This season’s collection of comedies are decidedly different from those of my childhood. Back in the day, we had All in the Family, Happy Days, and Taxi. Then came Cheers, The Cosby Show, Frasier, Friends, and Everybody Loves Raymond.
They were produced “in front of a live studio audience.” The pace was quick and the punchlines ran aplenty.
These comedies were easy to watch and allowed for an end-of-the-day descent into mindless TV viewership. It was a simple format: A character walked in to the sound of applause – so we knew this was someone important to the scene. Then a couple lines were spoken between characters and the sound of laughter erupted – so we knew it was funny. And that laugh-track was key.
Of course, despite being shot in front of studio audiences, that laughter is pre-recorded and laid over the sound of the actual audience. That way, the sound is consistent and controlled.
After all, if the laughter is too weak, the joke doesn’t sound funny enough. If there’s too much of a pause before it starts, the audience might realize the joke wasn’t funny at all. (No need to give them time to think about it.) And if the laughter goes on too long, it slows the pace and muddies the actors’ next lines.
Besides, in every group there’s always that one person who cackles like a hyena. Or worse, the snort laugh. Hence, the handy-dandy laugh-track.
But over the years, someone decided viewers can think for themselves. They don’t need audio cues from canned laughter.
Consequently, present-day comedies are comparatively quieter than in the past. Modern Family, The Unicorn, Mixed-ish, Sunnyside, and Perfect Harmony forego both studio audience and laugh-track. They take quirky yet relatable people/situations and present them with plenty of dead air pauses for viewers to contemplate. Weigh. Consider. Ruminate. And then, hopefully, chuckle quietly to themselves should they feel so moved.
No pressure. Take your time.
Ironically, we rarely laugh about those same awkward moments in the real world. Like the time my 70-year-old male doctor decided to discuss my biological clock while my feet were still in the stirrups.
Or when my downstairs neighbour called to ask where I’d been because he’d been watching for me all week and never heard me going up the stairs at night so if he ever wanted to see me he had to “HUNT [ME] DOWN AT WORK.”
This is where a personal laugh-track would be a useful tool. It would bring levity to those intensely awkward moments. It would also cue others when we’re making a joke so that we’re not sacrificed on social media by an angry mob of trolls.
These days, life could use more laughter. So let’s keep it going. If more sitcoms are dropping the all-powerful laugh-track, let’s recycle and put it to good use again. Like as an app for your phone.
After all, it’s better than having a drummer follow you around doing rim-shots all day. (insert laugh-track here)