way (My Life in Four Cameras, 2005). Scrubs went on for 9 seasons, which is to say that it attained more success than any of the aforementioned shows, with the exception of The Office (US) that also ran for 9.

  10. Jennifer

    The host incorrectly referred to traditional sitcoms as single camera. That traditional style (usually with a laugh track) is multi-camera.

  11. Andy Latto

    The first sitcom episode without a laugh track was much earlier than any of the ones you talk about. When M*A*S*H started in 1972, Larry Gelbart did not want a laugh track, but the studio insisted. The compromise they reached was that there would be no laugh track in the operating room. In the third season, in 1974, the episode “The O.R.” aired. This episode was about a 24-hour operating room marathon. The entire episode was set in the O.R., so there was no laugh track for the entire episode.

  12. David

    This episode was very interesting, but please rethink how you use the word “lame.” It is an ableist slur, after all, and was used twice in this episode.

    All the best.

  13. M

    The intro to this episode is too long and repetitive. Otherwise, the linear narrative is clear, informative, and interesting.

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