What Is a Laugh Track?

The laugh track, sometimes referred to as “canned laughter” or “fake laughter,” is a soundtrack containing audience reactions such as laughter or applause. It is used as a way to either mimic the soundscape of a live audience by stitching together various recordings, or as a way to “sweeten” the response of an actual studio audience.

The above soundscape is an example of a laugh track. This soundscape is composed of a recording of group laughter, with individual laughs, clapping, cheering, and studio noise blended in. The soundscape begins with general group laughter. At 0:03, a clapping and cheering track is added to the mix. Throughout the soundscape, the clapping is extremely resonate, giving off the illusion of a live studio setting. At 0:06, one man’s laugh is audible over the rest of the group. At 0:08, another man’s cackle is heard. Another distinct laugh can be heard at 0:12. At 0:16, a female voice can be heard shouting something. As the laughter begins to die down, a wheezy laugh is audible at 0:22. As the soundscape continues, the laughter fluctuates, rising and falling as it naturally would. From 0:23 to the end of the soundscape, it sounds as if a smaller group of people is laughing, and individual laughs are more easy to isolate. At 0:30, the murmur of people talking in their seats is added to the soundscape as several laughs trail off.

A Brief History of the Laugh Track

The laugh track became popular in the 1940s with the rise of television as a way to bring a live theater experience into viewers’ homes. At the time, many television programs were filmed in front of a live audience; however, the audience could not always be relied upon to produce the desired reaction, especially when a scene required multiple takes. Charley Douglas, a CBS sound engineer, solved this problem by developing a machine, appropriately called the “laff box.” This invention allowed Douglas to insert additional laughter into a program’s soundtrack when a live audience did not produce enough of a reaction. Though originally meant to augment studio laughter, as production costs soared, it became more financially viable to create the studio soundscape from scratch.

Douglas played a major role in developing the soundscapes one might expect from a typical sitcom. Within the laff box, which looked quite similar to a typewriter, Douglas housed an arsenal of giggles and hardy laughter, “oohs” and “ahhs,” audience clapping, and even ambient studio sounds like audience members shifting in their seats to imitate the sound of a live audience. Every couple of years, Douglas would add new laughs and bring back old ones to keep his laugh tracks fresh.

Background Information for Interviews

In the episode of Friends titled “The One With Unagi,” Rachel and Phoebe take a self defense class. Ross doesn’t believe that they are capable of defending themselves from attacks and tries to surprise them throughout the entirety of the episode. When he scares them in their own home, they use their self defense training to subdue him. After being humiliated, Ross goes to the self defense class to talk to the instructor about how he, the attacker, could be more effective. I chose to use the scene where Ross talks with the self defense instructor (4:09 to 5:18 in the video below) because I feel that the use of a laugh track has a particularly strong effect on how the audience interprets the situation.

The following is an audio sample from Friends that includes the laugh track.

The following is an audio sample from Friends where the laugh track has been removed.

This scene is just over a minute long, but the laugh track accounts for about a third of the whole soundscape. When the laugh track is present, I find myself more willing to laugh at, or at least find humor in, the absurdity of the situation and the miscommunication that occurs. In Inger-Lise Kalvinkes Bore’s “Laughing Together? TV Audiences and the Laugh Track,” the laugh track is described as “having a positive effect of ‘pulling you along,’ which reinforces the idea of the sitcom audience as an imagined collectivity laughing together” (28). Bore continues to say that “the laugh track can be seen as an attempt to ‘infect’ the audience with laughter—to put them in a viewing position where they are more easily amused” (28). Bore also claims, however, that the laugh track can be “an obstacle to textual openness” (28). In the case of this scene, the insertion of a laugh track tells viewers that the situation is, in fact, funny and that they should undoubtedly be laughing at it, leaving little room for them to interpret the situation differently. When the laugh track is removed, however, the gravity of the dialogue really sets in. Even given the context of the rest of the episode, when the laugh track is removed from this scene, the dialogue becomes creepy and even sinister.

Notable Interview Responses

Based on a single scene from Friends, I conducted interviews which I used to explore the broader issue of the use of laugh tracks in television. For each interview I had the interviewee watch the video to provide context for the scene we discussed. Next, they listened to the scene with a laugh track, and then listened to it again without the laugh track. The interview responses varied, with some pertaining directly to the scene from Friends, and some spoken about laugh tracks in general.

How do you feel when you listen to these soundscapes?
T: Well, the one without the laugh track—it’s more awkward. It’s mainly just the pauses. I still thought it was funny.

J: I would definitely say that [the one without a laugh track] is less funny. It’s perceived as way less funny. With the laugh track, I felt the urge to laugh and I did, and without the laugh track I never felt the urge to laugh. Honestly, that particular conversation sounded creepy. It didn’t sound funny at all. It sounded serious.

How does the laugh track contribute to the scene?
T: It tells you when to laugh, and I think it makes it more okay to laugh. It’s okay to think that was funny. Because without the laugh track, some of that could have been messed up, so if you’re laughing at it people would be like, “Why are you laughing?” But the laugh track makes it seem like it’s okay.

A: It let’s you know that what you’re enjoying is acceptable.

J: It pulls a response out of you. It interpolates you. Someone else laughing—it makes you think you should be laughing.

Do you think using laugh tracks is effective?
T: I don’t think it’s ineffective, but I don’t think it’s necessary either. I feel like laugh tracks are kind of rare now. They’re almost like a signifier of bad TV, but if it’s just a bad show I feel like it’s more annoying.

A: Sitcoms with laugh tracks—the writing is different. If the writing is good and the laugh track helps it flow, it reassures people who are like, “I think this is funny, but do other people think it’s funny?”

T: The only problem with not having a laugh track is that the laugh track acts as filler like if it was real life. In real life, if someone said something funny, someone they’re with should be laughing, but it’s never like that. It’s always the laugh track, not the people.

J: I think it’s effective, yeah. I think it makes a show more comedic or intense than [the writing that goes into it] actually may be.

Do you think sitcoms that use laugh tracks rely solely on the laugh tracks to create a joke? Or do you think the dialogue drives the show?
J: I think the dialogue only accounts for about twenty percent of the humor, and the laugh track pulls through with the other eighty percent.

So would you say that sitcoms that don’t use laugh tracks are more reliant on comedy in the dialogue and in the situations?
J: The ones like Friends, all of the family type sitcoms where its obviously a set and there are only so many rooms within the house that you ever see, and they use laugh tracks, and they use the same three camera set-up—those all fall into one category where its funny because of the laugh track. And then ones like The Office and Arrested Development—the situational side of the comedy is actually real. they utilize that. Within a typical sitcoms, I mean they get themselves in a situation to produce the narrative, but its not a complex situation—I mean in Arrested Development you’ve got eight characters that are constantly screwing each other over and most of the time in ways that they don’t even realize and it’s all connected, where as in a typical sitcom you have nothing.

To conclude my project, I have included an example to show how the addition of an inappropriate laugh track drastically affects how a viewer might react to a situation that is not funny. This video uses clips from The Shining and presents them in a way similar to a sitcom. Adding a laugh track to the soundscape of a horror film takes potentially scary or unsettling situations and makes it allows viewers to find humor.

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