my partner is one of the many who fall asleep to white noise. while it’s been universally accepted to help those with sleep deprivation issues like insomnia get some semblance of a good night’s rest, there are concerns about the long-term ramifications white noise can have on brain development. both sides make sense to me. a monotonous and predictable soundscape creates the perfect environment for the consciousness to focus on nothing to lull the mind to sleep. but recent studies suggest white noise may create maladaptive associations to sounds, diminishing our ability to interpret them or, at the very least, resulting in more disruptive rest. this last point i believe, especially since laugh tracks suck.
because my partner is one of the many who fall asleep to white noise, i have the pleasure of listening to re-runs of the not-that-funny ‘90s sitcom seinfeld just about every night. this show about four of the worst friends living an unattainable life in the expensive-ass upper west side of manhattan is already not-that-funny. what makes it all worse, though, aside from jerry seinfeld’s not-that-funny brand of observational humor, is that dumbass laugh track. it does nothing for the show. if anything, the laugh track impedes on seinfeld’s good jokes – and there aren’t even that many. but while i clearly can’t stand seinfeld as a show, it would be tolerable if those contrived laugh tracks weren’t baked into the whole thing.
(i sound like some scooby doo villain. i would’ve liked the show if it wasn’t for that meddling laugh track.)
anyway, we’re all familiar with laugh tracks. they’re that cacophony of cackles and claps peppered throughout ‘80s and ‘90s sitcoms but saw a resurgence in recent years with shows like fox’s call me cat and netflix’s the upshaws. primed in the 1950s by laff box monopolizer charley douglass, the laugh track was devised to “sweeten” a show’s weaker moments. this was anytime the audience didn’t react how the producers wanted, whether that was not enough or too much laughter. though a lot of people say they hate the laugh track, a 2011 nbc news report found that it works because of communal reciprocation (or herd mentality), that tendency we have to react the same way others do. except the laugh track, for all its pretense of inviting us to join in, flattens a show’s mood at best or gasses up its terrible comedy at worst.
and see, that’s my problem with laugh tracks. they “encourage” our participation but serve as another manipulation tactic powered by capitalist corporations to coerce a canned response. it’s not about writing funny jokes and trusting us to put two and two together; it’s about thinking for us. and “sweetening,” that method of sprinkling laugh tracks throughout a show to spice up the dead air, is indicative of producers’ distrust in our understanding of humor, choosing instead to rely on draconian technology to tell us when to laugh and what jokes to laugh at. as if comedy doesn’t do that work for itself.
this debate has raged for decades, but nothing really sticks out as much as this 2019 article defending laugh tracks. citing three examples (including one from the not-that-funny seinfeld), the article claims a show’s quips “don’t land” when the laugh track is removed. for me, though, each of these examples contains not-that-funny jokes. and therein lies the crux of the issue. the laugh track isn’t some shoulder nudge from a fellow audience member encouraging us to let loose and laugh a little. it’s obvious that it is a ruse perpetuated by boring producers to contort our definition of “funny.” but even more insidiously, it serves as an overt distraction from analyzing the subject matter these shows try to wrestle with.
i’m probably overthinking this. in the end, you enjoy what you enjoy, and no “mr. sweetman” can decide what is and isn’t funny for each one of us. but the laugh track just gets in the way of potentially great comedy. a joke is funny once it gets genuine laughs, not canned laughter provided by some $10,000 machine. otherwise, all you got is a not-that-funny show about four of the worst friends living an unattainable life in the expensive-ass upper west side of manhattan.