I am sure every American has had this experience. Some time or another (probably many times) he or she has been watching a situation comedy when someone says something that is supposed to be a joke, and even if it is not particularly funny there is uproarious laughter. Unless that sitcom was filmed before a live studio audience, that laughter almost certainly came from a laugh track.
Laugh tracks have existed for nearly as long as network television. Despite this, their usage remains somewhat controversial to this day. The reason that they came to be used at all was quite simply to recreate the feeling of being part of a live audience. During the Golden Age of Radio (roughly the Thirties into the early Fifties), most radio shows were recorded before a live studio audience. With many early sitcoms, however, this was not always possible. To keep the laughs and guffaws familiar from the old radio comedies without shooting in front of a live audience, then, prerecorded or "canned" laughter came to be employed on TV sitcoms. Of course, even its earliest critics have argued that the true purpose of the laugh track was to cue the audience as to when to laugh, as if they were not intelligent enough to know what was funny. Proof that this may be the actual reason behind the use of laugh tracks may be seen in the fact that sometimes canned laughter would even be used on early variety shows and sitcoms that were filmed in front of live audiences. When joke did not go over well, sometimes the mild laughter of the live audience would be supplemented by prerecorded laughter--a practice known as sweetening. If the entire purpose of the laugh track was to give the illusion of filming before a live studio audience, then the use of canned laughter when a live audience was present would be needless.
Regardless, the laugh track was not without precedent. As early as the 17th century, French poet Jean Daurat offered free tickets to a performance of one of his plays in exchange for nothing more than applause. This practice reached its height in 19th century France when any theatre managers employed claques--groups of people who were paid for simply applauding performances. In the United States canned laughter was used on radio shows, although never to the extent that it would be on network television.
Indeed, it would be in on September 9, 1950 that the genie would be let out of the bottle. It was on that date that The Hank McCune Show debuted on NBC. The show ran only briefly and would probably be almost entirely forgotten were it not for the fact that it was the first sitcom to use canned laughter. It would be in 1953, however, that there would be a development which would really allow the laugh track to take off. That year a sound engineer named Charley Douglass invented the Laff Box, a device which could be played like an organ in order to produce various sorts of laughter. No one is quite sure where Douglass recorded the original laughs for his Laff Box, but it was soon in demand. In fact, the company he founded (Northridge Electronics) is still in the business of selling laugh producing machines.
If there was a Golden Age for the Laugh Track, it was probably during the Fifties and Sixties. At this point in television history, the vast majority of sitcoms were not filmed in front of live studio audiences. As a result laugh tracks were employed on the vast majority of sitcoms--from Leave to Beaver to The Brady Bunch. Laugh tracks were even used on many Hanna Barbera cartoons, not only on such primetime series as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, but also on their many Saturday morning cartoons. Even in the Sixties, however, there was still resistance to the concept among both critics and TV producers. In fact, there were some shows which did eschew the use of a laugh track even then. The Monkees featured a laugh track during its first season, but through part of the second season it was disposed of entirely. The classic TV series Batman never used a laugh track. Apparently one was used in test screenings for the show, but it met with disapproval. I rather suspect that it would have taken away from the overall campiness of the series.
The Seventies saw an even greater attack on the laugh track. As early as 1967 He and She was filmed before a live studio audience. By the Seventies this would be common practice. Shows from All in the Family to WKRP in Cincinnati were taped in front of live studio audiences. In fact, I suspect that the majority of sitcoms were taped in front of live audiences. Of course, this does not mean that the laugh track ceased to be employed entirely. Even on All in the Family canned laughter was occasionally used in combination with the studio audience. In other cases various TV producers wanted to film their sitcoms without the benefit of either laugh tracks or live studio audiences. Larry Gelbart wanted to produce M*A*S*H without a laugh track, but met with resistance from CBS. Ultimately, they compromised by not having the laugh track used during the scenes in the operating room. By the sixth season of the show, the laugh track would cease to be used entirely on the show. On the DVDs of the series, there is an option on the first six seasons to simply turn the laugh track off.
Since then the use of the laugh track on TV shows has waned since its use in the Fifties and Sixties. In the Eighties the first season of Sledge Hammer featured a laugh track, but it was discontinued with the second season. On the DVD release of the series, the laugh track is absent even from the first season episodes. The Wonder Years and the various dramedies of the Eighties (Hooperman, Slap Maxwell, and so on) never would use laugh tracks. Today there are many American shows that do not use laugh tracks, most notably Scrubs, My Name is Earl, and the stateside version of The Office, among others. Even when shows do use laugh tracks these days, they are often more subdued than they were in the Fifties and Sixties.
Even though the laugh track has been a long established practice in the United States, I must admit that I have never cared for it. Quite frankly, I think it is a bit of an insult to the viewer's intelligence. First, I am perfectly aware that many classic sitcoms were not filmed in front of live studio audiences. For that reason it is not necessary to try to maintain any illusion that they were. Indeed, I know full well that neither The Flintstones nor The Jetsons were filmed in front of live audiences! Second, and more importantly, like most people I know what I think is funny. No amount of canned laughter is going to convince me that something I don't find funny is outright hilarious. And I find it annoying when I hear a joke on a sitcom that simply drops dead receives tons of uproarious, but canned laughter. Indeed, there are times when I have wondered if sound technicians on various shows even know when to properly use the laugh track. A case in point is the show Yes, Dear, possibly one of the least funny shows of all time. I honestly believe that on that show a character can say something as mundane as "I'm going to the store to get some milk" and receive tons of uproarious laughs via the laugh track...
Regardless of my misgivings about the laugh track, I am not sure it will ever cease to be used entirely on American television. True, its use has declined from what it was in the Sixties. True, there are many hit shows on these days that do not use laugh tracks. Unfortunately, there are still many shows that do use laugh tracks. And I'm guessing that as long as producers worry that they will have to remind viewers what is funny, they will continue to use laugh tracks.