Sunday 15 November 2020

Laughing at Jack

There’s something cringe-worthy about 1960s sitcom laugh-tracks. They all sound the same (in many cases, they were). And they sound so phoney.

Having listened to Jack Benny radio show when it was still live, it’s jarring watching his filmed TV shows and hearing the identical tired laugh track heard on other episodes. There’s a world of difference.

Jack knew it, too, and wasn’t altogether happy with it. He talked about it on several occasions, once with the Associated Press after CBS ordered him in 1960 to insert a disclaimer that phoney laughs had been cut into the soundtrack (part of the network’s knee-jerk response to the dishonest quiz shows it had been airing). This United Press International column appeared in papers on May 17, 1968. By then, Jack no longer had a weekly show and had reduced his workload to occasional specials.

The Laugh Track

WASHINGTON (UPI)—Most people think of Jack Benny only as a comedian and concert violinist, not realizing he is also an ardent social reformer.
I didn't realize that either until Benny came here this week for a series of recitals at the Shoreham Hotel. During a press luncheon, he advocated a social reform that caused me to jump up and shake his hand.
Benny came out in favor of realism in laugh tracks, which surely ranks with honesty in advertising and truth in lending as among the most needed reforms. Laugh tracks, as if you didn't know, are pre-recorded titters, giggles and gaffaws that are spliced onto taped television shows.
Okay When Accurate
When done with verisimilitude—that is, if the laugh track matches what is happening on the show—there is no quarrel with the practice. But you have only to watch one of the so-called situation comedies to recognize that mismating is rife and that liberties are being taken to the detriment of the viewers.
Laugh track synchronizers are constantly dubbing in cackles alter jokes that clearly call for chuckles, or, as is often the case, dead silence. Their worst offense is inflation.
When a show is slipping in the ratings, the usual remedy is to juice up the laugh track. Lame little jokes that merit a snicker at best are bolstered with full scale boffos. This is outright deception, and creates confusion and irritation in the home audience.
I don't know of anything more disconcerting than to find myself barely sniggering when my TV set is rocking with merriment. Makes me think I'm a hopeless square.
Rates Wit
Benny, as I was saving, understands this. Long experience performing before live audiences has taught him to evaluate the mirth-provoking qualities of any given witticism.
He said that when he uses canned laughter on a television show he personally selects the hilarity category to prevent a knee-slapper from being represented as a side-splitter, and vice versa.
Once, Benny said, when he was taping a show with living laughter, he broke everybody up with a gag that he regarded as mere chuckle material. Fearing the overkill might alienate home viewers, he snipped out the authentic belly-laugh and dubbed in a more restrained response.
It was an open-and-shut case of laugh track heresy and may explain why Benny no longer has a regular program.


  1. If you listen to Jack's 1950s filmed TV shows, there is a difference in the laughs between the ones shot single camera and the rare three-camera one he did at Desilu, like the one with George and Gracie. Which no doubt is the reason once Mary retired that Jack opted to do all his shows between 1959 and early '62 on the Desliu sound stage.

    The filmed shows done by Revue/Universal from 1962-65 also are three-camera, but seem to have a lot more laugh track 'sweetening' that make them sound more like your average single-camera shows of the 1960s (though even live audiences shows could foul up the laugh tracks, as both Garry Marshall and Norman Lear did with their insanely turned up laughter and applause on their mid-to-late 70s sitcoms).

  2. In his book "The Jack Benny Show," Milt Josefsberg recalled that one of the few times he ever saw Jack genuinely angry was at a screening of the first episode of his television series that used a laugh track rather than a live audience. Jack blew up over the laugh track, which had been laid on much too heavily, and demanded that the volume of it be lowered and the number of laughs cut in half.

    Jack doesn't seem to have ever used the system George Burns and Gracie Allen used, which was to film without an audience, then run the film in a specially miked theater, where a live audience's laughter would be recorded as they watched the show and later mixed into the soundtrack. Burns found that preferable to an artificial laugh track. A few other shows also used this system, including "The Amos 'n' Andy Show" and "I Married Joan."

    My favorite vintage laugh track is the one on Abbott and Costello's show. It's like it never stops. Just a continuous roll of laughter that runs throughout the length of the episodes.

    As J Lee points out above, even shows filmed with a live audience, like "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Lucy Show," used sweetening. Sometimes so much of it that it almost seems pointless for them to have bothered with the audience. My dad used to say that it sounded like every single sitcom and variety show episode produced in those days had exactly the same audience. You got to where you recognized those laugh tracks, from one show to another.

    The laugh track was largely the creation of a man named Charley Douglass, who created all those audience sounds with his own "laff box." Douglass found himself falling out of favor in the 1970s due to competition from one of his former employees, who complained that Douglass never updated his library of laughs, preferring to use the same old ones, year after year. This former employee, named Carroll Pratt, correctly perceived that producers would be willing to dispose of Douglass's services in favor of Pratt, who made a point of offering a regularly updated library of laughs and was known for using them more subtly than Douglass.

    1. Actually Jack did use the Burns and Allen "screening" method of recording laughs when he shot at Burns' McCadden studios for the first five years of his filmed shows while he alternated with live ones at Television City. The laughs on those early multi-camera film shows sound identical to those heard on "Burns and Allen". Starting around 1958, Jack video-taped his TVC shows and you start to hear Douglass' box laughs on those as well in addition to the live audience responses. IMHO, Jack's 1962-1965 Universal shows were ruined by the tremendous amount of over-sweetening Irving Fein did on those. I'm told only the crew was present for those filmings and the sweetening augmented those live laughs, so Jack was a little hypocritical in that 1968 article. His specials at the time were overly-sweetened too, but not as bad as the 1962-1965 filmed ones.

  3. The creators of "M*A*S*H" were forever complaining about the inauthenticity of the laugh track, using it as seldom as possible. (They got the network to agree to *never* use the laugh track in scenes involving the operating room.) One of the major players (I think it was Alan Alda) said something to the effect of, What, are there bleachers for an audience to sit at in front of the helicopter landing strip?

  4. I had read that " Car-54 Where are you ? " also used the ol shoot the show first, then run it in a theater and sync the audience reaction in post production ploy, as Clouseau would say. You can tell. Some days it seemed like they ran it in a Children's Matinee. The screaming of children as reaction is overwhelming. You also heard a little bit of that in the first season of " The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis ", with reaction laughs from teens and children. Steve is correct. I also read that there was an agreement to never use a laugh track in the operating room scenes for M*A*S*H*.

  5. Listen to the old time radio Burns and Allen show. The laughter is continually overwhelming. Every joke big or snail has over the top laughter.

    Interestingly the early Jack Benny radio shows, taped in front of a live audience had genuine laughter — much better!