Saturday, July 22, 2017

A comedy scene without a laugh track

I found this to be very interesting.  Thanks to a reader for alerting me to it.  This is a scene from THE BIG BANG THEORY but with the laugh track surgically removed.   Are the jokes really funny on their own?   You can imagine that on the air with the laugh track this stuff was getting screams.  Here of course, the scene feels very flat.

But I must say, in all fairness, that by removing the laugh track they also removed the actual audience reaction.   So some of these jokes that appear to evoke silence might have gotten legitimate laughs on the stage.   You have to keep that in mind.   Some of this stuff did work although you can't tell from this version. 

That said, this clip does give you a sense of the amount of jokes and rhythm of jokes in a BIG BANG THEORY scene.   And like I said, you decide yourself without any help from the machine whether these jokes or some of these jokes work.    It's kind of a fun exercise and takes less than two minutes.

Enjoy and let me know what you thought. 

42 comments :

Karl said...

Oh, this will prove nothing. People who like "The Big Bang Theory" will find the clip funny, irregardless of whether or not there's a laugh track. People who don't like "The Big Bang Theory" will point to it as evidence that the show isn't funny.

Mike said...

An exercise for your students:
Add canned laughter to a 'state of the union' address by Donald Trump.

Also the video game:
Donald wakes up in bed, needing the bathroom. He pulls his trousers on, accidentally placing both of his legs into the same trouser leg, then hops to the bathroom, falling over several times en route.
The goal is to get your Donald to the bathroom in the shortest time. Each fall adds penalty points.

Jeff Alexander said...

Thanks for posting this! It was an interesting experiment. I have to say that I did laugh in a couple of spots, but I can't help but wonder if that was because I knew the scene and knew where the jokes would be or if the jokes were funny on their own.
You may recall that the Odd Couple did broadcast one episode the first season, sans laugh track, and the network received mail mostly favorable in doing away with it.
However, the series, from its second season on, taped the shows in front of a live audience, which did seem to help the performances and the timing of the jokes.
Plus, nowadays, it's really hard to discern a laugh track from the actual live audience reaction. In the 1960s and 1970s, you could instantly tell that a show had a laugh track because the laughs had a "sound" all their own. One of the best examples of this was "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," which seemed to have the same audience in 1954 as it did in 1964.

Ralph C. said...

That was interesting. I laughed at what I thought was funny, with different degrees of laughter, depending on the line.

Jeff Alexander said...

I did think of a Friday Question for you to consider after I wrote my original posting. Maybe you have addressed this before and I've forgotten.
You have written for sitcoms which have used laugh tracks ("M*A*S*H) and used live audience reactions ("Cheers"). I'm sure that you prefer live audience reaction shows, but is it actually easier to devise jokes where you know a laugh track will be mechanically inserted? And did you work on any live audience shows where the episode was "sweetened" by adding laughs that weren't a part of the episode?

Bill said...

I think removing the laughs messes with our perception of their timing. The actors are waiting for the audience reaction to end, but in this video it's like they're taking extended pauses for no reason.

I'm not a fan of the show, but neither the version performed live nor the version that went to air are this awkward.

Wally said...

And, of course, you can add a laugh track to a heavy drama, like The Wire

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDIi0dzmvpE

VP81955 said...

With or without a laugh track, I'm still not a fan of this series. Too many silly "nerd" stereotypes, not enough multi-dimensional characters.

lillispad said...

I laughed. But that's only because I'm familiar with the characters which allows the writers to use "shorthand" references to get laughs. Long time viewers will know about Raj's comic ineptitude with women but I'd imagine someone coming to the scene fresh might find him sexist and annoying rather than comical. "Shamy" refers to Sheldon and Amy - two characters seemingly oblivious to social conventions (Sheldon more than Amy). Knowing this makes the reference funny and the characters sympathetic otherwise it's people griping about their friend behind their back. Also, without knowing the backstory about Howard's mother the foot scrubbing routine falls flat as well.

Some scenes are easier to write when the characters are familiar. Less exposition makes it easier to maintain comic rhythm.

sanford said...

I don't think I have seen this particular episode more than once. I am a fan of the show, but wow I did not laugh once. There is something to be said about being part of audience in a movie or watching a tv show where others are laughing. I loved Cheers, Taxi and other shows created by Burrows and the Charles Brothers. I always laugh after repeated viewings. But I wonder if you took out the laughs out of their shows would they seem as funny. Maybe to some one who has seen them multiple times because you know what is coming. But I wonder if first time viewers would laugh if the laughs were taken out. I think one of the few shows that could have been done with out a laugh track would have been MASH

Jerry said...

