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What's So Funny?

by Arthur James

A scene in Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall shows the filming of a hit situation comedy from the perspective of the people in the sound booth. ‘Give me a tremendous laugh here, Charlie,’ Rob asks of his technician. ‘Do you realize how immoral this all is?’ Alvy Singer interjects, and Rob replies defensively that the show is shot in front of a live audience. Alvy’s reply: ‘Great, but nobody laughs at it ‘cause your jokes aren’t funny,’ epitomises a widespread loathing of the TV laugh track. Derided by viewers and writers alike, it was included by Time Magazine in a 1999 list of the ‘hundred worst ideas of the century’ alongside Prohibition and the Treaty of Versailles. Despite that, the laugh track, or ‘canned laughter’, dominated television comedy for over fifty years. It’s a vestigial trait hungover from a time when people would gather around the radio with their families every evening, when media was consumed and appreciated communally. Many of the most iconic and widely loved TV shows of all time have laugh tracks: Seinfeld, Cheers, I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Blackadder, Friends, Frasier, M*A*S*H, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, All in the Family. But there is something very odd about a TV show laughing at itself – a bit like Jeb Bush asking his audience to clap. There is a note of desperation in the cackles of the artificial viewers. Aristotle defined man as ‘an animal which laughs’, but it feels like these shows laugh not just with us but somehow for us as well.


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As it turns out, ‘canned’ audience responses go back some way. Records inform us that plants were used in performances of Shakespeare plays to spur on laughter during the performance. In 18th century France, this practice was formalised with the development of ‘claques’: guilds of professional ‘rieurs’ – laughers – who could be hired by theatres or opera houses. Honoré de Balzac wrote in La Comédie Humaine that at one time the ‘chef de claque’ had ‘the endorsement of the boulevard playwrights, all of whom have an account with him, as they would with a banker’. The Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow still features a league of ‘claqueurs’ which is employed by individual dancers to applaud in exchange for tickets.


Canned laughter does the same job: it evolved in the 1950s as a way of compensating for the fact that the reaction of a studio audience would diminish when the same joke was made in multiple takes of the same scene. To solve the problem, CBS sound-man Charlie Douglass invented the ‘laff box’, a device which would allow nervous producers to ‘sweeten’ moments when a live audience didn’t laugh hard or long enough. He created the machine by isolating over 320 individual audience reactions on tape and imbricating them together into spools. Around three feet tall and made mostly out of organ parts and vacuum tubes, it operated like a typewriter with a keyboard and pedal allowing him to control the length, style and intensity of a laugh, which was then injected into prerecorded comedies – a ‘one-man studio audience for hire’. This strange, steampunk-like contraption was totally unique, and throughout the 1960s added laughter to tens of thousands of episodes of television. For a time, Douglass’ invention was called ‘the most sought-after but well-concealed box in the world’, and Douglass himself was laughing all the way to the bank. A review of the sitcom The Hank McCune Show in a 1950 issue of Variety described the first known use of a laugh track on TV: ‘Although the show is lensed on film without a studio audience, there are chuckles and yucks dubbed in. Whether this induces a jovial mood in home viewers is still to be determined, but the practice may have unlimited possibilities.’ Suddenly, every joke could be funny, and, fairly soon, cue laughter became a defining feature of TV comedy. All pretenses of a live studio audience were abandoned as it became used in situations where there was clearly no audience, like when the comedy happened outside or – more strangely – in cartoons like The Flintstones and The Jetsons. Today, sound engineers create laughter at the push of a button, but the intent is the same as in Shakespearean times: to make the viewers laugh.


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The motivations behind TV laughter, and the reasons it works, seem simple. One explanation could be that it creates a comic atmosphere reciprocated by the viewers. Laughter is social, and it makes sense that a sense of camaraderie would make viewers more likely to laugh themselves. As Henri Bergson remarked in his terminally unfunny ‘Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic’, ‘laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers. How often has it been said that the fuller the theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter of the audience!’ Alternatively, canned laughter could be seen as a social cue, a signal that a joke has been made which reminds us to laugh. We follow a script, just like the original studio audiences responding to signs labeled ‘applause’ or ‘laughter’. This explanation sees laughter less as a natural reaction and more like a duty: ‘we are all having a good time, you should be too’.


