Laugh Tracks
I recently re-watched the ‘80s BBC television series Red Dwarf for (at least) the fifth time. It is an excellent science fiction comedy about an imbecile human who wakes up from a three-million-year cryogenic sleep. I enjoyed the show when it first aired and enjoyed it again.
The first episode has funny hijinks, and they filmed it with a studio audience. The resulting video has added laughter during a funny scene. The reason behind the addition is twofold. Bringing life to the actors is the first benefit. They hear reactions that enhance their acting. The second is to entice the viewing audience. They hear other people laughing, and this encourages them to laugh. This effect can add to the humor.
Because it is expensive to film in front of an audience, television producers add a “laugh track” which is “mixing in” pre-recorded laughter.
I dislike laugh tracks and only tolerate a mild amount of audience laughter. However, as I watched Red Dwarf, something changed in season seven. They took away the laughter. At first, this was a surprise and then a slight disappointment because I was used to the format. Later, I enjoyed the silence because I could concentrate on the entertainment. However, it returned in season eight, and I had to adapt. This transition got me thinking about laugh tracks.
Some television shows went overboard with laugh tracks; the best example is MASH. Here is the basic format.
The character walks into the room and makes a funny smile.
The character unnaturally pauses while laughter is inserted by the sound editor.
Moments later, the character makes a humorous reference.
The character unnaturally pauses while laughter is inserted.
The problem is that an awkward pause breaks up the momentum. In real life, do you do something and then pause for no apparent reason? People would look at you with confused expressions and ask, “Is everything alright? Are you having a heart attack?” Fortunately, laugh tracks are limited to sitcoms. I have never encountered a movie with a laugh track or one that is filmed in front of an audience. Of course, actors perform plays in front of a live audience, which is part of their charm.
Has there ever been a book with a laugh track? Well, sort of.
Bob asked with a smile, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“No idea,” Jane answered.
“To get to the other side,” he answered, and Jane laughed.
“To get to the other side. Ha-ha.”
However, that is not quite the point. A laugh track is an unseen third group of people laughing.
“To get to the other side,” Bob answered, and then the audience laughed for ten seconds.
What audience? When did they get there? I thought Bob and Jane were alone? Note that this is exactly what happens in a sitcom. Characters representing real people are doing their normal activities, and this unseen third group of people laughs. It makes no sense, but viewers love it.
I find it interesting to discuss a popular entertainment element that cannot exist in a book. For example, laugh tracks have become an integrated part of television, yet they have no use in writing. And books really need help because it is tough to write comedy that only exists on stale paper.
As a writer, I wish I could hear readers reacting to my funny scenes. Do they laugh out loud? Do they smirk? Or did my humor fail to connect? What if readers were all reading at the same time? Would a few readers laugh, and then the rest join in? Would that help the experience? I will never know.
How about an interactive eBook that analyzes a reader’s face? When a smile gets detected, the reader inserts a laugh track. Hmm. This might be an exciting invention, but I would not use that feature. I enjoy the silent aspect of reading. “My mind is the scene.” However, some readers might enjoy more interaction. Side note. Do audiobooks contain laugh tracks? I have only listened to three, so I do not know.
My local cinema has a “4D” theater. This added technology subjects the viewers to motion, vibration, wind, snow, fog, strobes, rain, lights, and scents. I recall in the ‘50s that, some theater staff would interact with the audiences, and there were added effects. So this audience-engaging technology is not new, and there is a movie about this ‘50s concept, Matinee starring John Goodman:
I suppose we have come full circle. Including a laugh track in a book is impossible, and that is probably a good thing. Is it possible in a blog? Sure! Please click hear to listen to endless laughter:
Did you get the pun? Hear, not here. Ha-ha-ha-ha.

You’re the best -Bill
March 08, 2023
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