Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Laugh Tracks"

Thanks for your comments on “Why ‘Taxi’ Was Better.” Your feedback allows me to track your interest, and gives me a chance to use a post to respond, which permits me a bit of a break, while also providing me with the opportunity to use “allows me”, “gives me a chance to”, “permits me to” and “providing me with the opportunity to” in the same sentence.” Whoo-hoo.

Also a thanks to Ken Levine for letting people know I’m here. Always a help.


Comedians depend on audience laughter to tell them what’s funny. (Current single-camera showrunners seem to think they already know what’s funny, excluding the audience from the process, who, going by the ratings, return the favor by not watching their shows.)

Iconic comedian George Burns was the co-star The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which aired on TV in the fifties after a successful run on radio. Like most sitcoms of its day, Burns and Allen was filmed single-camera, like a movie. A single camera films the same scene again and again from different angles and with different compositions – “establishing” shots (establishing the location of the scene), close-ups, “two-shots” (two actors in the shot), etc. Then they move on to the next scene and repeat the process, until they’ve completed filming the entire episode.

Filming each episode took two or three days. (By contrast, an episode of Taxi could be filmed in less than three hours.) You can obviously see why the single-camera technique is not appropriate for a live studio audience. They’d have to endure watching the same scenes being filmed over and over during a two or three-day period. Who can sit that long? People get hungry.

So, no audience for single-camera filmings. But then, whither the laugher? Radio shows had laughter. Audiences were invited in to watch performers recording the shows. Accompanying laughter became a tradition. Executives insisted it was a necessity. Otherwise, they believed, the audience wouldn’t know the show was funny. (Hence, the laugh track on M*A*S*H, though no one ever explained exactly who it was that was laughing.)

Most early half-hours starred actors rather than comedians, people like Donna Reed, Fred MacMurray and whoever starred in My Little Margie. Most of them had movie actor experience, making them comfortable with the movie-style single-camera technique. They were happy not to have to face a live audience (they weren’t used to it). Plus, single-camera filming required them only to learn the lines for the scene they were filming, rather than having to memorize the entire script, as is required when, like on Taxi, filming the entire episode during a live-audience performance. (No show I worked on ever used cue cards.)

Movie actors needed the protection provided by the single-camera approach. Comedians need to hear the laughs. That’s why Lucy, or more precisely Desi, devised a system (which became the three-camera technique), where you ran three cameras at the same time, accelerating the process, and allowing the inclusion of a live studio audience. Lucy heard the immediate response, which undoubtedly bolstered her confidence and energized her performance, allowing her to stuff more candies into her blouse..

George Burns used a different approach (possibly because his co-star wife, Gracie, was extremely shy). Burns filmed Burns and Allen without an audience. But he invited an audience in afterwards, to view the finished product, having their live laughs recorded while they watched the show. In this way, Burns could deliver flesh-and-blood laughter, having tested his comedy in front of actual human beings.

This process provided a tricky challenge for Burns and Allen’s editor.

The editor was responsible for assembling the show together for the audience screening. Required to leave space after every joke so the audience’s laughter could fit in, the editor had to determine the length of that space, by ascertaining, at least in his judgment, the funniness of each joke. This was an extremely delicate calibration, resulting in his leaving either leave too much space after a joke, or not enough.

Not enough space caused the laugh to spill over into the following line of dialogue, making it difficult for the audience watching at home to hear it. Too much space – the joke got a smaller laugh than the editor thought it would – left echoing holes of silence, crippling the pace of the entire production. Either way, the editor knew one thing. Mr. Burns was not going to be happy.

I myself faced a similar challenge. I did the show Family Man without an audience. For justifiable reasons, but it didn’t matter, I made a mistake. When I viewed it without a laugh track, the show felt like a soap opera. When I added a “tastefully administered” laugh track, it sounded like a subdued comedy with muffled ha-ha.

However, when I later screened two episodes of Family Man in front of volunteers from the Universal Tour, and they laughed their heads off, I realized one, the show was actually quite funny, and two, I should have done it in front of a live studio audience. Of course, by then, Family Man was history.

Oh, well.

Here are a scattering, or smattering – your choice – of other facts on the subject, mentioned elsewhere in the blog, but gathered together, serving as a “cheat sheet” for your “laugh track” take-home exam.

Laughter recorded from a live studio audience sounds “canned” even when it isn’t. Why? Because the recording system is, I believe the technical word for it is crappy, making actual laughs sound otherworldly and fake.

