When you hear people talk about laugh tracks, it's usually a negative comment. Some people feel they're dumb, or cheesy, or insulting, or all of the above.
Okay. Before we talk about laugh tracks, first we should discuss the difference between a multi-camera TV show and a single-camera TV show.
(I've tried to explain the difference to many people in my personal life, and I'm often met with glazed-over, confused reactions. I'll try to do better here...)
MULTI-CAMERA TV SHOWS
Today, when you hear the term "multi-camera" about a TV show, it usually refers to a half-hour situation comedy: a sitcom.
The multi-camera sitcom format started with I Love Lucy. Before then, most TV comedies had been shot just like movies (called "single-camera").
Well, Lucy and Desi had a new idea. They decided to film I Love Lucy like a play in front of a live audience. They felt this would give the show more of a fun, energetic, "live theater" feel. And by hearing the laughs, the home audience would feel more like they were sitting in the actual studio audience, watching the play, and could laugh along with everybody else.
To film the show, they decided to use three cameras to cover all the action. The audience sat in bleachers behind the cameras which faced the sets and actors.
The modern multi-camera sitcom was born. Yee-hoo!
Today, multi-camera shows are shot pretty much the exact same way. The only major difference is that, now, four cameras are used instead of three.
Some examples of modern multi-camera sitcoms are Friends... Seinfeld... The Big Bang Theory... Cheers... Family Ties... The Cosby Show... Full House... Drake & Josh... iCarly... etc. With all these shows you can hear laughs following the jokes.
SINGLE-CAMERA TV SHOWS
A single-camera TV show is shot like a movie. There's no "live theater" feel at all. You'll never hear an audience. Usually, when talking about single-camera shows, you think of one-hour dramas like Lost... Heroes... CSI... House... Grey's Anatomy... etc.
But you've also seem some half-hour single camera shows. For example: Entourage... The Office... Sex And The City... Malcolm In The Middle... The Wonder Years...
And even though half-hour single camera shows are often comedies, you'll never hear a laugh track. Because they're aren't intended to "feel" like they're shot in front of a live audience, as multi-camera shows are.
Now here's where it gets a little confusing...
Back in the 60's and 70's, they did make single-camera comedies where you could hear a laugh track. Example are I Dream Of Jeanie... Bewitched... Gilligan's Island... The Beverly Hillbillies... Green Acres... Hogan's Heroes... Get Smart... Gomer Pyle... The Brady Bunch... The Partridge Family... etc. All those shows did have laugh tracks which (in most people's opinion) sounded fake and cheesy.
But now, you'll almost never see a single-camera sitcom with a laugh track. It's considered outdated.
Point of Interest: One of the first showrunners to take a stand against a laugh-track on a single-camera comedy was Larry Gelbart who ran M*A*S*H. He knew it was cheesy to hear audience laughs on a single-camera show because they're not filmed in a live-audience style setting. But the networks (back then) thought all comedies had to have laughs, so they fought Gelbart. Finally, they arrived at a compromise: Gelbart agreed to have laughs on M*A*S*H, but not during scenes in the operating room. If you ever catch a rerun of a M*A*S*H episode, you'll see (hear). The laughs disappear during scenes in the O.R. when the surgeons are operating on patients.
Back to multi-camera comedies (sitcoms)...
A lot of people seem to think the laughs they're hearing are always "laugh tracks" created by a machine. That's only partly true.
In the tradition of I Love Lucy, most multi-camera comedies are filmed in front of a live studio audience. Real, living, breathing people who came to watch a comedy and laugh out loud. So, during the filming, the audience laughs at the jokes (we hope).
So later, when you're watching the show at home on your television, many of the laughs you're hearing are real – coming from the actual live audience that was there watching the show as it was filmed.
And now you ask me: "But Dan, then why do we often hear the term laugh TRACK?"
When you're making a multi-camera comedy, shot in front of a live audience, sometimes you might do many takes of a scene. In fact, you almost never shoot a scene only once. On average, there are 3 or 4 takes of every scene. And sometimes you can have many more takes than that.
When an audience sees the same scene four times (or more), they're probably not going to laugh as hard, or the same way, as they did during take one.
Also, sometimes you don't shoot the whole show in front of the live audience. If you're doing a scene that's complicated (like one that requires stunts or special effects), you may have to "pre-shoot" that scene when there is no audience present to laugh.
Later, when the show is assembled in post production, a "machine" is used to make the laughs sound consistent and complete from the beginning of the show to the end. This machine is what people often refer to as "the laugh track".
Another very important element is the skill-level of the "laugh guy" (the man or woman who operates the machine). Some are more skilled than others in making the laughs sound real. At Schneider's Bakery, we've tried several of them over the years. And now we only use one person for all our shows – we think he's the best, by far.
If the "laugh guy" is skilled enough, and is guided properly by a show's producer, the home audience should not be able to tell the difference between the real audience laughter and the machine-generated laughter. (By the way, even the "machine-generated" laughter is real. It's a recording of real humans sitting in an audience, laughing. So, technically, there's no such thing as "fake" laughs.)
Granted, some producers over-use the machine-generated laughs. I do my best to avoid that. When I'm mixing the audio for a show, I'll often say, "No, don't put a laugh there" or "Wait, that laugh is too big – let's use a smaller laugh there". Because you can definitely over-laugh a show. I don't want to name names, but some sitcoms are definitely over laughed.
SO WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
- When you're watching a multi-camera sitcom like Friends... Seinfeld... Full House... you're often hearing very real laughs from the real studio audience. And you're also hearing some machine-generated laughs, so that the whole show sounds even and right.
- When you hear someone say, "Man, I don't like hearing the laughs. I wish they'd just get rid of them." – that's silly (for a multi-camera show). That would be like going to a comedy play, sitting in the audience with lots of people, and never hearing anyone laugh. It'd be weird. It makes complete sense to hear an audience laugh when a show is shot in front of (or as if in front of) a live studio audience.
- And we've learned that some shows do over-use the laugh track, which is something I always try to avoid.