Laugh tracks in sitcoms are so retro

Single-camera shows, shot without an audience, are all the rage
Off the laugh track
ABC; CBS; NBC; Everett Collection; iStock; Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

“In L.A., you sometimes hear coyotes eating cats—to me, that’s the sound of a laugh track. I hit the wall. I just couldn’t take another minute of it.” That’s why Steven Levitan, co-creator of Modern Family, decided to do the show without a studio audience or laugh track. His vehemence shouldn’t come as a surprise. The sitcom format invented by I Love Lucy, with multiple cameras filming a performance in front of an audience, is in its own way one of the most controversial TV formats in Hollywood and the United Kingdom. Many producers are abandoning its laughter, its deliberately artificial sets, and its theatrical style. Andrew Ellard, a British comedy writer and script editor, says he “can’t imagine anyone wanting a live audience” for some types of sitcoms today.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the opposite was true: almost every half-hour comedy was shot in front of an audience. “I guess it didn’t occur to people that there was an alternative, which is quite comical when you think about it,” says Graham Linehan, creator of the hit U.K. sitcoms Father Ted and The IT Crowd. If a show was shot without an audience, it added a fake laugh track, like M*A*S*H. But today, movie-style comedy without a laugh track is mainstream, and many writers prefer the offbeat humour it allows. Earl Pomerantz, a Canadian comedy writer who has worked on many U.S. shows and produced the first season of The Cosby Show, said when he worked on The Larry Sanders Show—an audience-free comedy that influenced The Office—he found it refreshing to write jokes that would be too subtle for an audience, jokes “about relationship things, and about the way showbiz people treat each other.”

Today’s writers also find that single-camera comedy—so-called in show business because it uses only one camera for some scenes—is more realistic. The format, familiar from sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show and Leave It to Beaver, allows producers to shoot sitcom episodes like a little movie, without being confined to a few sets. Canada’s most successful current sitcom, Mr. D, films in an actual school: when the main character, a teacher, kicks a girl out of gym class, it’s funnier because it’s a real gym.

The appeal of that kind of naturalism may help explain why the most acclaimed work in sitcoms these days is usually done in single-camera. All but one of the Emmy nominees for best comedy last year were single-camera, including the winner, Modern Family. Most of the worst-reviewed sitcoms on TV are audience sitcoms, from the hit 2 Broke Girls to the flop men-in-drag comedy Work It.

Thanks to these shows, the comedy world tends to see the I Love Lucy form as unhip and retro. This was summed up in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, where his character makes a bad, catchphrase-laden audience sitcom called “When the Whistle Blows”; the star only has to say his catchphrase, “Are you havin’ a laugh?” for an audience of idiots to burst into applause. Pomerantz, who wrote for such classics as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and Cheers, said that after the glut of audience sitcoms in the ’90s, it got tiring to a lot of people: “If you’re going to use a format that started on radio in the 1940s,” he says, “at some point you’re going to run out of surprising ways of using it.”

Some older producers have stuck with it. Linehan, whose The IT Crowd is one of the few recent audience sitcoms to gain critical acclaim, said what kept him going was “partly bloody-mindedness. I live by the rule, ‘See what everyone else is doing and then don’t do that.’ ” But younger writer-producers are more comfortable with single-camera, which lends itself more to improvisational, experimental humour. “We do a ton of different stuff on set. We rewrite scenes, the cast ad libs,” David Caspe, the creator of the quirky single-camera comedy Happy Endings, told “And then it’s fit together in editing.”

It may also be that as theatre has declined in prestige, fewer young writers like the theatrical style of studio-audience comedy. In the ’60s and ’70s, young writers often came into TV idolizing Neil Simon and wanting to write plays; today, most TV writers long to write movies, which influences their choice of a TV format that’s similar to feature films. “Single-camera shows are preferred by those whose aspirational holy grail is movies,” Pomerantz says. “The other format, which comes to television from radio, derives from those who aspired to write plays, but forgot to.”