What is strange about these explanations is the element of compulsion: in both, the laugh comes before the enjoyment. Not only does a laugh track encourage laughter, but it also makes jokes funnier. Just as smiling reputedly releases endorphins which make you happier, by encouraging you to laugh the cackles of a computer-generated audience can improve a joke. This is weird. We would expect that enjoying a joke would follow a familiar structure: joke-is-told, viewer-finds-joke-funny, viewer-laughs, but canned laughter upends this process. The laughter not only prefigures but also somehow causes the joke itself.


The idea that laughter often causes humour is hardly a new one – that the sight of someone laughing hysterically is itself funny is enough to tell us that. A Byzantine-era treatise on the fifth-century comic playwright Aristophanes puts it well: ‘comedy begins from and ends with laughter.’ In the comic question of the chicken or the egg, it seems like laughter came first. This is surprising, because we tend to think of laughter as a good way to measure how funny something is – the humour should create the laughs, not the other way around. One of Aristophanes’ greatest plays, Frogs, opens self-consciously with the character Xanthias asking ‘shall I give them some of the usual stuff, then, master – the things that always make the audience laugh?’, suggesting that laughter is the product of comedy. This may to a certain extent be true, but most sitcoms in the latter half of the 20th century used a laugh track to short circuit this structure. In fact, one of the major criticisms levelled at canned laughter was that it freed the writers from the obligation to be funny. For whatever reason, viewers like laugh tracks. Whilst cynical critics and TV watchers might detest canned laughter (only eight of 81 nominations for the Emmy for most outstanding comedy since 2005 have had a laugh track), shows tested better with it than without it. Even today when laugh tracks have largely fallen out of fashion, four of the six most-watched comedies of 2018 used them.


So how much of what we watch and enjoy is actually just not funny at all? Watching episodes of Friends or The Big Bang Theory with the laughter edited out is truly revelatory: many of these shows seem suddenly tired, unfunny, full of formulaic paint-by-numbers jokes, and of characters so one-dimensional that if they turned sideways they would actually disappear. The laughter serves as a comic pacemaker, coming in at regular intervals to keep the humour alive. A two-minute scene of The Big Bang Theory contains around seventy seconds of dialogue with close to five seconds of laughter after each line. At its worst, the canned laughter validates misogynist or homophobic jokes, acting as a rubber stamp to the worst kind of lazy writing. The Big Bang Theory’s lovable nerds get away with stalking, flashing, upskirting and other instances of sexism, like asking women whether they are menstruating or demanding they do all the housework – with each instance of misogyny being followed by peals of laughter which turns it from sinister or creepy to dorky and hilarious.


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For all that, I am not sure this explanation fully accounts for the survival of the laugh track. On the whole, people do not watch TV shows with cue laughter and laugh along. Today, we tend to watch most TV on our own, on laptops or phones, and at our own speed. We definitely do not sit in bed alone cackling with laughter whilst binge-watching Friends on Netflix, at least not most of the time. Maybe this shift has caused, or come hand in hand with, the decline in canned laughter generally, but I suspect that even before it, it was rare for artificial laughter to be echoed back from the viewer. I don't laugh, and often I don't even find sitcom jokes that funny. And from anecdotal evidence, it is clear that I am not alone in my experience of watching television comedies. So I think we need to explain the popularity of shows with artificial laughter: if we do not really enjoy any moment of it, why do we keep watching?


