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Laughing matters

Studio audiences now make sitcoms seem less funny

By Corey Levitan Feb 7, 2013 11:04AM

Whitney (Whitney Cummings) and her boyfriend (Chris D'Elia) stroll into their own version of “Cheers.” He’s wondering why an ex would want to stay friends with her, because she “not that friendly.”

Bing: "Whitney" | Whitney Cummings


I’m not a “Whitney” person -- though I am a Whitney person. Her standup talent gives me occasional hope that her sitcom has finally stopped sucking. Then I tune in. The show’s jokes are cute but impart the feeling that too many Cheez-Its have been consumed.


But I get the same feeling from "Two and a Half Men," "Anger Management" and even a much better sitcom than all of these: "How I Met Your Mother." So I blame the laughter.


The studio audience seemed floored by that “not that friendly” joke, and that made me resent it. This amazing ability I have to decipher, all by myself, which words are amusing when strung together -- honed by watching “Arrested Development," “The Office” and every single funny movie I’ve ever seen -- was suddenly stripped and there I was watching “Three's Company" in seventh grade again.


So why is this remnant still with us? Part of the answer is Desi Arnaz. He was the genius behind “I Love Lucy" and the three-camera shoot. So he must also have been a genius for inventing the studio audience. Right?


Sixty years ago, Americans were comforted by associating this newfangled box of images in their living room with something more familiar to them: a vaudeville show. Plus, it was thought, you're way more likely to do something you see or hear others do first. (It’s the same reason your mom was always on you about jumping off buildings.)

But not every show could afford a studio audience like that of "Lucy." So it was widely faked. Laugh tracks appeared everywhere, even places that were ludicrous if people ever stopped to think about it, which they didn’t. (What group of people could possibly have been sitting there laughing at "The Flintstones" or "The Jetsons”?)

Even sitcoms with audiences prompted them to laugh with signs, and "sweetened" their reactions with prerecorded laughter when they didn't. The combined effect was that viewers learned to associate sitcom laughter with unfunniness. (We are a lot more like dogs conditioned by bells than we like to think.)


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Laugh tracks went out long ago, but studio audiences clung. Network executives and sitcom creators grew up on them, and the success of "Seinfeld" -- which still seems funny even with the laugh-prompting -- pumped at least another decade into the old paradigm.

But that's changing. Laughlessness is the new norm. And, like every other TV decision, this one comes down to money. Beginning with "Malcolm in the Middle" 13 years ago, networks saw proof that they could achieve the same returns on less of an investment. Sometimes, networks do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

"Whitney" is now the only NBC sitcom with an audience. And it is likely to be the last.

Does sitcom laughing annoy you, too?

"Whitney" airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

Feb 9, 2013 9:49AM
You're not seeing this the right way... at all. Different styles of joke delivery suit different formats. The comedy on Seinfeld was sweetened by the pause the actors gave when the audience fell over laughing. If you can't write a home run joke, The Office (American) for example, then you shouldn't use the live audience.
Feb 8, 2013 9:07AM
Was stuck in the house during some bad weather and for the first time, watched the Wendy Williams Show.  Had no clue who she was.  The audience was so annoying I turned the show off.Since then I've checked other shows and it seems everyone has an annoying audience.  I love Rachel Ray and when she got her own talk show I figured it would really be good.  She announces an ingredient in a recipe and the audience claps.  Really??  I gave that show up.  I only watch her 30 Minute Meals on the Food Channel.  Even the sitcom reruns have such loud laughter.  Doesn't anybody in charge realize this?   And why do people all have to talk at the same time.  That is why I gave up watching TMZ, and Fox.    So glad the weather is warming up and I can go outside instead of using my treadmill.  Cannot believe daytime t.v. is this bad.  Before all you people complain - this is only my opinion.  And I know, there's an off button on my t.v. and believe me, I use it.
Feb 8, 2013 8:57AM

comedies....laugh track or live laughter? gimme the LIVE laughter.   i laugh at sitcoms...guess what? the audience laughs too - and we do it at the same time.  unless there is a person, like the author of this piece, who has to wait and laugh AFTER he hears the line, then he is missing alot.


canned laughter is SOOO fake, i prefer the real thing.  i dont laugh at CRIMINAL MINDS because it isnt a COMEDY....its a DRAMA.  




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