Secret history of classic TV's laugh tracks


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Laugh tracks were so ubiquitous that I always assumed that the machinery to add it was a simple standardized piece of equipment, rather than a custom box that was the creation of one man.


This reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s story “Laugh Track” from his book Angry Candy.


Would this qualify as an early analog synthesizer?


I’m just fascinated that you like the laugh tracks. I always assumed everyone hated them, like me. They put them in for any semblance of a joke, and always seemed especially appreciative on jokes that bombed. But I guess I can see how some stuff might benefit from the punctuation. Still hate the forced feeling of them.


Seems to me that they could have just bought a Mellotron and recorded laughs onto the tapes.

But Hollywood has their own way of doing things.


That’s pretty much what I always assumed laugh tracks were - recordings of particular laughing audiences that just got played back (and maybe layered). Of course, now that I think about it, they were always more nuanced than that. I blame Monty Python for that misunderstanding, for their own use of repeated clips.

Yeah, I would have expected either a standard process or every production company having their own approach. Plus, this is so much more complicated than I would have imagined, not that I ever gave it any thought. It makes sense that it would be a fairly complex piece of equipment, given the varied outputs required, but it’s weird that it was this custom bit of kit controlled by one person.


It began to be generally known in the late 70s (if not a bit earlier) that the TV laugh tracks of that time had been harvested from old radio show audiences, and therefore – due to the ‘vintage’ nature of those tracks – brought many to believe (and likely right in many cases) that the ‘canned’ laughs they were subjected to were those of people dead and long gone. So, in tribute:

Are they live or are they dead?
If dead, then what are we to do.
Should we come forward and be bled
(For poisonous humors may accrue)?


So, does the operator have a script in front of them, marked up in various ways to indicate the expected ‘crowd’ reaction?

Imagine being the person who runs this machine, and you’ve had a really shitty week, the kind where you can’t even crack a smile.

The power.


Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.

–Chuck Palahniuk



I feel like for decades old shows it’s part of the nostalgia, but you’re right, in more modern shows it feels forced. I loved ‘The West Wing,’ so I decided to try out Aaron Sorkin’s earlier show ‘Sports Night.’ I didn’t even get through the first episode because the dialog sounded like West Wing, but it had a laugh track. It just felt awful.


It’s more of a tape loop machine than a synthesizer – like a Mellotron [see below]. So in my book, I would not classify it as a synth – more of an early sampler than a synth.

The Mellotron was built in 1963, and the Jack Benny Program (TV) had been using a laugh track for the decade prior, although one wonders if its inventors had ever crossed paths with the inventor of the laugh machine.

Here’s a quick tour of the Mellotron:


I won’t watch a television show with a laugh track. MASH broke me.


Sir Paul demonstrates probably the most well-known mellotron sequence.


THey also used them because laughter is contagious.


Oliver Stone spoofed the laugh track in the opening scene of Natural Born Killers. It’s a bit tough watching so no YT link provided. It’s shocking seeing Rodney Dangerfield gutter mouthing… :open_mouth:


Think how much the Brady Bunch could have been improved if they simply hired Rick Wakeman!


Read this to myself in the voice of Roman Mars.