Curiously, I definitely enjoy having watched these sitcoms – when people ask me, I am more than happy to list Friends or Seinfeld among my favourite shows – but it seems like the only enjoyment happening during the actual watching is that of the artificial audience within the show. In some sense, the canned laughter is doing the work of being entertained for me, and I emerge merely anaesthetised. So we outsource both the recognition of humour and our response to it: the artificial laughter finds itself so funny that we have a good time by proxy. Canned laughter acts like a Greek chorus, signifying that something is funny but also reacting to it so dramatically that we do not need to bother. Jacques Lacan, the genius-or-charlatan French psychoanalyst, unpicks how a chorus experiences fear or sympathy (Aristotle’s ‘phobos’ and ‘eleos’) on our behalf:


‘The Chorus takes care of [your emotions]. The emotional commentary is done for you. Therefore, you don’t have to worry; even if you don’t feel anything, the Chorus will feel in your stead.’


A laugh track works the same way, by finding a joke funny for us and so relieving us of the burden. Freud talks about laughter as the release of ‘psychical energy’, in which case canned laughter acts as a prosthetic sluice gate for these repressed emotions. We subconsciously entrust the process of finding funny to the show supposed to be being funny. David Foster Wallace gestures towards the idea that when we watch TV, it is a process of minimising effort whilst maximising enjoyment in his essay ‘e pluribus unum’: ‘television’s great, minute-by-minute appeal is that it engages without demanding. One can rest while undergoing stimulation. Receive without giving.’ Artificial laughter takes this to the extreme by expending the effort of enjoying for us.


As human beings, we are not very good at telling the difference between appearance and reality, and we often replace the former with the latter. We see the tears of a chorus as a substitute for our own sadness. Charles Wilcox’s hiring of professional mourners to weep at his wife’s funeral in E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howard’s End is another example of this delegated sadness. So maybe we hear laughter and assume what we are watching is funny, enjoyable, entertaining. The structures and signifiers of enjoyment are present, so the contents must be too. Which means that even if at no individual point we have a good time, even if at no point we find a joke funny, we come out having had a good time, having found the jokes funny. Even today, professional mourners, or moirologists, can earn between £20 and £90 per funeral.


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So if we only like these shows because someone is telling us to, who is doing the telling? As TV producers and sound executives in Los Angeles accommodated increasingly stilted writing with artificial laughter, they gained more and more power over what we found funny. There is something creepy about this cabal of laugh-merchants prescribing what we enjoy from their Hollywood sound studios. How many jokes or turns of phrase that we now think of as hilarious are just a conditioned response from years of hearing cue laughter after a punchline? For example, the first use of ‘much’ as a hilarious emphasiser (‘Hungry much?’, ‘Jealous much?’) was in a 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live where Todd points at Lisa’s chest and rhetorically asks ‘underdeveloped much?’ Not exactly Aristophanes, despite all the laughter played in the background. How many of these constructions have slipped into our everyday toolbox of jokes just because we now think they are funny? Is it not it a bit worrying that TV executives can drill into our funny bone?


I think there is also something quite sad about the popularity of shows which use TV laughter. At best, they treat the audience like robots who need to be taught what is funny and when to laugh (it is unsurprising that TV laughter is most common today on children’s channels.) At worst, we become entirely passive viewers who delegate the very act of enjoyment to the media we consume. Artificial laughter works because it is pleasure-maximising and effort-minimising, but it turns us into empty endorphin repositories. One of the positive effects of the last ten years’ shift in the cultural zeitgeist towards sincerity and individuality has been a move away from canned laughter. It has faced opposition since its inception but until recently that was ignored by producers: Larry Gelbart, co-creator of CBS’s M*A*S*H wanted it to air without a laugh track ‘just like the actual Korean War’. Despite similar calls, it was only in the 2000s, as writing got funnier and comedy began to drift back away from the ironic and towards the sincere that fake laughter declined. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did not need it; Sports Night faded it out. Shows like The Office or Modern Family use ‘documentary-style’ or ‘interview-style’ devices to connect the audience to the characters. Like the Greek philosopher Chrysippus, it seems canned laughter has died laughing at its own joke.


ARTHUR JAMES reads English at Magdalen. He has a Horsfield's tortoise named Fred.


Art by Ellena Murray