That clip sans laugh track put me in mind of this: when Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were making shorts (well, and features) for Hal Roach, rough cuts of the shorts would be screened and the lengths of the laughs each gag or sequence got would be recorded. The final edit of the films would be made to allow for those laughs from theater audiences. That was fine for when those movies were screened for a theater full of people, but Stan Laurel thought it caused their films to be paced too slowly for television. All those long reaction shots and slow takes. Laurel actually offered to reedit the shorts for television to pick up their pace, but no one ever took him up on that.

blinky said...

Without the laugh track everything seems kind of mean spirited. Put in some somber music and it could be Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff.

Lon said...

Plus, nowadays, it's really hard to discern a laugh track from the actual live audience reaction. In the 1960s and 1970s, you could instantly tell that a show had a laugh track because the laughs had a "sound" all their own. One of the best examples of this was "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," which seemed to have the same audience in 1954 as it did in 1964.

Actually, while "Ozzie and Harriet" was a single camera show, it used the technique of showing each episode to a live audience and recording their reactions, then mixing that into the final soundtrack.

This technique was mentioned here the other day in connection with George Burns and Gracie Allen's TV show. It was popular in the 1950s, the belief being that you got a more genuine reaction than you did from relying solely on a laugh box.

"Ozzie and Harriet" did a unique thing, though, in that they provided everyone in the audience with a pair of headphones to listen through while they watched the show. This got around the problem that sometimes arose of the final soundtrack having a faint "echo-y" sound, from the mikes that were picking up the live audience watching the film also capturing its soundtrack. The problem with the headphones was that they dampened the audience's reactions. You're less likely to laugh when you're not hearing other people laughing. That's why "Ozzie and Harriet" had such a subdued laugh track, though given the low-key nature of "Ozzie and Harriet," a subdued laugh track was not out of place.

Eric J said...

I've never seen the show. I don't know the setup, who the characters are or how they normally relate to one another. Without that context, I didn't find a single thing funny about anything they said. If there was a laugh track, I would at least know what the writers intended to be funny, but it wouldn't make it funny.

I think the experiment is unfair to the show. Context is important.

It just occurred to me that the Cheers "Rock Me" scene from yesterday, would be funny even to someone who didn't know the show. The context is something familiar to nearly everyone. We don't need to know the situation or the characters. It stands alone almost like a small, simple "flash mob."

Jamie said...

At one time there was a bunch of clips like this on YouTube from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," put up by somebody who hated the show and seemed to think that by posting some classic moments from it with the laugh track removed that he was proving the show wasn't funny. I never did understand his reasoning. In all my life I've never heard anyone say, "Well, I didn't think this show was at all funny, but then I realized it had a laugh track, so obviously I'm wrong and its funny as hell."

Anonymous said...

I laughed when he started pumiceing her foot, the rest of it was just people talking. They also didn't seem to like each other very much at all.

Sean

B_Murphied said...

I'm not a fan of Big Bang Theory, but what that particular scene reminds me is that the characters really never achieved any consistency for a series that doesn't reset itself each episode. They remain stereotypes. Raj in particular, has been shown to be extremely oblivious and simply misogynist and then gets reconstructed as very shy and sensitive about women, and then a new super-nanny type after the baby arrives; Penny from the beginning is supposed to be won as some prize but offers literally nothing, never achieved anything, but even here, the foot scraping in front of everyone is over the top and doesn't match with her general attitude. When the show needs "aaaaaww" moments, they show she has developed a "special bond" of friendship with Sheldon, but she makes constant comments about him, makes fun of him, as if her character ever rose to some level, or can have a life without him in some way. Sheldon in the last laugh, is the one who holds a job and manages a life. Howard is a ridiculous stereotype, played well but nothing changes after seasons. It's the character of Amy that has proven to be the most funny because of the actress and the scripts combined. I think if you had a scene with her and Sheldon, it would work better without the laughtrack.

That said, without the constant distraction of loud laughs in the audience, these characters are always left to the script's gags to make any sense. They can't do stage business after all this time, can't manage as an ensemble in the way, for example, if you see the Simpsons voice-cast together (once on Actors Studio for example) they can immediately riff and invent a whole complete scene.

ScottyB said...

