Arts & Culture

Jews Watching TV: Mathematically Proving How Much Laugh Tracks Stink

With the resurgence of the laugh track, we decided to conduct an experiment—a TV experiment. Read More

By / December 2, 2011
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INTRODUCTION

Inspired by how much Big Bang Theory I found myself watching with my family last weekend (man, that show gets syndicated like it’s going out of style) and New York’s piece on the resurgence of the laugh track, I decided to conduct an experiment—a TV experiment.

My goal was to measure the exact impact a laugh track has on an episode of TV. So I picked three shows—today’s most purely laugh tracked show, Big Bang Theory (based on last night’s episode)—the current show most derided for laugh tracking, Whitney (based on last night’s episode)—one of the best ever laugh trackers, Cheers* (based on its ninth episode to correspond with Whitney)—and simply counted the laughs. I watched each while marking down every time there was a discrete “audience” laugh (Laugh Track = LT), every time I laughed (Real Laugh = RL), every time I thought something was funny but didn’t audibly laugh (Thought Funny =TF), and every time a joke was so bad I cringed in the face of an audience laugh (BOO).

DATA

From these totals I created a unite of measurement, Laughvilles (LV), that quantifies the overall drag caused by the laugh track. Here’s the formula (yes, a formula—no really, there’s a formula**).

LV = 100 – (100x((2RL + 1TF – 1BOO)/LT)

Totals from this week’s subjects:

Whitney’s LV = 68

Big Bang Theory’s LV = 71.2

Cheers’s LV = 25.7

Analysis

1. Real or not, these crowds nowadays laugh constantly. Big Bang Theory’s 125 LT is the most unbelievable part of all of that info. We are talking about a laugh every six seconds, compared to one ever twenty on Cheers. One explanation is the much less cynical Cheers spent more time creating honest, emotional moments that were decidedly less joke heavy. Another possibility is that it comes down to, what the New York article alluded to as, “a careful casting of the crowd.” Whitney and Big Bang Theory have an audience ready to laugh loud and often (that or it’s all faked and done by robots).

2. The shortcomings of Whitney and Big Bang Theory are different. Whitney is just not funny. The characters say things that would absolutely die without the safety net of audible laughter. In contrast, Big Bang Theory seems to lazily rehash the same character based jokes incessantly to make sure the audience keeps laughing, which is definitely better but still lacking.

3. Yelling will make the audience laugh. I started to realize certain things always get an audience reaction and thus are constantly reused. Yelling is by far the most egregious. Even Cheers, which was a very clever and subtle show, had Carla (Rhea Pearlman) who, from what I’ve seen, would simply pop into scenes, shout something, and provoke hoots and hollers from the whoevers in the crowd.

4.A laugh track is not why Whitney is awful but it does make it harder to watch. When a joke dies on arrival (like, “Nope, we do not do this—we don’t sit around talking about kids. Come on, we’re sluts.”), not only does the viewer at home get agitated by the needless laughter but they then have to wait for it to end before the actors continue acting. Multiply this by its every six seconds frequency and even a likable show like Big Bang Theory will make you want to throw a rock at the screen in frustration. With an over 70 LV, Bang does suffer from its need to keep the crowd laughing, resorting to a lot of tired jokes, broad jokes, borderline racist jokes, and racist racist non-jokes.

5. Funny shows are funny. Cheers is an amazing sitcom regardless if there is a crowd laughing alongside. Shows like Parks & Recreation or The New Girl could switch to a multi-camera, laugh tracked format seamlessly. On the other hand, if Whitney switches to single-camera next week it still would be unwatchable, basically being another Perfect Couples but bonier. I’d estimate the average smarty pants viewer would be content with anything below a 50 LV.

Conclusion

Watch Cheers because it’s great. Don’t watch Whitney because it’s bad. Don’t watch Big Bang Theory, unless you are with your grandmother, because it’s on the same time as Community now (sorry, too soon), and 30 Rock in the spring. Most importantly, start using Laughvilles in every day conversation; it’s as much yours as it is mine—let’s make it a thing!


* I felt I was way too familiar with Seinfeld, the funniest laugh track show ever, to obtain an accurate reading on it.

**To make up for all of this mad science I’m droppin’, yo (sorry), here’s an incredibly silly music video by Stanley from The Office: