Closed-captioning for the humor-impaired.
In the early days of television, comedies were "traditionally" performed essentially as short plays in front of a live Studio Audience, broadcast live or with minimal editing (see Three Cameras). However, as television production grew more sophisticated in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was at least a partial shift from live performances to productions that were filmed movie-style in a closed sound stage. The latter gave the director more freedom in selecting shots and angles, as well as the luxury of multiple takes. However, there was no longer an audience to provide instant feedback on the humor.
The general opinion of the audience held by television executives then (and some would argue now) was very low. There was serious concern that without a Studio Audience to "prompt" the home viewer's responses, a comedy would fall flat. The solution was the creation of the Laugh Track (also known as "canned laughter") — an artificial audience that did nothing but react uproariously to anything and everything.
Naturally, within a few years of its introduction, it was abused and overused. Every punchline, no matter how lame or subtle, would receive the same tsunami of belly laughs from the virtual audience. It became epidemic, even intruding bizarrely into cartoons (The Flintstones and The Jetsons, anyone?). By the 1960s, it had become an annoying intrusion, hated but (in the minds of most producers) mandatory. In the 1970s, however, most sitcoms began to switch from the single-camera, movie-style format to the multi-camera format with a Studio Audience providing real laughter, which producers found more pleasing because it helped them write better jokes. By the 1980s, the only hit that still regularly used a laugh track was M*A*S*H (which increasingly dispensed with the device toward the end of its run, loosening its hold on single-camera television comedies). It's still around, but it's not nearly as prominent or overused as it used to be.
Although it may not seem so, laugh tracks were surprisingly sophisticated systems at the height of their use. Rather than being just simple recordings of a laughing audience, they were actually carefully generated and mixed, with such discrete components as "the guy who gets the joke early" and "housewife giggles" and "the one who didn't get the joke but is laughing anyway" all precisely blended and reblended to create the illusion of a real audience responding to the show.
A history and analysis of the laugh track can be found on the web here. Cecil
Adams' syndicated column The Straight Dope also covered the topic. The Onion is very fond of mockinglaughtracksextensively.
The term "Laugh Track" is often misapplied to shows that are filmed and later screened to an audience, whose responses are then recorded. This is inappropriate, though, because in these cases the laughter was a genuine response to the humor in the show, and was not pre-recorded... although it's not unheard of for supplemental canned laughter to be inserted afterwards. Sometimes the term is even applied to the existence of a Studio Audience. In fact, Studio Audience sitcoms get the accusations of "Laugh Tracks" more than shows that actually use a Laugh Track, because a Laugh Track tends to be quieter and less noticable than real live audience laughter.
In some Latin American countries (Argentina, for example), the Laugh Track is replaced by a crew of off-screen people paid specifically to laugh on command whenever the comedic situation (presumably) merits a laugh; they are known as reidores ("laughers"); a senior laugher signals all the others when to laugh. In all the others (as happened in Mexico), comedies without it were openly stated to have no laugh track because they respected their audience, most notably the Chespirito programs, such as El Chavo del ocho. A less direct version in US media is the "Cheers is filmed before a Live Studio Audience"-style disclaimer.
Note that even the shows that record laughter live from an audience (or show pre-recorded material to an audience and record that laughter) will edit, alter, or even add to the laughter in some way, even if (as in most cases) it's just to cover the transition between takes/scenes, using the same techniques used to add true canned laughter.
While Laugh Tracks and other uses of recorded laughter are usually reviled by most people, they can have one interesting benefit in terms of pacing a show. Similar to theater, when the audience laughs, the actors will often pause for the joke to "land" and for the audience to calm back down before continuing. This pause is beneficial in some cases because it prevents dialogue or important details from being missed if the audience is still laughing. A minor form of Values Dissonance is in play here when it comes to trans-Atlantic shows - laugh tracks are generally more popular in the UK, or at least more prevalent.
