Why We’ll Always Want Laugh Tracks

Stephen Woodworth

I was raised in the late 1970s and early ’80s, in the prime of network television. My family would gather around the TV each night to take in classics like Cheers or MASH. During weekends, we looked forward to reruns of Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, and The Monkees. We were untethered from individual entertainment devices, forced together, in community. Today, when I catch an episode of one of these shows there is always a bit of nostalgia, yet there is also a tinge of annoyance. It’s the laugh track that bothers me.

A brief history of the laugh track was highlighted recently by Willa Paskin on the Decoder Ring podcast. Invented in 1953 by a Navy mechanical engineer, the “Laff Box” was a simple machine that utilized pre-recorded laughter to make it seem as if sitcoms were always recorded in front of a live audience. The invention came into greater prominence following dramatic cultural shifts in how entertainment was being consumed. For generations, spectators took in entertainment through live theater; the advent of the television brought theatrics into private homes, sans audience.

While television provided viewers the freedom to consume entertainment in their pajamas, it also had an unwelcome side effect in the form of isolation. Live theater had long served as a communal event, drawing together strangers into a shared experience that couldn’t be paused, recorded, or postponed until the rerun aired at a later date. When jokes were spoken from the stage, audiences shared the laughter together.

Ubiquitous on TV until the early 2000s, laugh tracks helped audiences transition into a new age of entertainment consumption. Paskin refers to laugh tracks as “training wheels,” which “taught us this new skill of watching and laughing in solitude.” But as the digital age dawned, so too did streaming services and entertainment-on-demand. Much like the shift from live theater to TV, the Internet brought with it a seemingly endless number of choices and increased opportunities for private consumption. The need for a communal experience was waning, and with it, the need for a laugh track. 

Laugh tracks helped audiences transition into a new age of entertainment consumption.

And yet, our longing for community has lingered. As Paskin observes, perhaps social media is our new laugh track, enabling us to tweet our favorite lines or our reaction to a show’s ending in real time with other fans. Like many advances in technology, our desire for greater independence appears to always be in tension with our greater desire to connect.

We find the roots of this tension in the earliest years of our history, when a man and a woman were placed in a garden where it was not good to be alone. Nevertheless, despite being in paradise, Adam and Eve were tempted to go it alone, opting for isolation and independence rather than relationship. In the blink of an eye and the bite of a fruit, community was torn apart. It would take nothing less than God’s sacrifice of himself to put the pieces back together.

This same tension remains present in our own lives as we simultaneously pursue an ever-growing number of technologies that isolate us from one another, while longing to return to the kind of community we were made for in the Garden. A place where our enjoyment is made complete through its sharing. Even in our consumption of entertainment we are drawn towards the theater, the laugh track, or even social media to help us connect in a world that is growing increasingly fragmented. A world broken by our desires to be alone and healed by our insistence on coming together, even if it is to share a simple laugh.

Topics: TV