I’m not a big fan of TV Shows with laugh tracks. It might be pretentious, but it always seemed like laugh tracks were a crutch for shows with bad writing, like hearing it made you more likely to laugh at a joke you’d otherwise roll your eyes at.
This always made me uncomfortable because it seemed like such a pretentious thought. My shows, like Arrested Development and Futurama, don’t need laugh tracks because they’re better (I’d think to myself) and you idiots wouldn’t know good writing if it got way too high, fell asleep on your couch and woke up in the middle of the night to eat all your cereal (Good Writing is kind of a stoner).
But good news, everyone: that pretentious thought was wrong. Laugh tracks have nothing to do with the quality of writing, and everything to do with what the show is about.
To explain, we’re gonna have to go back a bit — and I mean way, way back. Some anthropologists believe that laughter isn’t just an autonomous reaction to funny stuff, it’s actually our earliest form of communication. Early humans really only ever needed to say three things to each other: “let’s have sex” “I’m gonna kill you” and “you’re pretty cool”, and laughter was the way they said that last one. When huddling around their fire or under their shelter, early humans would laugh a lot at everything, not just the farts (though back then, farts were pretty cutting edge).
When pulled off correctly, they’re still pretty brilliant.
It sounds kinda creepy, but it’s actually not that different from modern times. In a study of human laughter, scientists found out that the vast majority of laughter has nothing to do with humor. People laugh when they greet a friend, or when they answer questions, or just because they’re enjoying something awesome. You can verify these findings for yourself just by going to any social gathering and listening to people:
“Hey, haha, how are you?”
“How’d you do on that test?”
“Haha, I bombed it!”
…or just type “lol” into the Twitter search bar and count how many times it’s used in conjunction with actual humor (Or I’ll save you time: It’s never used that way).
Now bring that back to TV, and think about what How I Met Your Mother, one of the most popular sitcoms on right now, is about: it’s about a guy looking for love. It’s about a happily married couple. It’s about people succeeding at what they want to do and overcoming the problems life throws at you. Now check out a screenshot of them at McLaren’s, their favorite bar:
Do you see the pattern yet?
That shot? That’s the exact same angle you’d be seeing if you were actually at the bar with them. The whole damn show is designed to make you feel like you’re actually friends with these people. And it’s not just HIMYM — check out this shot of the set of Friends:
It’s no mistake that you can see the whole damn apartment there, because that’s what actually being in an apartment is like: you have a pretty good idea of where everyone is. The show emulates the feeling you’d get with your sense of sound and object permanence by just showing you everything on screen at once. Because Friends wasn’t just about some Friends, it was about your friends.
You don’t get that with Arrested Development. I’ve seen every episode, and I have only the most vague idea of what the layout of their model home is like. You don’t want to hang out with those people, because they’re constantly stealing, lying, failing, and generally being cruel to each other.
This isn’t limited to just these shows — it’s a consistent pattern. Always Sunny in Philadelphia: awful people, no laugh track. Big Bang Theory: kind people, palatable nerds, laugh track. The Office: the most likeable character is a bully, the boss probably has some form of autism, no laugh track. Rules of Engagement: happily married, working through problems, laugh track.
There are some obvious exceptions. Seinfeld has a laugh track even though its characters weren’t very likeable, and that show was wildly successful. Modern Family has very functional family units and no laugh track. But those are the outliers — by and large, this pattern holds true.
So what’s the point? The point is laugh tracks aren’t a crutch, they’re a tool. An overused tool, probably, and maybe a somewhat deceptive tool since its one that is inherently manipulating your subconscious but hey — that’s art for ya. It’s all fucking with your head.
J. F. Sargent has a crazy awesome sci-fi adventure serial novel you can read for free, and also a Twitter and a blog you can also read for free. Basically he’s a cool guy that doesn’t charge you for anything.