With the growing prestige of single-camera shows, there’s only one thing stopping them from taking over completely: viewers haven’t given up on studio-audience shows. Only one single-camera show without a laugh track, Modern Family, has ratings that match those of The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men. In Canada, The Big Bang Theory is the most popular show of any kind, and it’s even started beating American Idol in the States. And in syndication, where sitcoms make much of their money, single-camera sitcoms like 30 Rock tend to underperform compared with Seinfeld and Friends. “With an audience sitting there, you can’t have long periods of silence, so you have to pack the thing with gags,” Linehan says, explaining the populist appeal of the form. “I generally find you get more gags per minute in a studio sitcom than the single-camera variety.”

But in other ways, single-camera shows are gaining the economic advantage. Studio-audience shows used to be cheaper to make, because “building a living room set was cheaper than taking a unit out on location,” Ellard says. But today, Pomerantz notes, “digital technology has made single-camera production more affordable.” With digital video and cheap locations, comedian Louis C.K.’s successful single-camera comedy Louie may be less expensive than his failed studio-audience HBO sitcom Lucky Louie.

And when it comes to new media, single-camera may have the popularity advantage that multi-camera still enjoys in syndication. Zooey Deschanel’s movie-style comedy New Girl has good but not great ratings if you look at live viewers—but according to the New York Times, it gains a huge number of viewers in digital time-shifting. And shows like New Girl tend to be popular online. Andy Forssell, head of content for Hulu, told the Hollywood Reporter they bought the rights to the cult favourite Community because “in our world, we’d much rather have Community than Two and a Half Men.” While Two and a Half Men is much bigger on regular TV, Hulu is “much more excited about Community because while it’s a smaller audience, it’s an audience that self-organizes online.” As more viewers migrate online, they may be migrating to comedy that resembles YouTube more than the vaudevillian style of studio-audience sitcoms.

To get back some of these viewers, a new audience sitcom would have to be as innovative as the cult favourites from the ’90s, like Seinfeld and NewsRadio—but so far, there has been little sign of that. Some think that executives choke off audience comedy with their meddling, while single-camera comedies can get away with unusual jokes because they are harder to control. If executives want to rewrite a scene from a single-camera show, Pomerantz explains, “the producers can always say, ‘well, we shot that yesterday.’”

Ellard thinks part of the problem is network executives have a limited idea of what audience sitcoms can do: when the BBC recently announced a contest for live sitcoms, their press release told potential writers to stay away from “strange, subtle, unusual things” and concentrate on big, obvious jokes. Ellard thinks the BBC has forgotten that “you can do strange, subtle, unusual things in audience sitcom.” It could be today’s audience sitcoms are broad and corny because that’s what broadcasters think they’re supposed to be.

Still, it’s too early to declare one clear victor in the sitcom wars. For one thing, many people believe they can coexist. Linehan thinks there is “a certain magic dust that comes with a studio audience,” pointing to shows like Sergeant Bilko, Fawlty Towers and Seinfeld. “They would be different shows without the audience, and I don’t for a second imagine that they would be better.” One of the comedy sensations in the U.K. is Miranda, a deliberate throwback to the energetic audience sitcoms of the ’70s. Even in Canada, a country where most film crews are trained for single-camera shooting and audience sitcoms are rare, the producers of the kids’ show Mr. Young converted a Vancouver studio and trained crew members to shoot with an audience. Besides, just as there was a backlash against the glut of audience sitcoms in the ’90s, single-camera could eventually face a backlash of its own. The mock documentary format used by The Office and Modern Family, where characters glance at or talk to the camera, is becoming almost a substitute for the old laugh track, and people are starting to mock that format as well: Community did an episode making fun of mockumentary sitcoms, and in Britain, they’re even more ubiquitous. The best hope for live-audience sitcoms is that clichés of any format, with or without a laugh track, become tired once they’re overused.