The other reason is – and you’ll have to take my word for this – jokes and comedic situations are exponentially funnier when you’re witnessing them in person. That’s why the studio audience is still cracking up, while you’re at home going, “I’m finished with that. Move on.”

Trust me. It’s funnier when you’re there.

The following is true of the shows I was fortunate enough to work on. Other shows, I have no idea.

Laugh-machine laughs are not only injected when a joke fails to get the expected response. (More likely when it doesn’t work, the failed joke is edited out of the show.) Laughs are added when the second or third or the twenty-third “take” of a performance is used in the final version, and the audience finished laughing a considerable number of “takes” earlier. Machine laughs are also employed when a large “cut” is made, and a synthesized “blend” is needed to wallpaper over the gap.

Sometimes, the laugh from the first “take” – when the material was still fresh to the audience – is cut out, and inserted after the “take” that ultimately gets used. Only when that’s not possible is “canned” laughter resorted to. (I was told that the machine’s laughs were lifted from shows recorded decades earlier. When I was a warm-up man, I used this information as an encouragement for the audience to go all out. “Getting an inadequate response will require us to use that old laugh track, and if we do, people watching might recognize the laughter of relative who is currently dead. So if you don’t want to make strangers cry, laugh really hard.”)

I hope that covers the subject for you. If it doesn’t, keep asking questions. Ask about anything. I’ll be happy to respond. It’s fun to write about whatever comes to my mind, but once in a while, “interactive” feels really good.


A. Buck Short said...

Gee, I wonder if our/my lame jokes would go over any better in the real world if we could walk around with our own personal prerecorded laugh tracks, just to goose the victim -- er, listener -- a little? I know you used to be able to get one of those rim shot sound devices, but this would seemingly take everything to the next level. When the novelty wears off, the next saver would involve too vociferous a canned laugh. Then asking to be allowed to try a retake, repeating the line, this time with a more modest laugh track response. The only purpose of having an audience would be to gage whether the novelty would sufficiently wear off after the second or the third use.

I also thought attempts at standup for functions in nontraditional performance spaces might be assisted if one were to start with some sort of elaborate preparation in front of the audience, opening one of those collapsible home movie / audio-visual club screens behind your "stool"; this one with "brick wall" wallpaper in the normally white projection space. Sounds kind of Andy Kaufman. But I’ve always been too cheap to spring for a new screen to glue the wallpaper on, and haven’t found any for sale on Craig’s list.

It’s hard to believe that Jim Parsons/Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory is able to deliver those long bits of scientific or OCD jargon without cheat sheets hidden around the set furniture, but I understand it’s all memorized. Of course, who of us would know if he screwed up one of the scientific rants?

Jess Kiley said...

Earl, you've sold me. I'm a one-camera girl, no holds barred. Wouldn't that be groovy!

thevidiot said...

Excellent discussion of the process and the need for laughs, Earl! [CHUCKLE]

It takes a lot of work to pull laughs from take 1 and "plug them in" to take 4 but it is certainly worth it. [TITTER] It is a more real sounding laugh (although you are right... they will "beef it up" with the laugh machine anyway). [GUFFAW]

"Big Bang Theory" and "Two and a Half Men", while extremely funny are overlaughed [NERVOUS LAUGH] in my book. Seems like the laugh machine man is told to "go nuts." [BIG, BIG LAUGH]

Pre-shoots are bad because I don't often know how much time to [UNEXPECTED LAUGH] leave for the laughs (I'm an editor). [BOO!] Audiences don't respond as much to tape playback because as you say... you want to see the "funny" as it happens. But, the dialog will get drowned and I will be forced to use a "fake" laugh later if the reaction is too long or too short for the allotted slot. [RECOGNITION APPLAUSE]

Laughs are the toughest part of the post production process because it is such a subjective thing... and it is generally hated by lots of folks. But, it provides the glue to get across some really nasty edits, so I appreciate it being there! [CHEER!]

Keep up the great posts. [BIG LAUGH/APPLAUSE]

Anonymous said...

I was staying in a hotel in the Netherlands a few years back, where they had little to chose from on the TV. I happened upon a german channel, that had "Married with Children" playing, dubbed in German of course. I was doing other things and not really watching and suddenly realized...there was something weird there. I can't exactly say HOW I knew it, but I was 100% certain that they had taken the time to "dub" the laugh track with Germans laughing instead of Americans.

There was something VERY foreign about the laughs themselves, and I thought "how weird,they spent money and time REDOING the laugh track in German"...

