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The genesis of this thread started more than thirty years ago. Jack Douglas (writer for Jack Paar and author of books such as My Brother Was an Only Child and Never Trust a Naked Bus Driver were drinking at a pub in Toronto and I said, “My round. So what’s the toast?” Jack said, “Here’s to the death of humor.” I said, “How come?”

Jack said, “The laugh track. If a line isn’t funny just boost the recorded laughter. You watch, Michael, unfunny is made hilarious by the laugh track. The need for humorist writers stops when canned laugher is the means of transmitting what is funny.”

Jack said sound engineers would come into The Tonight Show to record audience response to use on other shows.

There’s an argument for and against canned laugher yet my view is Jack was right. An argument can be made for incidental music and how it adds to a scene yet canned laugher is not incidental music but a response indicator: this line is funny as is shown by recorded audience response so therefore it is funny.

So the question. Is canned laugher indicative of funny and because it is there the preceding line is funny or, as Jack said, there to support an essentially weak line?

Movies don’t have laugh tracks and the question is why not. Many successful TV shows such as from the BBC don’t and they are regarded as funny – and funny because of premise and the writing to support that premise.

To me canned laughter cheapens humor. The writing is setup, follow up, introduce a mechanical laugh. Was the line funny? Not necessarily so but payoff line – set up by another line – is deemed funny because it is followed by a laugh.

More on this.

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