by Walter Brasch
Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” didn’t need a laugh track when it debuted on Broadway in 1965. It didn’t need a laugh track when it became a movie three years later.
In the first of five seasons as a TV series (1970–1975), it had a laugh track, primarily because the show was taped without a live audience. However, stars Jack Klugman and Tony Randall insisted upon a live audience. Beginning the second season, the show was taped before a live audience, with mild post-production sweetening from what became known as the “Laff Box.”
“The New Odd Couple,” with black actors and an enhanced laugh track, lasted 18 episodes in the 1982–1983 season.
The latest version debuted two weeks ago on CBS. It has a laugh track. A loud, annoying, intrusive laugh track. A laugh track that has little variation and makes it obvious the live-audience reaction at the tapings were muted in deference to forced canned laughter.
The laugh track is so intrusive that the few quality writing lines and the acting are obliterated by what producers think is funny. And, funny comes at least every other line. By decree.
This “Odd Couple” is not much different from many current 30-minute TV situation comedies.
For some reason, writers and producers think sitcoms are a series of one-liners, with minimal plot that need artificial and intrusive laugh tracks. Even the Oscars and Emmy awards shows, broadcast live but with a seven-second delay in case anyone violates network standards and practices, use enhanced laughter to try to make the TV audience believe that lame jokes are really comedy.
Producers of the better classic comedies either didn’t use laugh tracks or made sure the “sweetening” wasn’t intrusive. There was no laugh track for “I Love Lucy.” There was canned laughter and no audiences for the first two seasons of “Happy Days”; by the third season, production switched from single-camera to multi-camera, and audience reaction dominated analogue audio enhancements.
Several now-classic sitcoms—think of the “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Newhart,” “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “All in the Family,” “Friends” and dozens of others—were defined by brilliant writing, strong direction, and excellent acting. Even “M*A*S*H,” one of the best comedies on TV, toned down its laugh track and used it sparingly after the first season. “Sex and the City” didn’t use a laugh track; “Welcome Back, Kotter” used it sparingly. Artificial laughter also wasn’t necessary for “The Simpsons,” “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” and “The Muppets.”
No experienced TV Suit has yet demanded a laugh track for the better one-hour TV dramas—among them “NCIS” and “Castle”—that have an undercurrent of well-written humor, slipped seemingly effortless into the show. Further, the well-written, acted, and directed one-hour light dramas on the USA network—“Monk,” “Psych,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Royal Pains,” “White Collar,” and many other original series—have proven that laugh tracks are useless when quality supersedes contrived mechanical laughs. TV audiences know what’s funny and when to laugh, snicker, chuckle, or even guffaw.
It’s harder to write quality comedy than tragedy and drama. So, maybe, that’s why the forced laugh tracks are necessary—especially for lines that are dry and uninspired.
If the current “Odd Couple” plans to be around next season, it needs to strengthen its writing—and allow genuine audience reaction be its primary laugh track.
Perhaps, TV audiences have become so accustomed to mediocrity they now believe that average productions are models of excellence. What else would explain the existence of the one-joke salacious “Two Broke Girls” and “Two and a Half Men”?
If you want to hear non-intrusive laughter and clapping on a show with excellent writing and delivery, just tune into “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” It doesn’t need artificial laughter.