Are sitcom laugh tracks real? Well, it depends on the sitcom. So there are two types, you have single-camera shows and multi-camera shows. A single-camera show might be like Modern Family and shot either on location or in a soundstage with two cameras. Even though they’re called one-camera, single-camera shows, but it takes about a week to shoot them. So there’s no audience. That’d take too long. They’re very cinematic. They look like movies because they can take more time to shoot them. And so those don’t have laugh tracks. In the past, like in the sixties and the seventies, they often did. Which is why, if you remember, like the Brady bunch, that was a single-camera show. And I had like a corny laugh track that didn’t even sound like laughter. It’s not like car horns or French horns or something weird like that. 

And you’re like, what the hell is that? But for the most part, single-camera shows don’t have laugh tracks. There are multi-camera shows like The Big Bang Theory or Friends and those are shot live in front of a studio audience on a sound stage, and it’s pretty much like theater. So you have like a hundred people in the audience. And if they were to look up, they would see that they have microphones over their heads every 20 feet or so. That’s recording their laughter and those laughters are real. We use it in the show. So we might shoot a scene, let’s say five or six times. Obviously, in the first take, the laughter is going to be bigger than on the sixth take, because they’ve already heard it a hundred times. They’re not going to laugh as much. 

So we might use the sixth take to put into the episode, but we’ll use the laugh track from the first. So, it’s real. Now you may say, well, I’m watching the show at home. And none of it seems funny. So why is everybody laughing? Well, when you bring an audience in, it’s like live theater. Their favorite actors are only like a couple of feet in front of them. And it’s exciting and laughter’s contagious and it’s just a fun festive environment. So you’re much more likely to laugh in an environment like that. So those people may not be laughing legitimately at home. You’re watching on your phone and the computer, you’re alone. You’re not going to laugh as much. So the bar is a little different, but that laughter is real.

Sometimes you’ll hear like five or six people laughing like a joke. And you’re like, what’s that about? Those are almost always the writers laughing. The writers are always on the side, on the stage, right behind the cameras, only feet away from the actors. So we’ll laugh for a number of reasons. Sometimes it just strikes us as funny because the actor may do something a little differently than they’ve been doing all week in rehearsal. And that surprises us and makes us laugh. And it’s a little subtle and maybe the rest of the audience doesn’t pick up on it, which is why they’re not laughing. Sometimes we laugh just to help out the actors because they are literally feet away from us. And if they were to look at us and were stone-faced, that affects their performance, that drains their energy. It’s a bummer. It’s almost rude not to laugh. So we just, encourage them and help them be better at their jobs. 

Sometimes the laughter is not real at all. Sometimes we’re just standing next to our boss and the network executive and we have to laugh just so we don’t seem like idiots. Sometimes a show is just, is no good, but we’re laughing just because we have to. And there are a number of reasons why the show might not be good. Maybe the actor is a star, but not good at comedy. Or maybe the star is also a producer of the show and they make us do episodes that they want to do. Sometimes the show isn’t good because the writers aren’t very funny and that’s just a different post altogether on why that happens. But for the most part, the laughter is definitely real.

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Michael Jamin, Showrunner, TV Writer, Author

Michael Jamin

For the past 26 years, Michael Jamin has been a professional television writer/showrunner. His credits include King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Tacoma FD and many more.

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