Let's Be Real Funny
May Charles Douglass and his laugh track rest in peace
By P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/4/2003 8:00:00 PM
Charles Douglass, the man who invented the laugh track, died last month. I never met him, but a long time ago I interviewed Carroll Pratt, the man who helped him when Hollywood needed more fake laughs than Douglass's company could crank out. The highlight of that interview, though it doesn't have much to do with the story, came when Pratt hauled a portable laugh-track machine to his driveway and let me "drive" it. You got laughs from a kind of gas pedal, applause from a switch, and, as I recall, another pedal took the laugh from a chuckle to the greatest joke ever told. I don't think I've ever had a more surreal time in anyone's driveway.
You didn't get a chance to meet many laugh-track guys in Hollywood, Pratt theorized, because no one liked them too much. Once, he said, a woman wrote a letter to M*A*S*H producer Gene Reynolds begging him to kill the laugh track (which happened, but only in a few episodes). Here's the kicker: The woman who wrote the letter was dating Pratt at the time and later married him.
Now that Douglass is gone, I think we should reconsider Mrs. Pratt's suggestion: Kill the damn thing.
I can watch sitcoms for hours without laughing. I'm not necessarily saying they're not funny, but there's funny you laugh at and funny that entertains you. There is no laugh track in Sex and the City, none in Malcolm in the Middle or The Simpsons. But there are in most sitcoms, even ones that don't need it. Would Seinfeld be less classic without it? I doubt it. Would That '70s Show suddenly be less funny? No. I think it would be improved. When Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night aired on ABC without a laugh track, it seemed brilliant, witty, urbane. In syndication on Comedy Central, a laugh track was added, and it felt like a yukfest without the yuks.
In this the week before the networks announce their fall schedules, it would be great for network executives to test the premise of the laugh track itself by obliterating that audio track as they watch the pilots they're pondering putting on the air. They would be better off listening for their own laughter, rather than depending on a laugh track provided by a studio and producer that need them to think they are enjoying the show.
I'd venture that networks and studios lose millions every year listening to the laughs of people who really aren't there.
Remember, for example, Jason Alexander's horrible 2001 sitcom, Bob Patterson, a comedy about a "famed motivational expert" who was, as it turned out, famously and consistently unfunny? A laugh track did that to ABC and, briefly, to us. (The funniest thing Bob Patterson ever did was participate in a fake interview with this magazine. The character—that interview—was funny because Alexander had no phony protection. His interview even had to read funny.)
Lots of comedies are funny but ruined by the laugh track. Writers learned to lean on it and then to write "to" it. There has to be that buzz of canned laughter about every 10 or 15 seconds, and so the writers write it that way. That's why television comedies are often so, well, awful. They are written to repeat a pattern of noise we now associate with a sitcom. Most sitcoms are, at best, "funny—for television." And they earn that dim distinction all by themselves.
But the successful ones make it because they're good and probably would be better without a laugh track My laugh-track pal, Carroll Pratt, in his day, came to become the preferred laugh-track guy among producers of good comedies because he would not lay on the laughs too heavily. He'd do little more than "sweeten" the laughter from the real show that he was working on. Charlie, on the other hand, didn't like to upset comedy writers so he'd lather up a show with guffaws wherever they wanted.
Today, we're a fractionalized television audience, and that should tell broadcast networks we're a nation of television viewers looking for alternatives. Any network that offers a mass audience laughing all at once is bound to lose the viewers who are looking for something to laugh at all by themselves. The world has changed since Charles Douglass. May he rest in peace, and leave the last laughs for us, for real.
Bednarski may be reached at email@example.com
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