Dimension Skipper said...

Something I've noticed and occasionally commented upon here and there (OK, pretty much just "there" rather than here until now) is the fact that shows without a laugh track still usually HAVE a laugh track.

"Huh?" (I hear italics man query?...)

Well, not quite a laugh track, but a laugh cue really.

It's the incidental music. Or odd camera angles, lenses, tricks. Or extraneous "cartoony" sounds. Or the quick jump cut with a "blurry speed" visual effect of sliding from one scene to another abruptly, sometimes with a whooooosh sound effect.

There's never just the actors saying their lines and allowing the acting and the lines to carry the funny all by themselves.

That being said, which do I prefer... laugh track or other more subtle (or at least non-traditional) tricks? I'll take the laugh track myself.

I know many people who hate the laugh track concept, but I always say that if it's done right (admittedly a big "if"), well, with any luck I'm laughing too and don't even notice it. Whereas for me it's hard NOT to notice the music or other extra clues that seem to be an effort to tell me "Hey, YOU! This is funny stuff here... Start laughin' already!"Of course, it's possible I'm just weird. Or something of a contrarian. Maybe both.

But at least I'm not alone (anymore). I see this morning that TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall is also decrying the "cue-the-laughter music" concept. He's pointing it out with reference to ABC drama series and specifically mentions Grey's Anatomy and Cupid. I would quickly add Desperate Housewives to the list. I still watch DH, but it often bugs me with its "plinky-plink-plink" this-is-oh-so-amusing music. Oh, and CBS' Worst Week (I wasn't a fan; it just seemed too one-note to me) used uptempo jazzy music to give the sense of things spiralling more haywire each week.

So when I hear many folks complain about the use of laugh tracks and asking "Where's the crowd in the scene that's laughing so hard?" I would in turn ask them... "OK, so where's the band hiding?"

To me, incidental music is even more foreign to a comedy scene than adding laughter (especially assuming there actually was a live audience laughing at the episode as it was being filmed).

Heck, not even considering the music as a cue for funny moments, but just as a general mood setter for other emotions, I often find it overused on shows. I understand its use and have seen examples where it's utilized very well in shows and movies, but I've also seen cases where it's beating me over the head with what I'm supposed to be feeling and when that happens it just ruins the moment.

I've often wondered what it would be like to watch an episode with NO laugh track, NO music, just the actors doing their lines. Would it be better? Worse?

For me, I think it could often be better. It would seem as if I'm just an unseen neutral observer, like sitting on a bench on the boardwalk at Atlantic City watching people walk by and hearing snippets of conversations. Only more so.

Earl, I'd be very curious to hear... well OK, read any thoughts you may care to share on the subject of incidental music in shows whether it be pro or con or from personal experience or not.

Thanks. And thanks for your blogging ways. I'm a loyal daily reader, but only a rare commenter.

A. Buck Short said...

Skipper. Plus, in Atlantic City, I understand you also get to see the infomercials live. Why it's like broadcast TV made whole! Another benefit, on the Boardwalk,the infomercials don't slice-and-dice in arbitrary audience reactions of enthusiasm or amazement from a completely disconnected portion of the pitchman's presentation. In fact, my guess is the audience pretty much just watches and listens, if that.

Edward Copeland said...

I can't give a rational explanation for it, but if I grew up with the show filmed with an audience or using a laughtrack, it doesn't bother me. New show with laughs on their soundtracks today are like nails on a chalkboard to me because every laugh really seems as if it's at the same level. There are really funny jokes,jokes that earn mild guffaws or lines that elicit a little giggle, but these shows seem to discern no difference. I remember catching a moment on "Friends" where Schwimmer walked into a room after something happened and said in an elongated way, "OK" and the laughs on the soundtrack made it sound as if this was the funniest thing ever uttered in the history of comedy. When I watch the one-camera shows I like today ("Scrubs," though it's seen better days, "My Name Is Earl"), I'm infinitely more satisfied and entertained at the end of a half-hour and far more likely to have laughed out loud than with the shows today with laughs trying to spur me on. I've almost hurt myself laughing at "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Larry Sanders Show." On the other hand, I still think Jim taking the driving test on "Taxi" is one of the funniest scenes in the history of television.

Anonymous said...

As a Burns and Allen fan, I never really thought about the way the show was filmed, but it was obvious that it was not a laugh track that was used. There is something interesting about genuine laughter and how it really does make the show funnier.

Great observations! I am linking this post to my blog devoted to Burns and Allen at