In American Born Chinese, the Chin-Kee story is meant to resemble a TV comedy—the story even uses canned laughter in the form of "hahahaha" written at the bottom of the panel. The canned laughter is played straight for most of the Chin-Kee story, until near the end when Danny fights Chin-Kee, where the laughter becomes overwhelming.
This is also mentioned in the Andy KaufmanBiopicMan on the Moon, when Andy explains why he is not interested in doing a sitcom: "It's just stupid jokes and canned laughter! And you don't know why it's there, but it's there! And it's dead people laughing, did you know that? Those people are dead!" (Interestingly, this rant may have been improvised by Jim Carrey since only the first line appeared in the script.)
The Twilight Zone episode "Cavender Is Coming", guest-starring Carol Burnett, featured a laugh track (as it was a pilot for a sitcom). The director was so offended by this that he refused to be in the studio when the laugh track man was present.
In the 1980s, there was a situation comedy series written and produced by Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks) called The Nutt House. Executive Meddling resulted in laugh tracks, because the executives felt that Viewers Are Morons. The result was loud, jarring, clumsily dubbed-in laughtracks that often drowned out the punchlines.
Get Smart, another series with which Brooks was involved, had some especially bad laugh tracks. (Mind you, some of its jokes weren't much to laugh about anyway.)
Although the Latin American dub mercifully removed it from both shows.
Aaron Sorkin used to engage in knock down, drag out fights with ABC execs over the laugh track in Sports Night. He hated it, they demanded it, and for a brief period at the beginning of the show's run, there was a laugh track. Sorkin eventually won out.
The 1980s comedy Sledge Hammer! had its first-season, early-episodes laugh track edited out for the DVD release. The director's commentary explains that the talking heads at the studio forced the laugh track on him because they felt the show was too violent without it. The producer explained on the DVD that he edited it out because the audience doesn't need to be told when to laugh.
Possibly lampshaded in the "webcast" parts of iCarly (as in, the bits where we're watching the Show Within a Show) with Sam's remote. Usually Once an Episode, she'll hold it up and press a button, which cues the laughter. It's played straight in the show proper, though.
Towards the end of Victorious, creator Dan Schneider had begun to insert a laugh track in every line, regardless of there being any joke involved.
True Jackson begins each episode with a narration by Keke Palmer telling us that the show was filmed in front of a live studio audience, but if you listen closely, you can still hear the same stock laughs heard in the rest of the Nickelodeon/Disney Channel Kid Coms. Filmed before a studio audience it may be, but laugh tracks still came into play somewhere.
Similar to the Out of Jimmy's Head example below, the laugh track in their Brian O'Brian shorts actually make them less funny; it's a pretty poor fit for the shorts' style.
That's So Raven and Wizards of Waverly Place are also glaringly obvious because the shows are filled with special effects that could not possibly have been shown to any live audience. It's pretty bad when even the 9 year old wonders how the audience could react on the spot to Raven having her visions or when Alex gave one of her spells.
According to the site audiencesunlimited.com, Wizards of Waverly Placedoes use a live audience. The special effects scenes may be pre-taped and shown to the audience.
That's So Raven actually did use a live audience, but it's difficult to tell due to the fact that the canned laughter almost always drowns them out. This forum explains how Raven's visions were handled during the tapings.
The laughter in the standup scenes in Seinfeld sounds rather jarringly fake compared to the audience response in the rest of the show, presumably because they got a handful of actors in to play the standup patrons.
Could also be that it was the "warm-up" to the show, shown before the start.
It doesn't help that the show itself was much funnier than the fairly tired jokes used for the standup scenes. Remember, Seinfeld Is Unfunny.
Friends had a tendency to abuse a semi-laugh track. They mostly used a real studio audience but would minimalise or emphasise as they saw fit. Although, they got lazy and used the typical "canned laughter" a fair bit too. Some episodes can be particularly jarring, where it seems every line gets a laugh.
