Canned Laughter Has Passed Its Expiration Date

Kera Bolonik puzzles over the ongoing use of laugh tracks in sitcoms, noting that “fake laughter is like a fake orgasm — it’s not infectious”:

In fact, we’ve had them imposed on us since the fifties, when sound engineer Charley Douglass started “sweetening” the audio, inserting laughs at failed jokes, editing down yuks that went on too long, to regulate the comic beats. But what is louder than the din of disingenuous laughter when a joke isn’t funny? It’s a hand hanging in the air, waiting for the high five slap that never comes, that loud silence of one hand clapping. But bad jokes are like tripping over air currents — you’ve gotta catch your fall and keep moving.

Network sitcoms have become less reliant on laugh tracks — Parks and Recreation, Glee, Modern Family, and the new Brooklyn Nine Nine, for example, don’t use them. But these are mockumentaries, musicals, and/or single-camera shows. Laugh tracks tend to signal to an audience that they’re tucking into more conventional fare, by which I mean, a show that, as Joseph Winkler described in “A Sitcom Even a Nihilist Could Love,” features beleaguered straight-man (or woman) protagonist at work surrounded by zany colleagues, and at home, where he or she juggles a fraught relationship with an overbearing or neurotic parent, a partner or an ex (or the ever-present absence of no love life at all), and a resident smart-alecky kid. And the laughs punctuate every sentence like an exclamation point.

(Video: a laugh track-free clip from The Big Bang Theory)