Some weeks ago I saw Alan Alda in something. Not in real life; in some TV program. Made me nostalgic for M*A*S*H, which I used to watch all the time in reruns, but since I watch the Internet instead of television, it’s not so easy to come by. You’d think some website would be streaming it by now, but no.
So I checked some seasons out from the library. One of the options on the DVDs is that you can listen to a soundtrack without the laugh track. M*A*S*H was a single-camera show, meaning it wasn’t filmed live in front of any studio audience. It wasn’t even played back for one so they could get natural laughter. All the laughter on it was canned. Which the producers didn’t like—’cause it’s fake, of course—but everybody did it back then, so they did it too.
Of course, I opted to watch it without the laugh track. And, no surprise, it’s a lot less funny. As the inventors of the laugh track will tell you: People are more apt to laugh when they hear laughter. Take a slightly amusing, not-all-that-funny joke, play some canned laughter over it, and people will assume it’s funnier than it is. They might even laugh at it.
Producers may hate laugh tracks, because they feel fraudulent. I can’t say I blame them. But removing them, or not having them, doesn’t necessarily help a show. The first TV show I saw where they got rid of the laugh track for the DVDs was Sledge Hammer! an ’80s sitcom about a trigger-happy cop. Now, to be fair, when I first watched it I was a kid, and didn’t have a lot of taste when it came to music, movies, TV, the things I found funny, and so forth. Most kids don’t; it’s why they watch the Disney Channel. But I watched Sledge Hammer! again as an adult, sans laugh track, and found it wasn’t funny at all. At all. The pilot episode had a few laughs, but the second episode, the third episode, the fourth, and so on… well, the laughs were far too few and far between. The writers either didn’t know what to do with the character, or they did know but ABC wouldn’t let them get away with it. So it wasn’t funny. But I watched, and laughed, because it had a laugh track, and I didn’t know any better.
M*A*S*H is funny. Without a laugh track, it’s not as funny as it used to be. Some of the jokes aren’t all that great. Some of the actors are a way too one-dimensional. And if you’re familiar with the show, you’ll notice that over time, the writing got considerably better—which isn’t usually the case with TV shows: Once they set up their characters, the writers get lazy and keep basing on the humor on predictable character traits. And they actually think that’s a good thing; that it’s better writing when it’s based on character instead of situation. It’s not: It’s based on both. It’s based on the unpredictable character traits, brought out by the situations they’re put into, which catch the audience by surprise, but the audience recognizes these traits are still consistent with the characters. When your show devolves into predictable catchphrases or, “Oh man, I know what he’s gonna do next,” it’s become brain-dead. Good writing keeps you guessing, but doesn’t exasperate you because the stuff that comes out of left field gets ridiculous. (You know, like in soap operas.)