How I Met Your Mother has a laugh track. Originally it was taped and showed to a live audience, but it has slipped that they switched to canned laughter at some point before season six. Somewhat justified in that the laugh track can be interpreted as the kids' laughter (although that's a bit of a stretch).
Infamously (at least in Canada), the Canadian sketch comedy show The Red Green Show didn't have a Laugh Track... until it was imported into the United States.
In the 1970s, the British pop music show Top of the Pops used a bizarrely fake-sounding applause track after each performance.
Mash had one at the network's insistence, but the producers successfully averted it in the OR scenes, and were able to dispense with it entirely for certain later episodes. (The DVD releases of the show provide an option for the viewer to disable the laugh track on the episodes that have it.)
Every NBC Game Show until the 1990s had a ridiculously loud applause machine. Dennis James nicknamed it "Mother MacKenzie" on an episode of PDQ.
The old daytime version of Wheel of Fortune was known for its canned applause. Compared with the combined cheers and applause from the current syndicated version's live audiences of 3,000 people, the 1980s version's canned applause was still much louder. There were also awkward "ooh"s every time a prize was shown or the top dollar on the Wheel was hit, "aww"s whenever someone hit Bankrupt or called a wrong letter, et cetera. The sweetening is particularly noticeable during this infamous "Megaword" category puzzle. It becomes obvious that the same audience groaning sound is recycled throughout!
Super Password got a great deal of canned laughter whenever Bert Convy screwed up (which was often) or extreme applause when the show came back from commercial!
Lampshaded on an episode of Blockbusters, where Bill Cullen lapses into Self-Deprecation mode after a particularly bad joke. He says, "can't we do this show with just an applause machine?", and someone off-camera (possibly announcer Bob Hilton) says "We are."
The original British version of Da Ali G Show used a laugh track, but its American adaptation (known as Ali G in da USAiii in Britain) lacks it.
NBC's 100 Questions abused this. It was eventually cancelled after 6 episodes.
The Singaporean television show Kids Talk Back, like a talkshow version ofKids Say the Darndest Things, was particularly bizarre in this respect. A laugh track had been added to the interviews with children, which made it seem like the audience was brutally taking the mickey out of hapless 4-8 year-olds who were unaware that they were being manipulated into saying things for the sake of good television.
Both The Muppet Show and Muppets Tonight used laugh tracks. Justified in that both shows were presented as shows being performed for an audience, and it would be entirely impossible to film this show in front of an audience due to the special effects and the puppeteers. Also, unlike most others, the laugh track sounded so real, people actually try to buy tickets for a taping!
Actually, some of it was real laughter. Apparently the stagehands' favorite skits were with the Swedish Chef and would crowd the set to watch the taping. Listen very closely and you can hear a really loud laugh and somebody clapping their hands that doesn't match up with the laugh track
Every CBS sitcom, even in the modern era where shows like The Office and Modern Family have been critically acclaimed and immensely successful without the use of one. In fact, CBS is the only network that still uses laugh tracks with any frequency.
Early episodes of the NBC sitcom Whitney had a poorly orchestrated laugh track that bore a striking resemblance to the flushing of a toilet.
Sloppily used in the later seasons of the Hungarian stand-up comedy show Showder Klub. It actually wouldn't be that noticeable if not for every other laugh ending with a jarring, high-pitched "Huh-HOOOH-huh!"
Not does the original U.S. version of Hogan's Heroes contain a laugh track (and a rather over modulated one in the earlier seasons), one of the German redubs of the series (known in English as A Cage Full of Heroes) adds its own laugh track, containing a single recording of a couple of women cracking up.
Many of Ray Stevens' comedy records featured laugh tracks, such as "The Streak" and "Shriners' Convention." This may be the most egregious use of laugh tracks ever.
Johnny Cash sometimes dubbed applause machines into his songs, most notably "Sunday Morning Coming Down". It's really, really fake-sounding.