Maybe all this just goes to prove that laughter really is contagious. Ever notice that TV shows and movies just seem to be a whole funnier when someone's laughing along with you? But when you watch them alone, they just ain't all that funny. Except 'Frasier.' Lost count how many times I almost pissed my pants watching it by myself.

BGVA said...

I agree with the idea that without a laugh track, everyone seems mean-spirited. However, without the laughs, the writing on this show feels formulaic and less conversational. Like someone else mentioned, it's as if the characters are waiting for the laughs. The flow of dialogue is definitely different on a show like Modern Family or The Office, more fast-paced.

I do disagree that today's sitcoms make it hard to discern real from canned laughter. I've seen a few CBS shows that use laugh tracks, and the laughs sound exactly the same no matter what the punchline was. I've also seen a couple Tyler Perry and Byron Allen sitcoms where the uproarious audience would make you think you were watching The Cosby Show or Seinfeld

It's refreshing to read the comments, and not see a pretentious "I prefer my shows without a laugh track, because I don't need to be told when to laugh!"

Pat Reeder said...

I've seen this clip before. I don't think it's a fair comparison because the actors' timing is geared to the response of the studio audience, and Chuck Lorre has been adamant that the audience reaction is real and not from canned laughter. At this point, the audience is so familiar with the characters and so excited to be at a taping that their response is going to be greater than it would be if they were seeing the show in a vacuum. Also, since you were recently talking about stand-up, one thing I learned when briefly doing that is how hard it is to be funny when you're doing your act in an audition setting for an empty club with just a harried manager who'd rather be doing anything else as an audience. Even the best material tends to come out of your mouth and clunk to the floor like a lead balloon.

On another topic, here's something that might make a good Friday question: You wrote about a DJ's show that you thought was hilarious when you were younger, but you were stunned by how unfunny it was when you relistened to it. I'm curious about the other side of that. What shows/performers did you think were hilarious when you were a child that still crack you up today? For instance, as a little kid, I loved the local reruns of Jay Ward cartoons (especially Bullwinkle, Super Chicken and Fractured Fairy Tales) and Homer & Jethro records. Recently, I revisited both (Ward on YouTube and a download collection of H&J rarities from the early '50s), and I still laughed my head off.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I just saw the first episode of HORACE & PETE (louisck.net) and it occurs to me that you could throw on a laugh track and make it a middle-level sitcom: Racist bartender, people arguing about money, pretentious yuppies (is that still the term?), gay lawyer, man with mental illness, even a fat girl. Huge laughs, no Emmys but a long run on Fox, critics comparing it to MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN, right-wing bloggers praising its lack of political correctness. There's a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and it may be the laugh track.

Johnny Walker said...

That is a fascinating watch. The timings of the performances are all weird because they're waiting for the laughter to stop, which must make any multicam look weird. But wow. Sometimes they paused for what seemed like no reason at all... You're left thinking, "Wait, THAT got a big laugh?"

Is it because this is from a later season, and basically the audience is just happy to be seeing their favourite characters in person? I'm looking around for excuses here...!

Cap'n Bob said...

The only thing a laugh track would have accomplished was to make me wonder why people were laughing. I don't watch the show and, based on the times I've been exposed to it, don't think it's funny.

Kaleberg said...

It was funny enough given that I've never watched an episode. The pacing seemed slow, but that's because they took the laugh track out and replaced it with dead air. Put in enough dead air and you can unfunny even the funniest video.

Still, I'm sure it would have been funnier if I had recognized the characters or at least the character types. I remember watching one skit on a Turkish channel with a fat, lazy guy, a dumb skinny guy and a trouble maker. I don't speak Turkish, but it was hilarious. The broad acting helped. I recognized the stereotypes, so I had built in context.

Without context, comedy is hard. I could never get a laugh from Cheers or Seinfeld, because I just couldn't find the time it would take to learn the set up.

jean satzer said...

Not to mention, but for some reason, the image was flipped. That threw me, and the pause for reaction, made it seem stilted and wrong. If they had played this scene properly, it would have worked.

Liggie said...

You could even say the same thing for plays and musicals performed without an audience. I caught part of NBC's live "Hairspray" last fall, and when a character said a funny line, another would read their next line while I was in the middle of a laugh or chuckle. That sense of pacing threw me a little off, as actors in the stage production would've waited for the audience laughter before continuing, like in this BBT scene. It was just a small thing that didn't affect my overall enjoyment of "Hairspray Live", as the musical numbers carry the show, but it was noticeable.

