Episode 14: Laugh Track

What is this, Horse-ville? ‘Cause I am surrounded by nay-sayers! Wordplay!
— Tracy Jordan (30 Rock)


The laugh track is a symbol of our culture’s value systems, our current humor and our perceived collective need to keep up appearances. Straight from the desk of the media mogul, the laugh track plainly states, “everyone else is doing it, so you better too.” From a time when friends and family sat around watching sitcoms relating to the American household, the laugh track provided a conditioned respite for awkward pauses after jokes, telling us it was “okay” to laugh-out-loud while among friends.

Society has grown dark. Or rather, our humor has grown dark, cynical, sarcastic, self-deprecating, witty and tragic. We are now conditioned to handle those comedic pauses as individuals, left to process the jokes in the black-box of our own mind. But why? Why did Larry David spend 10 years producing Seinfeld, one of the great shows of all time (which includes a laugh track), and then show his true colors in Curb Your Enthusiasm? Was that inner dark, sarcasm monster of his waiting to be released, or did his taste for comedy evolve along with society’s tastes?

Today, the laugh track seems hokey, but it still creates a pseudo-nostalgia of sitting on your parent’s living room carpet chuckling along to a sitcom with 50 one liners in a row on the same stage set. Something about that worked. And by “worked” I mean it made money (a lot of money) for network executives - and people liked it. The laugh track was just as central to the American family experience as Apple Pie, but at the turn of the century, it vanished.

The laugh track is a simulation of genuine enjoyment. Now, we’d rather just enjoy TV how we want to, on our own terms - and now the content creators recognize this. So, what caused this major shift in the way our television is marketed to us? The rise of the internet, the evolution of the American family model and shifting societal taboos all come into play. Maybe, the loss of the laugh track is a symbol for innocence lost - mostly for the good - making us all Larry David.