Most Professional Wrestling promotions that produce TV shows make use, to some degree, of "canned heat", which is not so much a Laugh Track as cheer tracks, boo tracks, and sometimes specific chants ("Goooooooooooooldberg... Gooooooooooooooldberg..."). This is generally played over the stadium's PA system, in an attempt to coax the crowd into a given reaction (or, at the very least, fool the audience at home into thinking the crowd are giving a reaction). And it's also handy for importing into video game adaptations.
Perhaps for such reasons, a Canadian show investigated whether a laugh track makes any difference. They played the sound from dry banter on a cop show for random persons on the street, and got some good laughs. They then added a laugh track and went out on the street again, and people laughed much harder. Statistically speaking, probably insignificant, but interesting nonetheless.
Strangely enough, this trope is also invoked by the Ganbare Goemon series of Video Games, the most well-known example being in Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon. It works due to the general Camp nature of the games.
The videogame Gekioh: Shooting King has an optional mode that replace all of the game audio with a laugh track.
It seems to be HB's policy to remove all laugh tracks when remastering its animated series. However, this can only be done if the original dialogue, music and effects tracks can be located, which is not always possible.
The laugh tracks in the first seasons of Scooby Doo, Where Are You! were there from the get-go. Subsequent shows had the laugh track when first broadcast but the laughs were inconspicuously absent when prepared for syndication.
All H-B's prime time animated comedies in the 60s had laugh tracks. Their Saturday morning shows, save for Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, didn't. The only 1970s series that didn't have laugh tracks were those animated in Australia, the odd drama shows (Sealab 2020, Devlin) and their Tom and Jerry 1975 retool. The laugh track was abandoned in 1980.
Any recent live-action "cartoon" produced by Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel (but see Exceptions below) is rife full of this - most of them even use the same laugh track.
For recent Nickelodeon shows, the 6.8 or 6.2 audio subcarrier sometimes carried a music+sound effect track, with no speech. Handy for catching an instrumental version of the Danny Phantom theme, but the live action shows are distinctly disturbing: The show is silent save for gales of repetitive and inappropriate laughter punctuated by the occasional machine noise or dog bark.
In this episode of the Puyo Puyo anime, we are first given a message with tells us to laugh when the icon note Suketoudara is that icon. prompts us to. note Followed by a practice in which the laugh is heard twice. Here are all three icon prompts:
When Kiki Mora lifts up her sweeper from the sand.
When Kiki Mora's sweeper stops at the water bottle.
During the chase scene.
Parodied in a sketch by Alexei Sayle... on a sketch show featuring canned laughter. He explained the technique to the viewing audience as he walked through a field, and complained about its cheapness. He then headed off accusations of hypocrisy (How could he have real viewers in a field?) by revealing a large audience on portable stadium seating.
As early as 1959, radio comics Bob & Ray were satirizing the concept by hauling out a 'laugh machine' (because "we don't feel we're getting the correct response from you [listeners],") then making it roar with joy over a deliberately awful sitcom pilot.
When Mitch Hedberg told a joke that fell flat with the audience on his Strategic Grill Locations CD, he joked that he'd edit in their more uproarious laughter from a previous joke after it.
In one strip of Calvin and Hobbes Calvin decides that to liven up his life, he's going to make it more like a TV show, complete with soundtrack and laugh track. His mother's reaction mirrors that of most people on hearing a laugh track.
During the Doom Patrol story with the first appearance of the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., Mr. Jones has a laugh track installed in his house to emulate his "normality". It goes off seemingly at random, coinciding with him stabbing his wife and planning a massacre
A laugh track starts playing in Fireball, to the great dismay of Drossel, who is convinced it is caused by intruding spies.
Used in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in one scene with Scott and Wallace to show how inflated Scott's ego had gotten (to wit: he thought he was Jerry Seinfeld) We then find out that the laugh track was actually a sound coming from Wallace's stove.
