I’m going to do something bold here. I’m going to defend the indefensible.
I’m going to say something good about laugh tracks.
I know. I’m going to have to turn in my “television fan” card, and be forced into a cave of humorless darkness, with nothing but hours of According to Jim reruns to occupy my time, the incessant over-the-top laughs cues SCREAMING AT ME TO LAUGH.
I’ll take my chances, though.
Now, I’d first like to say that the laugh track is really just not good for every sitcom. It changes the pace of shows, obviously, so with a show like MASH it didn’t work as well because the show wasn’t paced for a laugh track, and the laughs ended up feeling squished in and sort of inappropriate some times. With Sports Night, it was a complete disaster because if ever there was a writer for whom pace was important, it would be Aaron Sorkin. Scrubs is a show that obviously benefits from the no-laugh track trend, because the tone and pacing of the show would just be a complete disaster if a laugh-track had been added in.
There really is a purpose to the laugh track beyond the sort of manipulative “no, laugh HERE” side of it, though. Its initial development and usage was to create a sense of live theater, and a sense of communal viewing. “Sweetening” the laughter– using canned laughter or editing down extended laughs– was really just an editing technique like any other. Still, what’s wrong about trying to recreate a social viewing environment?
I’ve been watching a lot of Frasier reruns on Lifetime lately, and that’s a show that I think really demonstrates why the laugh track can be a good thing. Frasier is a very theatrical show, with pretty heavy use of farce and slapstick. I can’t imagine watching the show without a laugh track, not because I am incapable of picking out the funny moments for myself, but because it’s a show that feels more appropriate viewed as 22 minute mini-plays, with the rest of an audience.
My point? The laugh track isn’t evil. It’s not right for every comedy, and when it’s forced in where it shouldn’t be, it DOES end up feeling nothing but manipulative and cheap. But use of the laugh track does not signify a show isn’t as smart or as naturally funny as one that does not use a laugh track. And for some shows, it would change the entire feel and tone of the show for the worse.