Laughter of the Dark Times

The laugh track has been around since the 1940s. The initial purpose behind its creation was to replicate a theatrical experience for its viewers who were habituated to watching live plays accompanied by a large audience. During the time, the laugh track was seen as a particularly important device since it facilitated a smooth transition from live broadcasts to televised shows. The audience’s laughter was appreciated as it was seen as genuine, lively and spontaneous. In order to retain that sense of communal laughter and to sustain a sense of liveliness, TV shows began using a laugh track - a soundtrack containing pre-recorded laughter of an audience

Perhaps, the trick has stuck around for so long because of the contagious nature of laughter. One finds a strange urge to imitate laughter upon observing it around them. Laughter functions as a social signal and can be stimulated in audiences through the usage of such tracks. Psychologists explain the phenomenon using the term “canned” laughter. The moving image carefully organizes the experience of reality for the viewer. Upon adding a laugh track, the images can induce the required social circumstances that evoke laughter. The people in the box provide a vicarious means to recreate this social signal for the solitary television viewer. Through careful manipulation, the private realm of the living room takes on the appearance of a public space.

To a great extent, laughter is associated with positivity and lightness today. Yet, the link seems to be representative of whitewashing the actions’ dark past and present. In Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, laughter was an important part of public executions and torture when such events took place for the purpose of entertainment in the public eye. Moreover, the dark side to laughter is not restricted to the past, as it has been observed among the perpetrators and witnesses, to horrific acts of violence and ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war. It was also a frequent part of incidents of torture at the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq. The laugh track plays a significant role in creating the “light hearted” association for individuals as they consume lively, simple shows with the track. The same camera that has the ability to capture the darker side of laughter and present it to the audience rarely ever does so. The production of television shows is driven by an industrial logic for the purpose of mass consumption, therefore it is unlikely that the murky side to laughter will find its coverage in the same medium as the laugh track. Interestingly, laughter in both the positive and the dark scenarios is elicited by the same reasons, i.e. its contagious and communal nature.

 While laughter can be induced in the private domain with the aid of a laugh track, the action is nevertheless involuntary and difficult to fake. The irony being that such a spontaneous action is, in reality, triggered by inauthentic manipulation. The laugh track can operate like a remote control, pressing invisible switches within the individual to elicit a particular reaction at particular instances. Perhaps, that itself speaks of a darker yet fascinating aspect of laughter.