Serious Issue of Canned Laughter


Larry Gelbart can hardly bring himself to watch reruns of "MASH," but not because the creator of the seminal sitcom is wracked with nostalgia for the old days. It has to do with the laugh track he hears over all those jokes--the roars and guffaws serving as a painful reminder of the battle he lost with CBS over the canned laughs used, in industry parlance, to "sweeten" the finished product each week.

To many "MASH" devotees, the laugh track was unnecessary, not only because the writers juggled comedy and drama with flair, but also because it disrupted the dream world of the show: If this was the Korean War, who were those people off-camera, laughing at everything Hawkeye and Radar and Col. Blake said?

"That's the Swiss," Gelbart jokes today. "They were neutral."

Though the laugh track is still as tried-and-true a sitcom convention as, say, the wacky neighbor, hybrid shows occasionally come along to challenge the networks' reliance on the device and to reinvigorate an age-old debate. Such is the case with the comedy-drama "Sports Night," a new show created by playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin that will air Tuesdays on ABC at 9:30 p.m., beginning Sept. 22.

Set behind the scenes of a sports highlights show meant to resemble ESPN's "SportsCenter," "Sports Night," at least in its first episode, doesn't feel like your typical sitcom: Sorkin goes for poignant little dramatic moments, and the pace of the dialogue is brisk at times--with characters talking to each other in clipped conversations designed to give viewers the sense that they're caught up in the harried world of a sports newsroom.

That the dialogue doesn't follow a setup-setup-punch-line rhythm was among the reasons Sorkin and others, including Tony Krantz, co-chair and CEO of Imagine Television, the production company behind the show, lobbied against doing "Sports Night" in front of a studio audience, which virtually guarantees that a laugh track will be added later to sweeten scenes.

Moving It Before a Studio Audience

But after losing what Sorkin characterizes as a healthy debate with ABC, "Sports Night" has gone into production before a studio audience. New to television after adapting his play "A Few Good Men" to the screen and writing another screenplay, "The American President," Sorkin acknowledges that background laughter is "part of the half-hour TV vocabulary."

"It's a waltz we get used to," he said, tempering his disappointment by stressing that ABC has given him a lot of support. "Watching a half-hour show is a very passive activity. One of its greatest assets is that it makes you feel comfortable."

While purists can rattle off the names of successful comedy series done without a studio audience--everything from animated shows like "The Simpsons" to HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" to Fox's "Ally McBeal," Emmy-nominated this year as a comedy--the fact remains that most hits come packaged with a studio audience and laugh track.

That's not the only compelling reason network executives cite in defending the way sitcoms are traditionally done. Actors, they say, feed off the energy of a live audience. And the laughter in the background ultimately reinforces what television is meant to be--a shared experience.

"The laugh track allows you to experience the medium communally, as if you were watching in a movie theater," said Carolyn Ginsburg Carlson, senior vice president of comedy series programming at ABC. "It's to remind you of that [experience], not to cue you when something's funny."

"The laugh track provides a kind of rhythm--the same way a stand-up comic works off laughs--that tells you [this is] a comedy," added Bob Brush, former executive producer of ABC's "The Wonder Years."

'Oddball' Doesn't Win the Evening

A so-called single-camera show filmed without a studio audience or laugh track, "The Wonder Years" ran from 1988 to 1993, a comedy/coming-of-age story set in the 1960s and '70s. Brush says the show, with its voice-over narration and quirky point of view, would have a difficult time getting a prime-time slot today because networks are so focused on winning entire nights of programming, making "oddball" programs a problematic fit in a lineup of conventional sitcoms.

"The importance of holding down a night has become so paramount," he said. "So the one thing networks have to avoid is the catastrophic mistake in the midst of a block."

For Sorkin and Brush, any discussion about whether a show should have a laugh track ultimately leads to a broader issue--the question of whether TV should be an interactive experience or something you sit back and watch in a passive mode, letting the TV laugh for you.

"I'm sure the network feels, if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Brush said.

Even a shot-on-location series such as "The Love Boat" initially used a laugh track, though the recent revival of the series on UPN has excised the laughs.

Aaron Spelling, executive producer of the original "Love Boat" on ABC, remembers turning to producing partner Douglas Cramer and asking, "Doug, we're in the middle of the ocean. Who in the hell is laughing on deck?"

To Gelbart, laughs guaranteed by a machine are worse than strange--they're antithetical to the pursuit of good comedy, not least because the laugh track serves as a disincentive to comedy writers, who know that no matter what they write, it'll get a laugh.

"It's a particular shame with the Sorkin show that they will disturb its rhythm by having these . . . little laughs inserted," he said.

Try Adding a Track to 'His Girl Friday'

Later, discussing the difficulty of adding laughs to a show that doesn't follow a sitcom rhythm, Gelbart said: "I'd like a network to take a print of 'His Girl Friday' into a mixing session and put in a laugh track just to see what they would do with that screwball comedy pacing."

"Sports Night" director Thomas Schlamme hopes to reclaim a certain measure of reality by using an elaborate set--a re-created "Sports Night" hub that doesn't simply play to the 300 people sitting in the studio audience. For some scenes, cast members simply read dialogue to the studio audience to record their laughter, while the action is shot later, giving Schlamme room to experiment with camera angles.

"Even with the stipulation [of a studio audience and laugh track], we designed a show where the tail's not wagging the dog," he said.

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