The power of fake laughter
There are great sitcoms with laughter tracks (such as Seinfeld, Blackadder and Porridge) while others, notably the more modern ones, work better without – The Office, Community, Modern Family, and so on. And in some cases we’ve experienced them with both. When M*A*S*H was originally shown in the United States there was canned laughter layered on top, but when the BBC screened it in the UK they took this off, greatly improving the series.
One YouTuber, however, has neatly illustrated the difference it makes by removing the laughter track from the populist mainstream comedy The Big Bang Theory:
You could argue that it just shows up the series as actually not being that funny after all and proof that canned/studio audience laughter is a cattleprod device employed to encourage the idea that something is funnier than it is. On the other hand, we think it gives the clips a brilliantly different feel and just shows the group up to be depressed, bitchy and not really that likable after all. We’re not saying it’s better , but without the varnish of other people’s laughter it’s very different.
Likewise, when you take the audience laughter away from this classic clip of Friends, it becomes more like an indie drama about self-obsessed people musing on life with their retarded Italian-American friend.
You get the same effect in this scene where, with the absence of laughter, a misunderstanding takes on a sinister tone of realisation that their friend may be pretty despicable.
Conversely, you can add a laugh track to a series drama and totally deflate any tension, as shown by this clip from Game of Thrones. Although a dwarf slapping a boy is always funny in our book.
Finally, here’s something to consider.
Although many sitcoms are filmed before a live studio audience, the laughter is “sweetened” with pre-recorded laughter during post-production, because sometimes what we see is the second or third take of a scene and an audience would not laugh nearly as much the second or third time. Also, while a sitcom is usually around 22 minutes, the filming takes a lot longer and audiences get tired towards the end of a long filming session so their laugh is artificially boosted. And yes, also because they were not deemed to find it funny enough for the producer’s liking. Nobody wants to broadcast a comedy where there’s nothing more than a few titters.
Most of that laughter you hear, however, was originally recorded years ago and from things like the visual gags in 1950s variety series The Red Skelton Show. So the voices you hear laughing on TV now are of often those of people who are now mostly dead and were actually laughing at something completely different.