An interesting variation of this experiment is if someone filmed or cut this scene single-camera, where a short reaction shot replaces waiting for audience laughter. Or filming something sans audience that doesn't require familiarity with the characters, like Ken's politician and hooker sketch. Many sitcom jokes rely on established character traits (knowing that Raj couldn't talk to women unless he drank alcohol that season would affect one's understanding of this BBT scene); one-off characters and sketches don't have that luxury.

Mike Barer said...

I thought that to gain persprective, I would read the comments and watch the clip later.

Peter said...

Hope I can be forgiven for going off topic to say I'm saddened by the sudden death of John Heard. A terrific actor. He'll probably be best remembered for the Home Alone films but he was also great in Deceived and Big, especially Deceived, an underrated movie which was a total contrast to his Home Alone image. RIP.

Stuart Best said...

I laughed hard, but for different reasons. Watching these characters go through the motions in silence was in itself hilarious. I don't think this proves that Big Bang wasn't funny. The humor of a sitcom comes through in the shared experience with an audience. Some of those jokes were funny, but the setting and context (no audience laughter) changed our perception of the experience.

A lot of people dump on Big Bang (in your blog comments and elsewhere) as being painfully unfunny. I only found certain segments cringe-worthy (ie, any interaction with Howard's mom), but overall I thought it was really well crafted and enjoyable. And funny. Up until the kid was born. As you wrote about recently Ken, babies take all the energy out of a show.

Charles H Bryan said...

Someday I will write my pro-BIG BANG THEORY manifesto, but this not that day.

However, I think you could take the laughter out of any multi-cam comedy and it would seem strange.

Mike Schryver said...

I'm no fan of the show, but it's unfair to remove the audience reaction. The actors are timing their lines to the audience reaction and it makes no sense to remove it. It was one thing back in the day when we used to object to canned laughter being inserted into material that wasn't funny. Now it seems that we have people objecting to having an audience at all, and I couldn't disagree more with that. Many of the greatest sitcoms, and all of Ken's great shows except for MASH, were done in front of an audience and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Myles Warden said...

Usually you should assume it's live if it's current. Most sitcoms have live audiences Can check a site like tvtickets.com to see which ones tape in LA if you wonder if the laughter is real or not.

Myles Warden said...

It's been going on for 10 seasons. Everyone is multi-dimensional now even if it started that way.

Artie Fufkin said...

For the opposite effect, Google "Inappropriate laugh tracks".

J. said...

All removing the laugh track does is destroy the timing. Whatever you think of the writing on the show, the actors (Simon Helberg, especially) are all very talented. They would have adjusted their deliveries to work.

Andrew said...

Reminds me of this clip - Breaking Bad as a sitcom.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6v-ApehVbc

Roger Owen Green said...

I've seldom watched the show, and while early parts were irritating, "scraping WITH the grain" made me laugh.

Unknown said...

I don’t think people laugh at a bad joke because of a laugh track. I still laughed and think it is a funny show, I've always thought that Seinfeld was absolute crap though so I wouldn't go by my taste. I've always been annoyed that Seinfeld claimed to be the first show about nothing when there were shows decades before about nothing like "The Honeymooners" and "Steptoe and Son" (remade in America As "Sanford and Son".

WOKcreativeWritings said...

It reminded me of the first run through with the crew. If you can make them laugh you know it is funny. How much do the writers take that run through into consideration for rewrites?

DW said...

I guess there's also this:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9Q1_QQePVM

ScarletNumber said...

@jean satzer

The image was reversed to avoid a copyright claim

Janet said...

I don't mind laugh tracks. Or real laughter. (I can can hear one guy's distinctive laugh on many old Mary Tyler Moore shows. I kind of like it. It's like that guy and me are enjoying the same show.) I really only notice the laughter (real or fake) when I'm not amused. Then I wonder what they're laughing at, why they're laughing, or start thinking about how not funny the show is. In other words, it takes me "out of the show" when there's a reaction or laughter and I'm not reacting the same way.

But sitcoms have a rhythm, and removing the laughter messes it up. I think it's kind of like watching fireworks on TV--it just really seems dull and uninteresting. That's how I felt watching the Big Bang Theory without reaction. (I thought the first half of the clip wasn't smart or funny, but it picked up for me at the end. But that's just me at this moment.)

I think cartoons without music would be the same way. I've been watching old favorites again and so much of cartoons are musical cues or "reactions." Older sitcoms like Bewitched or Hazel or Jeannie also had musical cues/reactions that were integral to the show. Without them, plus the laughter, things would drag or feel off.