In my previous post I predicted that the future of the sitcom is with single-camera shows, without an audience, shot fast and relatively cheap like '60s sitcoms. There's another element of '60s sitcoms that I think will eventually come back, and probably should come back: the laugh track.
People often complain about "laugh tracks" in sitcoms, but in point of fact there are no sitcoms today that use laugh tracks all the way through. There are the live-audience shows, where most of the laughter is from real live people in the studio (some fake laughter is of course used to "sweeten" moments where the audience doesn't laugh enough; as Hugh Wilson used to say when warming up the audience for WKRP in Cincinnati, "We have a laugh machine and we're not afraid to use it, so laugh it up, folks"). And there are the sitcoms that don't use live audiences, and none of them use laugh tracks now. I think the last time this was tried was with the first season of Sports Night, which had a laugh track affixed to it. Everyone complained about it, not least because trying to pass Sports Night off as a funny show was blatant false advertising, and by the time the show ended, it had no laugh track. No single-camera sitcom has a laugh track now.
But I think that, in many ways, not using laugh tracks is misguided purism -- the networks bowing to the complaints of TV critics and other dyspeptics, and forgetting the good reasons why the laugh track was invented. These reasons have very little to do with the need to "tell people when to laugh." They don't even have much to do with the fact that networks don't respect the viewers' intelligence, although networks certainly do not respect our intelligence. The reasons for putting a laugh track on a sitcom are twofold:
1. Branding. A laugh track is useful because it identifies the show as a comedy, right away, for people who have just tuned in. A lot of people discover a show while channel-surfing, turning it on while it's in progress. And when they hear the laugh track, they know what to expect, and what the aim of the show is: it's a comedy, it's meant to make us laugh. A single-camera sitcom without a laugh track can look, so a casual viewer, like a bad drama or some weird, tonally uncertain monster. Why are these people acting so bug-eyed when they talk? Why did they pause after that line? What the heck does this show think it's trying to do? It's not like a movie, where most of the people watching probably made a conscious decision to go see a comedy or a drama. TV shows need a way to hook the channel-surfers. A cartoon, like The Simpsons or King of the Hill, doesn't need a laugh track because people see the amusingly-drawn cartoon characters, and know that it's supposed to be funny. But what do you do with a show with real live actors who could just as easily be on a drama? How would you tune into, say, Barney Miller and know instantly that it's not just a soap opera about cops?
Without a way to clue the viewers in to what kind of show it's supposed to be, a comedy can bomb. To give an example from the live theatre: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was bombing during tryouts because audiences were confused as to what the aim of the show was: was it a period piece? A romance? What? Jerome Robbins, called in to fix the opening, came up with the solution: announce right at the beginning that it's a comedy, and a lowbrow comedy at that; then the audience will know what to expect. Hence the song "Comedy Tonight," and a two-year run on Broadway.
Well, the laugh track is the "Comedy Tonight" of a sitcom: its purpose is not to tell the audience that individual jokes are funny, but to tell people who have just tuned in that it's a comedy. It really does help sometimes.
2. The crowd effect. The other purpose of the laugh track is to create a sense of the communal experience. It's well known that people laugh more in crowds. Watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon on TV alone, and you chuckle. Watch it on TV with a bunch of friends, and you laugh. Watch it on a big screen in the dark with a theatre full of people, and you laugh till it hurts. It's much harder to laugh when you're all alone.
Well, the laugh track isn't a substitute for watching with people. But for people who watch alone, it can at least have the psychological effect of suggesting a shared experience, of being in a room where other people are laughing. And this can cause people to laugh more at a show than they otherwise would. The laugh track is incredibly irritating with an unfunny show, because there's nothing more irritating than hearing forced laughter on the sountrack when you yourself have found nothing to laugh at. But with a show that is funny, it really can help get some extra laughs out of the solitary, non-communal viewer.
I'm not saying, of course, that every sitcom should have a laugh track. Some shows eschew obvious punchlines and therefore don't have a clear place to put the laugh track (Arrested Development); other shows are really hybrids of comedy and drama, and shouldn't have a laugh track telling us, falsely, that it's a comedy through and through (Hugh Wilson's Frank's Place was one such; Wilson didn't have anything against laugh tracks, but he refused to add a laugh track to the show because it just didn't fit with the overall tone). But for a pure old-fashioned setup-punchline sitcom that happens to be filmed without an audience? Yeah, I think a laugh track would help. And I think that's why the laugh track will eventually come back.
Last note: the laugh track isn't completely gone from American TV. On The Daily Show, a mild laugh track is added to every "field piece." The purpose, again, is not so much to tell people when to laugh as to signal that these are comedy pieces -- to prevent people who have just tuned in from thinking that this is supposed to be a straightforward news piece.
Late Update: I stand corrected -- I have been reliably informed that The Daily Show does not use a laugh track for the field pieces; they are shown to the studio audience and the audience response is recorded.