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In defence of the laugh-track

Modern television comedies have foregone the need to tell audiences when to laugh, but this may not necessarily be a good thing

A still from ‘Cheers’.
A still from ‘Cheers’.

The best feature I’ve ever encountered on any DVD has been the option to turn the laugh-track off on the M*A*S*H discs. Without question one of the greatest television shows of all time, Larry Gelbart’s far removed adaptation of the raucous Richard Hooker novel about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital is a touching, hilarious and existential look at the horrors of war. War, what is it good for? Despite the home-made gin conjured up by Captain Hawkeye Pierce in his army tent, not very much at all.

Turning off the laugh-track shakes off the pretence that M*A*S*H is about the gags—which shine by themselves—and the result packs more of an emotional wallop than ever. Watch that classic season 1 episode, Dear Dad, where Pierce writes to his father while trying to make sense of the tumult around him, and it plays out like a stirring and highly cinematic drama. I have, like most of us, grown rather wary of background laughter, and—now that it only remains on tired sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory—am glad we’ve moved on from shows with laughs after the jokes.

The other day, Cheers changed all that.

During Endless Slumper, a sensational season 1 episode about the bar where everybody knows your name, mailman Cliff Clavin asks Sam Malone, bartender and former alcoholic and the show’s leading man, to show a sceptical drinker Malone’s famous “bar slide". Sam, played by a ludicrously cool Ted Danson, clears up room on the bar’s counter and, with curveball precision, slides over the beer, which slides around the counter in an arc to reach Clavin. It is a fantastic, physics-defying sleight of beer, and is made unforgettable by the way the studio audience treats it, whooping with unexpected exuberance as if they just saw a chess player score a free kick.

A few episodes later, Sam’s exasperating love interest, Diane Chambers—played by the irrepressible Shelley Long—finds herself entered in a pageant to find Boston’s best barmaid. It is against her very principles to see women being objectified and judged in Neanderthal competition, and after realizing the winner will get to give a speech, she decides not only to stay in the competition but to win so she can earn herself a pulpit. She does win, of course, and as she prepares to eviscerate the people applauding her, the host keeps interrupting to hand her prizes. She matter-of-factly bats them aside until he mentions two tickets to Bermuda. This is the first time, 18 episodes into the show, that we see Diane’s polished coolness vanish without warning. Like a girl who has always dreamt of an island, she squeals in frenzied ecstasy, hugging everyone in sight and jumping up and down. It is a superb tonal shift, and, again, hearing the audience flip for it makes it immortal.

(Speaking of the absolutely immortal, please get hold of the discs and watch Cheers from beginning to end, if you haven’t already. I’m only properly knee-deep in it now after all these years, and can’t kick myself hard enough. It may be from the early 1980s, but it remains an exquisite sitcom, one that has aged even more impressively than other greats like Seinfeld).

The reason this worked—and that Seinfeld episodes were forced to pause to allow the cheering and applause to die down every time the popular Kramer sprang out of a door—is because the laughter we hear on those shows is nothing like the canned laughter demonstrated so memorably in Annie Hall which showed how, with the flick of a switch, a chuckle becomes a guffaw. These, on the other hand, are shows filmed before a live studio audience, performed, for the most part, on sets. They are quite like theatre productions, but with the benefit of multiple takes. The fact that they pull off the seamless laughs they do is, frankly, awe-inspiring.

Watching a great show filmed before an actual audience is akin to seeing the taping of a master stand-up comic. Some jokes earn warm chuckles, some bring the house down, and some only make their impact a few seconds later, when it becomes clear just how subversive or audacious they are. These are real laughs, and while they might not be entirely in sync with ours, they do indeed make viewing feel like a shared, communal experience where you and I are merely a couple of the people laughing. With that comes comfort, and comedy that feels warmer.

Not that I wish Silicon Valley was filmed in front of a crowd, thank you very much. I have a sinking feeling that we—the jaded and the bitter—may not be as generous and as unmasked with our laughs as the crowds of old. It’s not just the shows. They don’t make us like they used to.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

The writer tweets at @rajasen

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