Harlan Ellison wrote a story, "Laugh Track," about a woman whose ghost possessed all of the laugh tracks on TV (because her laughter appeared on the tape that was copied to make all of them), and instead of laughing complained loudly about the quality of the shows concerned and television in general.
In Robert Rankin's A Dog Called Demolition, The Shrunken Head pub has a laughter track installed, greeting Danny with gales of laughter,though he can't work out where it's coming from.
Monty Python's Flying Circus, which never actually used a proper laugh track (though it was shot in front of a studio audience), featured a few sketches in which canned laughter and applause tracks were triggered by one of the characters — including the "Attila the Hun Show" (which parodied American sitcoms) and the "Interesting People" sketch, in which Michael Palin can be seen reaching off camera to turn the applause on and off.
Taken a step further in their running gag of using obvious black-and-white stock footage of applauding audiences throughout the series.
Referenced in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Bread and Circuses", where we see a 20th century TV technician turning the canned applause on and off on a programme. Fine, except it's a 20th century Roman Empire and the programme consists of televised gladatorial fights to the death.
An episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows Servo using a laugh track every time Crow utters his newly adopted "Sitcom" Catch Phrase "You Know You Want Me Baby!" The really old cassette player Servo is using ultimately eats the laugh track.
A certain single-episode show summed up its content by taking the name Canned Laughter. While the end credits rolled, the same quick laugh track was played over... and over... and over...
A French and Saunders sketch (featuring Dame Helen Mirren and Julia Sawalha) parodying sitcoms had the incessant laugh track constantly interrupting the already terrible punchlines, ruining the timing of the actors by cutting them off when they were speaking, making the whole thing So Unfunny It's Funny, until they got annoyed and walked off the sketch.
In an episode of 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan is having a drug induced hallucination which gives him an epiphany moment which gets interrupted by a laugh track, he becomes quite annoyed by them mocking him.
In the Pierce Brosnan episode of Muppets Tonight, a particularly bad pun from Rizzo provokes no reaction whatsoever, causing Clifford to remark that "Even the laugh track didn't think that was funny."
The short-lived Comedy Central sitcom Big Lake featured a laugh track, but its presence was for ironic and sarcastic purposes - the stuff that it triggered on were often very uncomfortable or dark situations - essentially mocking the laugh track by using it incorrectly.
In the early local episodes of You Can't Do That On Television, Christine says the show has no laugh track because it's both the right thing to do and they can't afford (although they added it in when they went to Nickelodeon). Then they show a clip from the local farm report with a laugh track added in.
The Scrubs episode "My Life In Four Cameras" is a parody of classic sitcoms (as the latest patient is a former Cheers writer) and features a laugh track in several Imagine Spots.
The CBS editions of The Price Is Right and Match Game had notoriously obvious audience reaction tracks (mainly of "oohs") in their early years. It sounded odd on Match Game simply for a Audience Match answer being revealed.
A skit by Brazilian TV show TV Pirata had a "syndicate of canned laughter", which reclaimed for better conditions such as not laughing at bad jokes... while laughter emerged from almost every line, of course.
Community opened its fourth season with canned laughter and applause - then it turned out this was Abed's mental "happy place" where he pictured himself and his friends in a sitcom.
House had a dream sequence with House and Wilson raising Cuddy's daughter in a sitcom setting, complete with laugh track.
The Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse episode "A Smidge of Midge" uses a laugh track in attempt to emulate sitcoms from the early 1960s, the time during which Midge dolls began production. Skipper asks a few times if anyone else can hear the disembodied laughter, but no one answers.
In Kirby Super Star Ultra, an unlockable blooper reel features a laugh track. Being the Kirby series, all of the laughter is unintelligible squeaks.
Parodied in on of the chapters of Torin's Passage, where the antagonist visits a typical sitcom house where every spoken line is followed by one of three very recognizable laugh tracks, to the point of any conversation being very long, tedious and frustrating.
