Death of the Laugh Track

October 2, 2008

I was having a conversation with someone about 9/11 this morning. A cheery topic to start off any day.

And we talked about how humor sort of went away for a while after the attacks on the World Trade Center. How comedians didn’t really know what to say after such a horrible thing had happened to our country. And it took a little while for us all to laugh again.

We were smacked pretty hard in the face by the cold, damp hand of reality.

Speaking of reality…

Reality TV started to pick up in popularity just before 9/11. Then it exploded after 9/11. And dramas slowly became more popular than comedies. Why is that? After going through so much emotional hardship, didn’t we – as a country – need to laugh more than ever?

I tend to wonder if we just couldn’t put up with the network fluff that was considered to be funny anymore. Laugh tracks and over-enthused studio audiences were subconsciously TELLING US when to laugh… and we just couldn’t be told when to laugh anymore. We’d been through too much.

Some dumb actress getting her blouse stuck in a drawer and then subsequent canned laughter wouldn’t cut it anymore. It just seemed so empty.

I did a little research, checking out the Nielson ratings from the past years.

In 1999, some of the top comedies were Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Becker, Dharma & Greg, and Drew Carey. All canned-laughter-shows.

The 2001-2002 season (which kicked off shortly after the attacks on the WTC) included comedies like Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Will & Grace, Becker, and Frasier.

Jump to 2005. In the top 20 shows, there’s really only one sitcom – Two and a Half Men – which does have a laugh track. Desperate Housewives was #4, but isn’t really considered a comedy. Nor is House. 2005 barely has a hint of laugh tracks in its top shows.

Look at the comedies we laugh at today: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Samantha Who, the second coming of The Family Guy, 30 Rock, The Office, My Name is Earl, Ugly Betty… Not a laugh track in the lot of them. Only CBS has a few laugh-track-shows left on their roster… and frankly, I don’t know anyone who watches them.

There could be another contributing factor to the laugh track’s death: technology.

Perhaps as people replaced their tube TVs with plasma and LCD screens, laugh tracks and cheap production values didn’t really seem to jive with the killer displays and surround sound. Shows like Ugly Betty and 30 Rock have the feeling of being shot “on location” and not in some lame studio. (Even though a good deal of 30 Rock and other shows are still shot on soundstages.)

With big TVs come the need for big drama, big production values, and big laughs. No sissy lame-ass jokes on a small scale.

So, maybe it’s the onset of advanced technology. Or we just changed the way we laugh at things in general. Either way, the laugh track is dead.

Get with it, CBS. It’s not 1999 anymore.

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