Column Date 2006-01-22

Take a Laugh Track to Lunch

Nobody notices the laugh track anymore. We just take it for granted.

But turn on your TV and there it is: the lowly, overlooked laugh track is on every sitcom, on every station, every night of the year.

I think it’s one of the best ideas to come out of America in the last century. (It’s right up there, in my opinion, with the two other breakthrough American ideas, Jazz and the Mixed Drink.)

For the handful of you out there who don’t own a TV, a laugh track is what you hear when you turn on your TV and watch a show that is clearly not funny.

The uproarious laughter you hear has been previously recorded by the show’s producers to make you believe that millions of your fellow Americans think the show is hysterically funny and you are, therefore, a complete dolt with no sense of humor.

Without laugh tracks, of course, TV viewership would fall, advertising would drop, and the whole U.S. economy would be at risk.

Of course, nobody creates better laugh tracks than we do, right here in the Good Old USA. (No outsourcing problems here -- can you even conceive of what a Japanese laugh track or, more improbably, a German one, would sound like on “Everybody Loves Raymond?”)

Just who are these brilliant Americans who toil anonymously, laughing on cue, creating these laugh tracks?

Having lots of friends in show business, I must tell you that I have never met a single person who admits to being a laugh track performer.

But wouldn’t it be fun to know a few of them? You could invite these laugh-trackers to lunch or, even better, to a dinner party at your house.

What a wonderful evening! Everything you say will be greeted with squeals of delight and hilarious laughter. Even those dumb little puns your wife groans at will earn you enormous belly laughs from these folks.

Your friend George, who has never remembered a punch line in his whole life, will regale these people with half a joke – and he’ll get howls all evening.

Unfortunately, this innovation also has a darker side: I am deeply concerned that someone out there has already made recordings of people loudly applauding and cheering.

Put this “Applause Track” behind some event, like a political speech, and suddenly the TV audience believes that thousands of people agree with what the politician is saying.

Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I’m going to be watching carefully when the President delivers his Inaugural address. Would any of us be really shocked by an “Applause-Gate” in the coming months? Shocked to learn there was a man behind the curtain (like the Wizard of Oz) who turned up the “Applause Track” whenever the speech got boring?

However, if the President’s speech is like most political speeches these days, I think the best thing for us all to do is 1.) turn up the laugh track, 2.) put on a Miles Davis CD, and 3.) have a mixed drink.

It’s the American way.

©2005 Peter Tannen