The Legend of Kyrandia III: Malcolm's Revenge has what is presumably a parody of this: laughter will often occur after Malcolm's comments, regardless of whether they are intended to be funny. Thankfully, it can be disabled in the options menu.
In the Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode "The Cloning", a possessed television used inappropriate laugh tracks in its efforts to scare the people watching.
As part of her obsession with regaining her former sitcom fame, Baby Doll from Batman: The Animated Series carries a laugh track on tape with her everywhere and plays it at moments she thinks are appropriate (along with "Ohhhh..." and "Awww...").
From the same series, there's Christmas with the Joker, where he uses a laugh track in grossly inappropriate fashion while discussing violence/terrorism. It's possibly a secondary Lampshade Hanging that the "audience" he's using is revealed to be cardboard cutouts.
The Simpsons played with this a couple times, as in the "Love-Matic Grandpa" portion of the spinoff episode.
Moe: I'm so desperately lonely.
Another episode had a Studio Audience hoot after Marge makes a suggestive comment. Homer immediately says "Bart, I told you not to play the TV so loud!", followed by Bart looking ashamed and the "TV audience" going "Uh-oh!"
Another episode had Mr. Burns taking over all the tv stations and putting on his own stupid shows to blackmail Homer. Every single line had canned laughter after it, even though nobody was telling any jokes.
The episode "$pringfield", in which Marge develops a gambling addiction. Marge promises Lisa she will give up gambling, saying she will stay home. The two of them hug, with Homer saying, "Aw... just like on TV". Cue to Homer tripping over a chair, with canned laughter.
A Family Guy episode has a gag of Brian making some comment to Peter, followed by canned laughter and applause; the two of them fidget while waiting for it to die down.
Also used during the opening host segment of the "Viewer Mail" episode. Stewie claims he swiped the can from Dharma and Greg.
In PTV, Stewie and Brian make a sitcom called Cheeky Bastard. Stewie claims that the show is "recorded in front of a live audience", but the (fake) laughing is actually provided by him.
An earlier episode had a gag involving an actual studio audience having moved in across the street. Peter eventually gets fed up with them and goes to call the cops.
Taken Up to Eleven in one episode where Brain's heavily edited show is played before a live studio audience. Every time James Woods and another actor says something, the audience laughs at the line and it's the same exact laugh every time, making it sound like the laughter is canned.
The "Multiverse" episode parodies the laugh track used in the Fintstones when Stewie and Brian travel to a dimension where everything is made by Hanah Barbara; nearly everything Rock Peter and Rock Lois says triggers canned laughter.
Robot Chicken had the canned laughter in Blooper's segment. In season 5 however, it turned out that the host was hallucinating it and the laughter changed into distorted(while telling nobody to "STOP MOCKING ME!"
The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy: Billy wishes for the perfect dog, but he doesn't know which of the four dogs he should take home. He then convinces Grim to use the magic of his scythe to combine all four dogs into one single perfect dog named Wiggy Jiggy Jed. The dog (who is a parody on Hanna-Barbera characters like Yogi Bear) in question makes quirky jokes that are immedietely met by a disembodied laughing. The cast take note of it right away - Mandy: "Where is that creepy laughter coming from?"
The Justice Friends segment of Dexter's Laboratory uses laugh tracks in parody of live-action sitcoms (of which it borrows a format).
One episode of Rocko's Modern Life featured two parasite characters living on Spunky, whose adventures were spoofs of typical '60s sitcoms. The scenes with them have laugh tracks, which the rest of the show lacks.
The Show Within a ShowThe Fatheads also had a laugh track, with the characters mugging for the camera whenever it played. Of special note, however, is that instead of a group of people, the track consisted of a single guy laughing hysterically.
