Just finished Chuck Klosterman's Eating the Dinosaur, an interesting romp through music, television, sports, and other fun stuff.
Klosterman devotes one chapter to the stupidity of the laugh track. His take is interesting, but doesn't really break new ground -- why should I need to be cued to know something is funny? Doesn't this show how insecure we are?
I think the main point that Klosterman misses is that the purpose of the laugh track is not to enhance our appreciate of the show, but to enhance our experience of watching the show. I know those sound like pretty much the same thing, so let me explain.
Klosterman uses Friends in an extended example. I submit that what NBC sold before and syndicators sell now when they sell Friends is not the episodes or the entire opus as an artistic achievement, but the experience of watching Friends (or, rather they are selling advertisers the set of people who opt for the experience of watching Friends). The laugh track isn't a trick to manipulate people into thinking they're watching a funnier show than they are; it is part of the package they are delivering.
There is something fundamentally enjoyable about laughing with other people. It is a different experience that laughing by yourself (and the same goes for cheering, crying, singing and other things). Is it really that funny that Monica's a control freak or that Joey's oversexed? Not really, but it's fun to commiserate about these things, even if our fellow commiserators are distant or (as Klosterman suggests) dead.
After the 9/11, Friends had a spike in its ratings. Did the writing or acting get better? I suspect not, and that an alien would not be able to choose which Friends episodes came during this spike and which came from more lackluster times. What was reported was that Friends was comfort entertainment -- we were opting for simpler pleasures, like laughing along at Ross's social awkwardness.
I suspect some people would watch a channel that was all laugh track with no visual. They would never admit it, but they would tune in. The show itself can be a pretext to enjoy this (such as baseball games are a pretext for sitting out in the sun drinking beer with your buddies, or football games are pretext for hanging out in a parking lot grilling meat). Now, it has to be a credible pretext, which is why some shows fail and others succeed, but once the ball is rolling, the content is almost irrelevant.
I think part of the success of American Idol is how it plays on both sides of this tension. We enjoy watching a half-decent singer deliver a karaoke version of a familiar song, but we kind of hate ourselves for it. So we enjoy the performance, and then we enjoy Simon Cowell's evisceration of the same performance we just enjoyed. It's win-win.
The popular story is that the success of laugh-track free comedies like The Office, 30 Rock, and Arrested Devleopment demonstrate that both the craft and the audiences have evolved beyond these simple pleasures, but I'm not so sure. For these shows, the Internet is the laugh track. The (mostly affluent) people who enjoy these shows can share their appreciation with each other all over the world. It may not be immediate or obvious as a laugh track, but it's there, and I'm not sure these shows would be successful without it.
This was driven home to me six months ago when I got to attend a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman. I was there the night Bill Murray dove into a water-filled dumpster..
The studio audience is managed by pages who are apparently recruited from the same pool of candidates from which the Jungle Cruise guides at Disney World are pulled. We were instructed to laugh at everything Dave says, assume everything is hilarious, and suspend any critical analysis.
Now, there is some dissonance between these instructions and the persona of David Letterman, who recognizes that half of what he says on the show is crap, and knows that you know it, too. It would be difficult to imagine Letterman himself respecting these instructions.
But, at the same time, he (or the people running the show) recognize what his job is, and that's to deliver an entertaining hour of entertainment. And part of that is an audience that the people can laugh along with. It's not the merit of the jokes -- is anyone really blown away by jokes about the hookers in Time Square, or Dick Cheney shooting his hunting buddy? -- but a fun experience for those who tune in. Perhaps one reason Jay Leno has been more successful than Letterman, at least in terms of audience size, is the degree to which he is willing to surrender himself to that goal. Leno just wants to entertain the maximum number of people; Letterman wants to retain his dignity. Perhaps Letterman's approach is superior on a human level, but one can understand why NBC keeps choosing Leno over comedians who enjoy greater success.
Getting back to the original point, the laugh track isn't something bolted on to the show to trick people into liking it, like sugar-coated cereal; it is part of the actual product. TV's continued embrace of it does not reflect stupidity, but rather a keen insight into what people enjoy.