The Internet has given new life to old TV shows, reminding us not only of how different things looked several decades ago but also how very different they sounded. If you watch old reruns of shows like Hogan's Heroes or Get Smart, you may notice that some of the jokes are still funny, but the artificial laughter that accompanies every gag on the sound reel can quickly alienate us from the humor.
"Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium," says University of Minnesota art history professor Karal Ann Marling, "because it treats the audience as though they were sheep who need to be told when something is funny—even if, in fact, it's not very funny."
For many, the laugh track represents "commercial culture" in the second half of the 20th century, but was TV comedy's artificial audience really a product of the market? It looks more like market competition stemmed the tide of this forced frivolity.
The laugh track was originally developed as a radio editing technique to soften the transitions between scenes that were not recorded contiguously, or to enhance live laughter that was not picked up adequately during recording. This editing technique is still called "sweetening."
But in the indelicate hands of television producers, the audio sweetener turned into a sugar overdose, making sitcoms ever more cloying.
Even Bob Douglass, a laugh-track engineer and the son of "laff-box" inventor Charlie Douglass, recognizes this: "On some of the shows it was abused. They wanted to keep adding more and more laughs, and it would go way overboard. They thought it was going to be funnier, and it wasn't. A lot of producers would have the laughter almost louder than the dialogue, and that ruins it."
Television writers from the peak of the laugh-track era stopped aiming for actual laughs and wrote instead for the timing required by the artificial audience: setup, punch line, pause for fake laugh, repeat.
Many writers and creators hated it, and some even fought against it, but the networks usually won these battles. In a 2007 interview, TV producer Lou Schemer spoke for his profession: "Why a laugh track? Because you feel that you are watching the program with a group of people instead of being alone" (The Archie Show: The Complete Series, DVD, disc 2).
And the suits seemed to have the numbers on their side: Whenever the studios previewed episodes with and without laugh tracks to test audiences, the laugh-track versions did better.
Dartmouth College psychology professor Bill Kelley studies the brain's response to humor. He explains, "We're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people. Hearing others laugh—even if it's prerecorded—can encourage us to chuckle and enjoy ourselves more."
If capitalism is mass production for the masses, then perhaps the laugh-track-loving executives at the networks were just giving the people what they wanted. Maybe the critics are just snobs, blaming the market for the facts of supply and demand.
The Canned Laughter Cartel
Greater competition in the pursuit of profit, however, has now actually pushed canned laughter into full retreat. The studio system that allowed the laugh track to dominate television had its roots in patterns of government intervention laid down before television even came about.
The earliest days of American radio in the 1920s looked much like the Internet of the 1990s: mostly hobbyists and hardcore techies, with an influx of more mainstream users and a vanguard of entrepreneurs vying to come up with the right models to make the new medium profitable.
Despite what you may have heard about an "anarchy of the airwaves" and the need for the federal government to bring order to the chaos, that is not how broadcasters, listeners, or even government officials perceived radio at the time.
Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce, deliberately disrupted the early free market in radio broadcasting. Then he created a cartel of favored cronies in its place. By the time television came around, the model of cartelized mass media was already firmly established.
The result, as Paul Cantor observes, "was a general uniformity in the values portrayed on the national television networks in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and a tendency toward homogeneity in the programming" (Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, 2003, p. 165).
That homogeneity began to subside in the 1980s, due largely to Rupert Murdoch's efforts to build a fourth network outside the cartel. To attract TV viewers away from ABC, CBS, and NBC, the Fox network had to air shows that were different, often edgier. At the end of the decade, Fox premiered The Simpsons, now the longest-running scripted show in television history and, according to Time magazine (December 31, 1999), the twentieth century's best television series. Notably, The Simpsons does not have a laugh track, except on the rare occasion when canned laughter is used briefly and ironically to satirize more traditional sitcoms.
And while researcher Bill Kelley emphasizes the social role of laughing along with a larger audience, when he compared the results of his subjects' watching Seinfeld (with a laugh track) to The Simpsons”(without), his brain scans suggested that people found the same things funny whether or not they were prompted by the sound of laughter.
While Murdoch had skirted the edges of FCC regulations to create a fourth network, once established, Fox did have to play by the same rules as the big three. Cable television was a different story.
Freedom Isn't Free
For decades, the broadcast cartel had suppressed any emerging technology that threatened its dominance, but it couldn't halt progress forever. When the premium cable channel HBO began to produce original comedies in the 1990s, it needed to attract top talent from the television industry. One of the ways it did so was to offer writers and producers more creative freedom (and less censorship) than they could find at the broadcast networks. The new talent wanted to ditch the laugh track.
Viewers don’t seem to miss it: HBO and Cinemax together (both owned by Time Warner) have over 100 million subscribers, and HBO alone pulls in over $4 billion a year, accounting for a quarter of Time Warner's profits.
Other networks followed their model, first on cable, then eventually in broadcast.
The trend away from engineered laughter can be seen through the Emmys: Of the five shows nominated in 2000 for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, four of the five used laugh tracks. In 2009, seven shows were nominated for the same award, and only one used a laugh track.
So it was outside competition that drove back the laugh track. Artists had resisted and critics had complained, but until the networks perceived a threat to the bottom line, they stuck with the process they trusted; and until large audiences had a real alternative, they stuck with the programming of the major networks.
The laugh track did emerge as the result of decisions made by private parties—entrepreneurs, entertainers, and engineers—in the pursuit of popularity and profit; no government agency imposed it on the television industry. But when advocates of free enterprise celebrate the blessings of free-market capitalism, competition, and the profit motive, we have in mind voluntary exchanges in a commercial context of secure private property, sound money, and little or no coercive regulation from the state. Recent history offers us no examples of unhampered markets, but some enterprises are certainly more hampered than others, and radio and television constitute one of the most regulated industries in the American economy.
Commercial television was like this from the beginning, having emerged from a fully developed and heavily regulated radio industry, but there was nothing inevitable in radio's seizure by the state. It was the result of a deliberate plan by big government and big broadcasters.
Contrary to the popular wisdom, the capitalist pursuit of the bottom line does not promote the lowest common denominator. Competition drives diversity (and vice versa). Cartels, like the one Hoover created in the broadcast media, create homogeneity.
Would the laugh track have existed in a free market? Almost certainly. But it took the uniformity imposed by the television cartel to let it dominate so thoroughly, giving artists few options within the industry—and leaving audiences little choice other than the "off" button.