The history of laugh track in TV

Laughing over TV shows is something almost all of us will be accustomed to. From ‘Friends’ to ‘The Big Bang Theory’, you hear an audience laughing at all the jokes, encouraging you to laugh along with them and indicating when it’s okay to laugh too. However, where on earth did laugh tracks come from? Have they always been on the TV shows we watch and love? Here’s where the laugh track in TV came from.

What is a laugh track?

Officially, a laugh track is a pre-recorded soundtrack of an audience laughing that producers can use when they’re putting their shows together. While a lot of TV shows do now use a live audience so that the laughter is more authentic, a laugh track traditionally refers to a pre-recorded track, so that the laughter is ‘perfect’. Often a laugh track will be recorded from the live audience and then edited together, to ensure the laughter is in all of the right places.

The idea of the laugh track

The idea of the laugh track was brought to life by an American sound engineer named Charley Douglass. It didn’t take long for the first every laugh track Douglass recorded to quickly make its way to almost every mainstream, prime time TV show in America. Before long, others were swooping in to replicate his idea and, in some cases, make it better. The first laugh track was originally an analog sound when it was first created in the ‘50s but by the ‘80s, people were creating stereophonic laugh tracks, and Douglass found he was losing against his competitors.

Moving to the UK

It was around this point that the laugh track also started to leak out from America into other countries. The UK was still sticking firmly to using a live studio audience to create an authentic laugh track, but in the late 1980’s, the BBC started to come round to the idea of using a pre-recorded laugh track, particularly for humorous outdoors scenes. However, they were quite strict with their limitations as they didn’t believe it was necessary for every show to use a laugh track – this is actually something they stick very closely to today.

Goodbye laugh tracks?

However, laugh tracks seem to be reaching extinction now. A lot more comedy shows and humorous sitcoms are opting not to use a laugh track, instead just relying on the fact that they think their shows are funny enough. Additionally, a lot of people are now failing to see what benefit a laugh track adds to a show. When we look at TV shows such as Arrested Development and The Office, all of which are comical shows, there is no pre-recorded laughter, and yet everyone still finds them funny anyway.

Sadly it seems that laugh tracks might be on their way out for good – but we will always remember them for the purpose they had and the benefit they had on a huge number of shows, the change they made when it comes to sound production and how they helped to develop technology within the TV industry.