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.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • David Goodman

    WGA West's David Goodman on Agency Strategy: 'We'll Start Meeting as Soon as Possible'

    David Goodman, who was resoundingly re-elected president of the Writers Guild of America West on Monday, said the guild plans to meet with several talent agencies soon in an effort to ease the impasse over packaging fees and affiliated production. “Many agencies had indicated that they wanted to wait to see the results of the [...]

  • THE TITAN GAMES -- "The Titan

    'Titan Games' Renewed for Season 2 at NBC

    NBC has renewed the Dwayne Johnson-hosted competition series “The Titan Games” for a second season. The series features men and women battling opponents in head-to-head physical challenges designed by Johnson. Winners advance to Mt. Olympus, a test of speed, strength, agility and endurance. “When we launched ‘The Titan Games,’ we set out to create an [...]

  • David Goodman

    David Goodman Re-Elected President of Writers Guild of America West

    David Goodman has been convincingly re-elected to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America West, beating Phyllis Nagy in a bitter contest that became a referendum on the guild’s ongoing battle with talent agents. Goodman received 4,395 votes to Nagy’s 1,282 in an election that yielded record turnout among the WGA [...]

  • first wives club BET

    TV Review: 'The First Wives Club' on BET Plus

    Launching a series based on a beloved property is harder than it seems. On the one hand, you get the immediate boost of name recognition to lure in preexisting fans. On the other, straying too far from the plot and/or spirit of the original risks sparking their righteous wrath. It’s a tricky balance to strike, [...]

  • Thomas Golubic GMS Conference

    Guild of Music Supervisors President: 'The Economics of the Job Don't Work Anymore'

    The Guild of Music Supervisors (GMS) hosted its 5th annual “State of Music in Media” conference on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Los Angeles Film School. Featuring a wide array of panel discussions on all manner of issues related to music in film, television and advertising, the confab drew top composers, music supervisors, licensing and [...]

  • Christopher Eccleston Anorexia

    Christopher Eccleston Reveals He Was 'Very Ill' With Anorexia While Filming 'Doctor Who'

    “Doctor Who” actor Christopher Eccleston has opened up about his anorexia, body dysmorphia and suicidal thoughts. Eccleston, who played the ninth incarnation of the Doctor, made the revelations in his forthcoming autobiography “I Love the Bones of You: My Father and the Making of Me.” “Many times I’ve wanted to reveal that I’m a lifelong [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content