11/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Adieu Larry Gelbart...and Laugh Tracks

Towards the end of Annie Hall, Woody Allen, as Alvy Singer, visits an edit room where his friend Rob is tinkering with footage from his new show. Every few seconds, Rob instructs the editor to add a giggle or a guffaw after his TV self delivers a punch line.

Allen, still in his relatively principled pre-Sun Yi days, watches the whole thing with disgust. 

"Do you realize how immoral this all is?" he asks. 

"It’s kind of a joke within a joke: Allen was actually friends with Charles Douglass, the man who revolutionized the world of recorded laughter.  But, seen in another way, it’s a rather touching moment: the comedian considering how technology can give the impression of hilarity in what amounts to a man-vs.-machine comic standup showdown.

The leader of the crusade against canned laughter lost one of its greatest defenders when Larry Gelbart died two weeks ago today at 81. Gelbart, who wrote TootsieA Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum, and many of the early episodes of M*A*S*H, spent years vociferously rejecting the industry's efforts to manipulate TV-watchers into emitting less-than-sincere laughs.

Laugh tracks may have outlived Gelbart, but it looks like they’re not far from the grave.

When I spoke to Gelbart on this subject late last year while researching my new book, OBSOLETE, which touches on the subject, he acknowledged that it seemed as if fewer shows were employing canned laughter. But any glee Gelbart felt about the possible—or even probably—death of the laugh tracks was felt about this fact was muted by what he believed was the real cause of the growing distaste for pumped-in laughs: in a moment where restaurant-goers wear iPod ear-buds and millions of people each day enjoy YouTube clips or Hulu shows on laptop screens only big enough for one pair of eyes, he feared we were losing something more important than the right to laugh when we please: he felt that we were actually forgetting what it means to enjoy things in the company of others. For better or worse, television once was a family's hearth—a place for gathering and bonding and, yes, laughing together. But now...?

"Before, there was only one television in a household. Now, families are a lot more fragmented and there just aren’t the same opportunities to watch things together," he said. "People watch in their rooms alone or on their phones or online, or they watch while doing a million other things."

The main source of laughs for the bulk of television history has been the Laff Box, a piano-like device filled with recorded laughter that can erupt at various levels of gaiety and volume. Its inventor, Allen’s friend Douglass, carted around the machine from one show to another; few people ever saw what it actually looked like.  The added chuckles didn't really make shows funnier, but laughter can be as contagious as yawning--an oft-cited example of this trend is a 1962 incident in Tanzania where three school girls started a laughing epidemic that resulted in a laughter "outbreak" so widespread that the school was forced to close. Producers hoped to trigger this kind of happening in miniature. At the very least, families in their living rooms would join in the chorus and would think a show was funny if only because they had chuckles ringing in their ears, right?

Laugh tracks, which debuted on The Hank McCuneshow in 1950, really are only a modern take on an age-old custom: For centuries, theater owners filled audiences with people who were paid to laugh. In nineteenth century France there were "claques”—agencies that represented these professional laughers. This was clearly a reductive look at laughter: We are capable of finding things funny without uttering a sound. What’s more, often we laugh precisely when something isn't funny. There's also nervous laughter, scared laughter, appeasing laughter, I-don't-get-the-joke-but-I-want-to-fit-in laughter. But, when calculating something as unquantifiable as enjoyment or humor, those who are in the entertainment business singled-out laughter as a commodity that could both be measured and created.

"With laugh tracks, comedians were assured that if the audience members didn't laugh, they could make it sound like they did," Gelbart said. "It lowered the bar for everybody. It lowered the bar for the writers who could be sure that what they were writing would be perceived as funny, and for the performers.

When they migrated to television and radio, it made sense to Vaudeville performers to perform in front of live audiences because they'd honed their career catering their acts to the mood and energy of the audience. Early sitcoms took a lot of cues from traditional comic theater; the stories often unfolded on one or two static sets. TV, which required sets and strict time requirements, couldn’t tell stories that were as expansive as the ones in movies. So, televisions used the stage model. Lucy and Ricky were mostly seen in the living room; The Honeymooners generally stayed close to the kitchen table.

Then, as now, laughter was sometimes added even to shows that had live audiences. Television shoots can last for days and may be shot non-sequentially, with some parts not filmed with an audience. Also, on the third take, even a very vocal audience wouldn’t necessarily roar the way the producers would’ve liked. The hope was that the sounds of a crowd of happy people would make new television users, who were presumably accustomed to sitting in a full audiences at films and or Vaudeville shows, feel more comfortable about being entertained in small groups in their homes

As shows began exploring the world outside of the realm of a living room, it was harder to justify the laughter. There was no studio audience during the filming of Gelbart's Korean War comedy, M*A*S*H, and the illusion of one seemed a hard sell. Still, when the show debuted in 1972, the producers insisted on pumped in laughs. Gelbart’s crusade began around this time. Believing that M*A*S*H’s fans would find the humor without having every punch line underscored, Gelbart conducted a test where two audiences watched the same episode, one with the laugh track and one without it. People in the laugh-track room probably did laugh aloud more than viewers in the other room, but when surveyed afterward, the groups reported enjoying the show equally. But the networks couldn’t be swayed.

"They felt that the home audience would be encouraged to notice the comedy if 'others were laughing,'" he told me. "God knows where they thought the 'other' people were. Sitting in the foxholes?" (Eventually, in the name of compromise, the network agreed to not play artificial laughs during scenes in the operating room.)

When the show was eventually released on DVD in 2006, Gelbart gave the viewers the option of watching the episodes with or without the added impression of hilarity. "If you listen to it with the laughs, it comes off as a smart-ass comedy, which it wasn't supposed to be," he said. "They weren't supposed to be comedians or wise guys; they were just people observing horrible conditions and commenting on them."

If the laugh track is getting ready for its big exit, it can lock arms with the classic multi-camera sitcoms that had only two or three main sets—Full House or Growing Pains, for example. They’re increasingly taking a backseat to single camera shows like 30 Rock or The Office or Weeds, which offer up complex characters and serial plots that are funny without necessarily going in for the Mr. Ed style sight-gag or quick laugh. Instead of pausing for laughs from a real or recorded audience, actors on these shows work to illicit reactions from the people with whom they're performing, which lends these shows a feeling that's more natural than anything that, say, Three's Company was ever able to achieve. The further we go from sitcoms with theatrical staging, the less producers are mandating the use of laugh tracks. The mostly single-camera non-sofa-centric show Sports Night, which debuted in 1998, straddled the divide: the laugh track was phased out as the show progressed. This season, the major networks are trumpeting the return of the classic sitcom, but early reviews don’t suggest that this is a movement that has real legs.  CBS’ has two-hours of non-stop canned laughter during their Monday block of  How I met Your MotherAccidentally On PurposeTwo and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory . It’s a TV experience that is likely to feel stale in contrast to the new sitcoms that do without (Bored to Death on HBO and ABC’s The Middle, to name two).  But Gelbart  was wary of proclaiming  the end of the era of canned laughter. "One can only hope that one day they will go away completely," he said to me. "But hope is a dangerous thing to have in television."  (I thought of this comment when I saw one newer show that is carrying the torch and even threatens to hand it to a younger generation: Nickelodeon's animated series Glenn Martin, DDS, uses one. ) 

Before our conversation ended, Gelbart pointed out that it’s believed that most of the laughs in Douglass’ Laff Box come from recordings he made of people laughing during Marcel Marceau mime shows in 1950s. "So for the moment," he said, "at least we can say that there's laughter after death." 

Indeed, we can.