I’ve Got a Bad Case of the Laugh Track Blues

I hate being in a social situation where everyone around me bursts into laughter at something I’ve apparently missed.

My gut reaction is to wonder why everyone is laughing at me. If I’m the only one not laughing, then that has to be the answer, right?

Not necessarily.

Years of therapy have taught me the laughter I hear around me isn’t always from people laughing at me. It was a struggle to get here, but I did it, and thankfully so. I was getting tired of my television mocking me every time I tried to watch a second-tier sit-com.

I thought I had learned to tune out this laughter. I was wrong.

I have to sleep with the TV on. The noise from the TV drowns out the voices in my head from dominating my thoughts and keeps me from going too far down those dark, scary paths rogue neurotransmitters have drilled into the recesses of my brain.

The TV has become my clock.

I fall asleep watching whatever stupid show catches my interest for a few minutes, but in the early morning hours, say around 4 a.m., I always flip it over to TBS, aka The BigBang Station, and put the remote control out my reach.

As I doze throughout the morning I’m usually treated to a handful of Married with Children episodes, before drifting back into real sleep when Tyler Perry hell begins.

When I hear the theme song to Full House, I know I have to get out of bed to turn off the TV or else be subjected to some of the worst bullshit ever broadcast.


Not long ago, TBS squeezed old episodes of the CBS comedy Rules of Engagement into its early morning lineup.

This is one of those shows I never watched. If I’m going to be honest, I’d have to admit most modern, prime-time sitcoms fall into this category.

It was Rules of Engagement that made me relapse, and once again hear the laughing voices on my television. These voices laughed for no reason. I don’t like writing negative things about creative works, unless it’s the show Full House, but this show has yet to earn a chuckle from me, and I’ve seen quite a few episodes now.

The show’s laugh track, however, has made me so aware of fake laughter on television that I fear I might end up back in therapy with a new psychosis.

The laugh track has been going on forever.

This device has its origins with Bing Crosby.

“The hillbilly comic Bob Burns was on the show one time, and threw a few of his then-extremely racy and off-color folksy farm stories into the show. We recorded it live, and they all got enormous laughs, which just went on and on, but we couldn’t use the jokes. Today those stories would seem tame by comparison, but things were different in radio then, so scriptwriter Bill Morrow asked us to save the laughs. A couple of weeks later he had a show that wasn’t very funny, and he insisted that we put in the salvaged laughs. Thus the laugh-track was born.” (Per a referenced source on Wiki)

It first became a staple on a television show with The Hank McCune Show in 1950, and it’s simply never gone away.

The primary blame for this falls on the shoulders of a guy named Charles Douglass.

Douglass was the first guy to create a laugh machine, and offer his services to television studios. All this man did for 30 years was insert laughs into television shows.

Many times, the shows he inserted laughs into simply weren’t funny enough to get a good laugh from the live studio audience. Television producers, being the television producers they are, refused to admit these shows just weren’t funny. No. They thought putting the laugh track in there would eventually teach viewers what real comedy looks like .

Sometimes the laughs were added to “sweeten” a live crowd’s reaction.


There is some psychology to this whole thing.

Just as when we are sitting in a social situation and everyone around us starts laughing, the reaction is somewhat universal.

“What? I didn’t hear it. What’s so funny?”

Psychologists research shows we have the same kind of reaction when casually watching television, thus, the effectiveness of the laugh track at getting our attention.

This is all well and good, but when a laugh track is used on something that just isn’t funny it becomes a problem, and someone needs to step in and stop it.

The power of the laugh track is ruining what little scripted entertainment is left on television. There is no excuse for Rules of Engagement lasting for seven seasons. Not from what I’ve seen of it. Yet it did.

Without that laugh track, this show would have been dead in two weeks.

Some television producers used to believe a sitcom was doomed to fail if no laugh track was added to it. Shows like The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Scrubs, The Simpsons, and everything HBO has created, have proven that concept to be bullshit.

Sitcoms are doomed to fail if they aren’t funny. If you produce a show and call it a comedy, but  it doesn’t make people want to laugh, then you’ve failed at your job.

It’s time for television to finally drop the comedy crutches and learn to walk on their own, quit creating their own reality with fake laughter, and just make a better product.

My sanity depends on it. I just can’t get these fake laughs out of my head any more.

If you’ve never seen comedy crutches, below is a link is to a segment of The Antiques Road Show, where a man brings in Charles Douglass’s laugh box for appraisal. The guy allegedly found it in a storage locker he bought at a storage facility auction.

Storage auctions…

Now that’s a hell of an idea for a TV show.

1953 Charlie Douglass “Laff Box” | Roadshow Archive | PBS.