These are uncertain times for the laugh track. For the past few seasons, the most talked-about television comedies—The Office, 30 Rock, My Name Is Earl, Curb Your Enthusiasm—have looked and sounded more like films than sitcoms. Partly, the change has been visual: These new shows forgo the studio-soundstage look of traditional TV comedy, opting for a more cinematic, single-camera style. More jarring, though, for generations raised on Dick Van Dyke, All in the Family, or Cheers, the new crop of comedies has done away with the aural backdrop of laughter—sometimes real, sometimes fake—that has for decades given viewers at home their Pavlovian cue.
This fall, five of the eight new comedies go without the sound of laughs, and TV critics and network executives alike have proclaimed the death of the laugh track. Freed of the stodgy cadence of setup, punch line, laugh, the new shows can supposedly be slyer, subtler, and more subversive.
There’s nothing new about denigrating the laugh track. It’s been viewed with scorn and suspicion from its invention in 1950, when it debuted to little fanfare on a short-lived comedy called TheHank McCune Show. In the decades since, it has stood accused of everything from bad faith to brainwashing to mere artistic laziness. It’s survived all the opprobrium, however, and, in one form or another, it’s likely to survive further still. In fact, at a time when it’s seemingly being relegated to the pop-culture curio closet, its use is actually extending beyond the sitcom—and even beyond television itself.