So last night I sat down to listen to a CD called Bugs Bunny at the Symphony. Which, as you might expect contains various orchestral music from Bugs’ Looney Tunes shorts in much the same style as Bugs Bunny on Broadway. All I can say is that it’s great to hear the scores being played by an orchestra, especially with all the modern digital mastering an all that.
As I was listening to the music (which I was also simultaneously playing in my head), everything started to fall apart when I realised there was a laugh track included. Now, its my understanding that the CD is supposed to be a live recording of Bugs Bunny on Broadway and as a result, audience reactions are included because, well, the audience reacts to the shorts as you would expect them to. What bothers me is that, well, its a CD! I can’t see anything and its really difficult to laugh when your only cue is the music.
I recommend you check out the CD if you like the music of the old shorts (and who doesn’t), which is nothing short of sheer brilliance.
But enough of that, today’s topic is about laugh tracks and why cartoons in general don’t need them. two things first though: being European and therefore cultured (I kid, I kid) I must say that the whole idea of a laugh track is rather ugly. I once watched Everybody Loves Raymond and I could’ve sworn the laugh track came from a different show as I didn’t hear a single joke the entire episode.
Secondly, there is the good kind of laugh track, which is one where the reactions are those of a real audience who is watching the show. As far as I know, this type is rare in the US but is commonly used by the BBC for their sitcoms. It’s a much superior version in my mind and produces much more realistic results.
So why is it that you don’t really see cartoons with a laugh track (any more)? Well for one, cartoons are inherently more visual than live-action shows. Sure, there are some wordy puns and one-liners, but for the most part, we get a laugh from seeing characters get hit over the head. That signal replaces the need for an audio prompt.
Cartoons, especially those aimed at a younger audience, employ this to great effect and have done so for many years. Although the humour in those does tend to be a little bit more direct so that even kids can understand what’s going on.
Shows for older folks have also escaped mainly as a result of creator’s insistence (The Simpsons) or just because it was felt to be unnecessary. Live-action shows include a laugh track because they were (originally) broadcast live in front of a studio audience. Animation has never had that luxury (as pointed out to Homer, live cartoons place a terrible strain on the animator’s wrists).
My theory that because we know animation cannot be conducted “live” we therefore don’t expect to have a studio audience participating in the broadcast. An exception was The Cleveland Show’s recent “live” broadcast, although in that instance, it is clear that the show’s setting has been changed in order to be reminiscent of the old prime-time shows of yore.
The Flintstones is a lone exception as it does contain a laugh track (although from my own viewing experience, only some episodes/seasons do). I’m sure the reason it is included is so that the show felt more in-line with the live-action shows it attempted to copy and back in the 60s, that meant including a laugh track. As you may have noticed, this makes the show seem somewhat more dated than it should be.
I like to believe that the main reason cartoons and animation don’t usually have laugh tracks is that they contain a higher standard of comedy than their live-action counterparts. The lead-in time for animation means that everything must be planned out in advance, writing an animated show requires a different set of skills, the ability to drop an anvil on a charcter and have him walk away and the ability to design your show to fit your needs al combine to collectively result in an altogether different and higher brand of comedy. One that can safely and reliably dispense with the need to tell its audience when they heard a joke.