In the early days of television, many shows were being produced in front of live audiences, so comedies did not need to rely on laugh tracks for something to be funny. We’re all primed to laugh when we hear someone else laughing and somebody would get the joke, so everyone would at least get that there was a joke, even if not everyone understood or heard the joke. Half of what’s funny is hearing other people laughing.
As it became more cumbersome and impractical to have audiences at show recordings, the industry had a problem: shows without the sound of others laughing just weren’t as funny. Laugh tracks were born to fill in the gaps.
The problem is that we’ve had several generations of people who now have to be told when to laugh. Furthermore, all the shows that incorporate laugh tracks have the same awkward dialogue timing that allows the sound engineers to place laugh tracks in without drowning out the dialogue. We hence get the pulled faces, awkward pauses, unnatural eye contact, and everything else that can ruin otherwise good comedy. (Yes, some shows do this better than others, but the next time you watch a show that uses laugh tracks, really watch it to see what I mean.)
To insert the naturalness of laughing because others are laughing shows that using laugh tracks now feels unnatural. But we, as consumers, now need the laugh tracks to get our attention, pull us into comedic conversations, and fundamentally, feel like we’re watching comedies with other people. Odd that there’s something about comedy that makes it feel less enjoyable when you’re watching it by yourself.
Nothing replaces what it feels like to hear a funny joke in a room with other people who get the joke. At the same time, many a good joke is ruined by trying to make sure that people get the joke.
I wonder to what degree we add our own analogues of laugh tracks to our daily experiences through the way in which we’re using social media and selfies. There’s absolutely value in taking some moments in the day to take stock of your experiences. But at a certain point, constantly posing to take pictures, or interrupting and rearranging experiences so that they make better pictures or stories, gets us in the same position as shows with laugh tracks. Because so much of what we experience in other people’s sharing and now our own is so artificially produced, it gets harder to see the beauty and specialness of our raw experiences.
Let’s just make sure we don’t ruin those raw moments by trying so hard to capture them for social consumption.