Does anyone remember back in 2012 when someone managed to get an episode of The Big Bang Theory up on YouTube without a laugh track? As a committed non-fan of the show, I was elated when I discovered it, believing it might finally force viewers (read: my parents) to confront the fact that the show was nothing more than a brain-rotting waste of time. And though I wasn’t disappointed — the show does indeed fall apart without the laughter — I ended up getting more than just the schadenfreude I was looking for.
The basic premise of a laugh track is obvious: jokes are funnier if other people are laughing too. Accordingly, I was expecting to watch the clip and simply find the jokes to be more mediocre than usual. What I actually ended up finding though, was that the jokes sometimes turned out not to even be jokes at all, and even more surprising, that the characters’ behavior was unnatural and oftentimes made no sense. In fact, the difference without the laughter was so jarring that I had to go back afterward and rewatch the episode with the laugh track just to try and understand how what I’d just watched could possibly be redeemed. And alas, once the laughter was back in, everything fell back into place, and it sounded normal again.
Laughter hadn’t simply enhanced a few bad jokes — it was actively manipulating my perception of the events and making it difficult to distinguish between presentation and actual substance.
COVID-19 means no more studio audiences
Thanks to COVID-19, we get to experience a second go around on TV shows with no laughter. With social distancing in full-force, a ticklable audience is tough to come by, and laughter (at least the sort that can be recorded) has fallen in short supply, putting the whole suite of evening comedy shows in a sticky situation. Should they pause production until everything blows over? Or should they attempt to continue from quarantine? And if the latter, how do they do it without the laugh track?
In the few weeks since the lockdown began, most of the shows I regularly watch have gotten their operation back up an running, but they’ve all taken different approaches, each of which seems to provide both interesting commentary on the nature of the shows, as well as insight into the people who make them.
Here’s what I’ve noticed.
The Daily Show
Laugh track: None
The Daily Show was the first of the shows I regularly watch to get up and running from quarantine. Though Trevor’s show is typically filmed in front of a sizeable studio audience, I was surprised at how easy the transition seemed to be for him. The Daily Social Distancing Show, as it’s now called, made no attempt whatsoever to hack in laughter via canned laughs, and it immediately restructured itself and found a rhythm that felt similar to some of the more internet-native shows that have never relied on studio audiences. I was impressed that, despite the cheesiness of some of his one liners early on in the episodes, Trevor still delivers them confidently and shamelessly, seemingly unaffected by the lack of audible feedback. And while the jokes are undoubtedly stupid, it’s abundantly clear that that’s always been the point. We weren’t laughing to hide the quality of the jokes — we were laughing at the quality of the jokes. And beyond that, the show’s new format and ability to rapidly adapt makes it feel a bit more personal and authentic now than it did before.
Real Time With Bill Maher
Laugh track: Ironic
Poor Bill seems to be struggling. Whereas other hosts have styled themselves more as comedians making jokes about politics, Bill’s show has tended to be him voicing concrete, sometimes controversial political opinions, and mixing in humor to soften in the delivery. Because of that, his choice is a tough one: omitting the laughter altogether draws many of his statements outside the realm of comedy and into actual political commentary, which then disintegrate into feeble, unsubstantiated opinions. But the only way to keep the laughter and preserve the humor is to use canned laughs, which looks insecure at best. Neither option is a good look.
After several weeks off the air, Bill ultimately decided to return with an ironic combination of both, in which canned laughter is included, but is directly acknowledged as ridiculous by pairing it with vintage footage of laughter and applause from various audiences. I get what they’re doing — it would have been a far worse look to include the impossible laughter and ignore the elephant in the room — but even ironically, it comes across as a bit sad. What’s worse is how visibly the distortion of his show seems to be affecting Bill. Whereas other hosts have embraced their constraints, he’s clearly fighting them. He’s still dressing up in a suit, still putting on makeup, clearly attempting to get the show back to as close to normal as possible. It’s like he’s afraid to let his guard down — afraid people might see what’s behind the curtain.
One particularly interesting bit: He’s now delivering his lines like a middle-schooler being forced to give an oral presentation. It’s as if he thinks (nay, knows) his jokes are stupid and is reluctant to say them, but his staff is making him do it, so instead of actually telling them as jokes, he reads them quickly to get them over with while hiding behind a giant wall of irony. Of all the changes this show has made, his embarassed delivery is the biggest clue as to just how heavily Real Time leans on laughter for support. Without the laughter, his quips become bold statements that need to stand on their own, and they usually don’t.
Last Week Tonight
Laugh track: None
The weird thing about Last Week Tonight is that despite significant changes to the show, it feels like nothing has changed at all. In pretty much every episode that has aired since this began, John Oliver has pointed out the blank white void of a wall he’s now shooting in front of as if it’s reduced him to nothing, and yet when he first pointed it out, I actually had to Google an image of his pre-virus show due because to confirm that it hadn’t always been that way.
This may be partly due to the show’s branding, which tends to make heavy use of bright white backgrounds on title sequences and the like, but I think the real reason it feels consistent is because John’s delivery was never directed at the audience in the first place: he cracks himself up. Last Week Tonight is built around pithy, in-depth stories that require a significant amount of talking to explain, and though jokes are thrown in and certainly get laughs, the ultimate goal of the show has always been to deliver the underlying message. Everything else is just for fun, and it’s clear from the barely-contained smiles constantly appearing on John’s face when he’s making jokes that the fun is just as much for him as it is for everyone else. In fact, it’s the very fact that we can see he’s getting a kick out of himself that allows the content to thrive without the audience.
Saturday Night Live
Laugh track: Remote
Though it obviously works much better as a novel concept than as a recurring change to the format, Michael Che’s idea to simply beam in an audience via Zoom was perhaps the most subtly genius of all. It was far from a drop-in replacement for a studio audience, but what it lacked in bravado it made up for in a new type of intimacy that added an interesting dimension to his segment. It ended up feeling more like hanging out with friends in someone’s living room — not something you want to do forever, but certainly good enough to pass the time, and more than acceptable as a way to bring SNL back to life. And considering I can use all the TV I can get right now, I’ll take it.