Laugh Tracks Are No Replacement for the Real Thing

A funny thing happened this pilot season. Or rather, a funny thing didn’t.

The networks turned out a handful of multi-cams with laugh tracks — or sweetened live studio audience recordings, as they like to refer to them.

Whatever you call it, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. And I know I’m not alone.

I love to laugh. Just don’t tell me when to do it.

This isn’t a rant against multi-cams: I adore “The Big Bang Theory,” and barely notice the audio. Maybe it’s because I’m laughing. Or maybe it’s because the show is actually — wait for it — funny.

And as a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I grew up on a steady diet of sitcoms. “MASH.” “Cheers.” “Happy Days.” “The Cosby Show.”

It’s not the format I have a problem with. It’s the humor, or the lack of faith in it.

My message to comedy writers is this: Believe in yourself — and your writing — enough. Tone down the laugh tracks. Not every word or sentence needs to be punctuated with a thunderous, eardrum-shattering roar of hilarity.

Write a funny show, and the laughs will follow naturally.

Sitting through recent panels at the TCA press tour, I couldn’t help but notice: The networks hired very talented, funny comedians, and then buried them in very unfunny shows. The general consensus in the room was that the panels themselves were far better than the pilots.

Given the opportunity to be spontaneous, the stars were bright, charming and rather clever.

John Mulaney on what he does with his Emmy from his work as a writer on “Saturday Night Live”: “I’m allowed to keep it out if my wife can put stuff on top of it. So we have it in our apartment in New York with a shirt and a stuffed animal on it.” (Maybe you had to be there.)

A multi-cam seems like the holy grail all the networks want, but only CBS seems to be able to achieve.

“They’re definitely harder to do,” said CBS entertainment chair Nina Tassler. “We have a very keen ability to identify those talents who can deliver that kind of comedy.”

I heard comedic legend Bob Newhart speak at a panel recently, and he said he could only perform in front of a live studio audience, because that was the only way he knew if the jokes were funny. He fed off their reactions.

At NBC’s executive session, entertainment chair Bob Greenblatt defended his ongoing pursuit of multi-cams.

“Just a few years ago some of the best shows on television were multi-cam comedies with live studio audiences,” he said. “I keep saying ‘Modern Family’ could easily have been a show with a studio audience in the way it was shot.”

The problem, he said, is that the cachet lies with single-cams like “The Office” and “30 Rock,” which not only won critical praise but also a slew of Emmy noms. “They kept becoming reinforced as single-cameras are the better form, and I really hope we can balance the scales a little bit.”

True, Emmy does tend to favor single cams — this year, the only multi-cam to crack the Emmy code is “Big Bang.”

But why does it have to be either/or? Can we experiment more with the form, beyond the overused dramedy?

Can we put a single-cam in front of an audience, and see what happens if audiences laugh — gasp — naturally? Or even just a lighter laugh track?

Funnier things have happened.

More TV

  • HBO Documentary President Sheila Nevins Stepping

    HBO Documentary President Sheila Nevins Stepping Down

    A funny thing happened this pilot season. Or rather, a funny thing didn’t. The networks turned out a handful of multi-cams with laugh tracks — or sweetened live studio audience recordings, as they like to refer to them. Whatever you call it, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. And I know I’m not […]

  • Disney-Fox Deal Sets Up Scramble for

    Disney-Fox Deal Unleashes Flood of Free-Agent Executives, Talent

    A funny thing happened this pilot season. Or rather, a funny thing didn’t. The networks turned out a handful of multi-cams with laugh tracks — or sweetened live studio audience recordings, as they like to refer to them. Whatever you call it, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. And I know I’m not […]

  • Morgan Spurlock Sexual Misconduct

    Morgan Spurlock's TNT Series 'Who Rules the World' Halts Production

    A funny thing happened this pilot season. Or rather, a funny thing didn’t. The networks turned out a handful of multi-cams with laugh tracks — or sweetened live studio audience recordings, as they like to refer to them. Whatever you call it, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. And I know I’m not […]

  • George Clooney Matt Charman

    Watergate Series in the Works at Netflix From George Clooney, Matt Charman

    A funny thing happened this pilot season. Or rather, a funny thing didn’t. The networks turned out a handful of multi-cams with laugh tracks — or sweetened live studio audience recordings, as they like to refer to them. Whatever you call it, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. And I know I’m not […]

  • The Chi

    TV News Roundup: Showtime Offers Early Look at Series Premiere of 'The Chi'

    A funny thing happened this pilot season. Or rather, a funny thing didn’t. The networks turned out a handful of multi-cams with laugh tracks — or sweetened live studio audience recordings, as they like to refer to them. Whatever you call it, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. And I know I’m not […]

  • Sam Esmail Remote Controlled Podcast

    Remote Controlled: 'Mr. Robot' Creator Reflects on Season 3, Previews Season 4

    A funny thing happened this pilot season. Or rather, a funny thing didn’t. The networks turned out a handful of multi-cams with laugh tracks — or sweetened live studio audience recordings, as they like to refer to them. Whatever you call it, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. And I know I’m not […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content