Secret history of classic TV's laugh tracks

I thought nearly the same thing. It’s funny how those two parallel inventions are so similar. Someone page John Burke!

Yeah, but it was always so cringeworthy to me that I didn’t want to catch what those people had.

For me it was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The deadpan aspect of the show was delicious. In MASH at least it was pretty clear which were the jokes! Even very recently, I laughed inappropriately in the theater. I watch extremely few sitcoms these days, none with laugh tracks.


I could watch Sir Paul demo musical instruments of all types all day long.

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“If there’s any more stock footage of women applauding I shall clear the court!”


Laugh tracks have a more sinister purpose than simply punching up jokes. They are Pavlovian, equal to passive mind control, releasing endorphins into the blood stream. Try watching “Big Bang Theory” without the canned laughter:

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I think I know the exact sound you’re describing. Anyway, I noticed a recurring laugh, as well.

I guess this is what led to some shows announcing “All in the Family was taped before a live studio audience,” “Cheers was filmed before a live studio audience” etc. Recently I was thinking how they no longer make a point of that, and that they probably haven’t for some time. IIRC, even live audiences were “sweetened” with laugh tracks.

Throbbing Gristle had a Mellotron in which the musical instrument tapes were replaced with various sounds/noises.

I was going to be brazen and post the link with the words “What, you mean this?!” but then I re-watched it, and … uhhh… yeah. Not going to. That’s some seriously fucked up cinema right there. I remember watching that movie during its premiere and literally being just a bit shocked and disorientated at the end.

I know that EXACT guffaw you’re talking about. That same laugh was in all the Hanna-Barbera laugh tracks as well.


Remember 1982’s short lived Police Squad! (in color)? A genuinely hilarious series that tanked, in part because it did not have a laugh track. The TV-mesmerized public had no idea what to do with it, and it crashed hard. I have the whole series on one VHS tape.

You also had to watch it in order to get the humor. There were so many sight gags that I was discovering them years later. This series gave rise to the Naked Gun movies (and probably others).


When I watched the Brady Bunch as a youngster, there was one particular deep guffaw that always caught my attention.

I had the exact same experience with “Welcome Back, Kotter”!

I always wondered how that same guy (“Hee hee… heeee”) was always there.

Is magnetic tape really that robust?? It just seems like, with the Laff Box or the Mellotron, you’re going to have all sorts of issues with the tapes breaking or degrading with constant use.

Indeed. It’s pretty difficult to watch Seinfeld now because of the laugh track. There’s a hilarious self-referential riff in Curb Your Enthusiasm S8E6 where Ricky Gervais (as himself) is “complimenting” Larry David about the laugh track: "Seinfeld... Lovely show... I love broad comedy... I love the laugh track, reminds you when to laugh."

Yes, the Mellotron tape does degrade with use. But a lot of musicians have said they like the degraded sound, as it adds warmth, color, and an eerie quality – like music from an old film. That said, I believe the later analog models were modular – you could remove the entire tape rig and switch newer tapes or entirely different instrumentation.

Of course the Mellotron is now a digital sampler containing all the classic sounds plus a bunch more. And with tone and speed controls the player can make it sound old and degraded.

I’d imagine the same with the Laff Box. They must’ve made master copies because you can here the same exact laugh tracks from the 50’s through the early 70’s.

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My favorite laugh track story turned out to be apocryphal.

The story goes that during a filming of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life! he was doing the intro bit with a female contestant who had an uncommonly large number of children (say a dozen or so) and asked why she had so many, to which she responded “I love my husband!” Groucho responded “well I love my cigar but I take it out of my mouth once in a while!” The joke itself didn’t make it past the network censors but the uproarious response it prompted from the audience was so enthusiastic that they saved it for future use as a laugh track for especially funny moments.

I want that story to be true so badly I kind of wish I didn’t look it up to see if there was any evidence to support its veracity.

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I figured it was like having the sound of water running in a men’s room.

Some people have a hard time releasing if someone else hasn’t. Laughter is, at least to some degree, reflexive.

These are pretty cool too.

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Try watching MASH.

They also serve the purpose of not allowing the alpha in the room to define what is and is not to be found funny.

I suggest, for the sake of your blood pressure, that you do not watch shows that employ this production technique!

I think that’s the idea behind it, and I always resent the attempt to manipulate my experience of the program in that way. It doesn’t make me laugh along, and crimps my alpha waves, making me less likely to enjoy the program. The artificiality of it, compared to a live audience, is always hanging in the air. Which is what lead to the increased use in live audiences, I suppose.

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