In previews for the new comedy "Mulaney," the show's stars, producers, and writers claim the series is a return to tradition for the sitcom format. All the pieces are in play. Based on the life of a comedian? Check. Wacky neighbors? Check. Filmed before a live studio audience? Check. And the laugh track? Check. Since the laugh track's creation in the 1940s, televised comedy has been "sweetened" with laughs, whether they are deserved or not. Decade after decade, the chuckles kept coming from one source or another, and those who attempt to stand in their way tend to get heckled off the stage. Today, shows like "The Big Bang Theory," "Two and a Half Men" and a slew of other Chuck Lorre originals trounce on the supposedly sophisticated, and proudly laugh track-free, self-reflexive sitcoms of the modern age. But ratings don't lie: the laugh track is as big as ever.
Dating back to the 1940s, the laugh track aimed to solve a common problem: Creating a theater experience at home. Back then, hooking an audience with a radio program wasn't easy. Almost all performance art was a communal experience up until this point, and radio and TV made it a personal one. Recordings of live comedy simulated the feeling of being in the theater, because of the audience response, but not every audience could be depended on for quality giggles. To compensate, audio engineers stitched together the laughs from a good night with an off one and inadvertently created one of the most significant technical jumps in television history. Things would continue in this way until one man and his mysterious box changed TV forever.
Invented by Charley Douglass, a sound engineer who helped develop radar systems for the Navy during World War II, the "laff box" made its television debut on "The Hank McCune Show" in 1956. Douglass, unsatisfied with the "sweetening" process, built a two-and-a-half foot high device that looked like a mix of an organ and a typewriter. Its keys, when connected to the laugh recordings, creating a range of response for any joke, big or small. One key produced a woman's laugh, another a child's; a mix would create big laughs, a single would create minor one. Douglass even went so far as to update his device ever few years or so, mixing and matching different laughs, retiring old and introducing new, to keep up with audiences. This not only gave that communal experience to people at home, but also helped shape the structure and pacing of modern sitcoms. It was a revelatory moment for TV, one that most artists despised.
Douglass's device was almost immediately controversial. Producers requested Douglass to litter programs with laughs, but Douglass didn't want the laughs to overpower the work. Artists sided with Douglass. However, when some artists struck back and asked networks to reign back their use of the laff box, their shows quickly descended into cancelation, as was the case with "The Monkees" and the first sitcom by up-and-coming comedic icon Bill Cosby, "The Bill Cosby Show." This soon started a war over who controlled the box. Douglas only gave family members the key to the padlocked garage that housed the laff box, and networks began disputing over which family member would control it. Charley, the most conservative of the Douglasses, was rarely their first choice.
Soon, a majority of TV comedies rested on this crutch. Not even the rise of "this show was filmed before a live studio audience" could quell the canned laughs. Critically revered and commercially successful shows, like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi," "The Bob Newhart Show," "Cheers," and, of course, "Seinfeld" "sweetened" live laughs with canned ones. It wasn't until the new millennium that TV began to shift.
Throughout the late 90s and 2000s, the laugh track became a symbol of the unsophisticated TV show, one defiantly outside the "Golden Age of TV." It's hard to disagree. A shortlist of the best comedies of the era -- "The Office," "Arrested Development," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- all managed to have huge cultural cache without forcing laughs on the viewer.
There was a distinct change in the way TV viewers watch and how showrunners made their shows: Shows like "Arrested Development" had the ability to rely not just on scripted jokes but also editing to deliver punch-lines minutes, episodes, and even seasons later. The age of the DVD meant that whereas before you could only watch an episode once when it broadcasted and then maybe catch it years later in syndication, you could now watch episodes over and over, picking out details and finding new jokes through repeat viewings. Meta-comedies like "30 Rock," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "Community" ditched the laugh track so they could overstuff every frame with jokes about TV. The sheer volume of jokes in a single "30 Rock" makes the show feel more like the movie "Airplane" than an episode of "Mary Tyler Moore."
Elements of truth and realism were now expected of sitcoms, and stock characters, like the wacky boss archetype, were developed into rounded characters. David Brent (or his American equivalent, Michael Scott) made what would've been a second tier character on lesser shows into the focus. They turned the "Fonzie" into the "Richie," so to speak -- something Ricky Gervais even parodied on "Extras." Because as it always has done, television had evolved with technology. Viewers grew savvier, more literate and able to determine what was funny and what wasn't.
Or so we think.
Today, the laugh track lives in a strange space, as does the sitcom. Shows that would've been the perfect model of a sitcom now look and feel like a revisionary one, i.e. "Modern Family." "How I Met My Mother" spent nine seasons having their cake and eating it, too, constructing a structurally complex series with light laugh sweetening throughout -- even though the track is noticeably quieter than other shows.
The laugh track itself has its own strange place in our culture. Popular YouTube videos like "Big Bang Theory" without a laugh track heightened the awkwardness of sitcom patter and subverted the laugh track's intention; appropriately, The Onion's Clickhole had their own take: "Big Bang Theory" with laughs added.
The truth is that even in the "Golden Age" of television, comedies without laugh tracks fare worse than those with them. A 2013 comparison of "Parks and Recreation" and "Big Bang Theory" shows that more people want pre-determined laughs, to the tune of 14 million people. Just a few years earlier, a different study sustained a different argument producers have made since the 40s: "We're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people." Turns out, that communal experience the laugh track creates still matters.
"Mulaney" doesn't need to bring back the classic sitcom, because it never left. Shows like "Louie" might be deconstructing the formula "Mulaney" invokes, but CK's viewership pales in comparison to his FX compatriot Charlie Sheen. Things haven't changed too much for the populous -- viewers still seem to prefer a communal experience to a personal one. The laugh track continues to keep audiences comfortable in between punchlines, just as it always has.