An episode of Chowder featured some jokes uncharacteristically followed by a laugh track, until Mung finally orders a stop to "the canned laughter." This being "Chowder", it was quite literal.
In an episode of Futurama, the president of the network which airs "All My Circuits" proves how evil he is by saying, "I once put a laugh track on a sitcom that had no jokes in it!"
In "A Bicyclops Built for Two", Katie Sagal's role on Married... with Children is parodied when an alien, Alcazar, has Leela dressed like Peggy and Alkazar sitting on his couch with one hand down his trousers ala Al Bundy, with alien rats and pigs as friends of his who contribute the 'live audience' catcalls and whoops.
"Saturday Morning Fun Pit" has a segment spoofing Scooby-Doo, where the characters comment on the mysterious laughter they keep hearing, even when they don't say anything funny.
Parodied in one episode of Danger Mouse where the title character says "I thought we weren't going to have canned laughter on this show" after knight in armor laughs and runs off after a dragon.
A Venture Brothers episode ran flashbacks of Rusty and Pete's college days with a laugh track added to evoke an '80s sitcom.
101 Dalmatians: The Series didn't normally use a laugh track, but included a brief snippet of a laugh track following one of the jokes in "You Slipped a Disk" as well as the second half of the episode, "Chow About That?," apparently as throwaway gags.
The 1991 show Spacecats had an episode dealing with a native tribe chief who wants canned laughter and applause after everything he says.
Subverted in David Lynch's Rabbits, in which a surreal sitcom whose only dialogue is out-of-order and nonsensical is still punctuated by a laugh track.
Used similarly in the segment of Natural Born Killers establishing Mallory's backstory. Mallory's father threatening to beat up her mother, Mallory's father groping Mallory and her brother asking if he was born of incest with her all have the "audience" rolling in the aisles. MASSIVELY disturbing.
Scrubs is a notable exception, all the funnier for a lack of a laugh track in almost every episode (there is one exception in the Imagine Spot episode ("My Life In Four Cameras") which parodies the traditional Sitcom) — the lack of a laugh track allows for innovative use of Sound Effects instead.
NBC actually advertised its Thursday night comedy block (which Scrubs was a part of) as being completely laugh track free. NBC's shows have been (since Friends ended at least) completely devoid of laugh-tracks or any similar substitutes.
Police Squad! was one of the first sitcoms to have neither a laugh track nor a live studio audience.
A couple of sitcoms made by the Disney Channel actually have not used a laugh track — Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, and Jonas. Naturally Sadie, Phil of the Future, and Life with Derek, all of which have been aired on the channel, also do not have a soundtrack.
The Monkees got rid of their laugh track in the middle of their 2nd (and final) season, and the non-laugh track episodes have such a different feel it almost seems like they're part of a different show.
The Kenny Everett Video Show on ITV in the late 70s was unique in that there was no studio audience, but the viewer could clearly hear the cameramen, floor manager, writers and other studio crew laughing out loud off screen.
Dinosaurs initially had this, but the makers didn't want it and it was subsequently dropped. Combined with The Simpsons never using one except to subvert it, TV Guide praised both shows back in the day (the early 1990s) for this avoidance.
Red Dwarf, which was considered by a lot of fans to have a laugh track, was in fact filmed in front of a live studio audience throughout most of its eight-series run, at least the bits that weren't on location or technically complicated.
The exception is Series VII. It was not recorded in front of an audience at all, but was screened to an audience in post-production in order to provide a laugh track — it mostly works, but there are a couple of conspicuous points where the actors pause for laughter and there is none. Three episodes from Series VII were available in extended versions without laugh tracks - on a VHS called Xtended (later also on the Series VII DVD) - but this did not get very good responses from fans. As a result, the makers abandoned their idea of not using laugh tracks in Series VIII.
The Back to Earth special is filmed on location (or at the Shepperton soundstage), which has no laughter.
The pre-recording of Red Dwarf sequences played back to the audience on screens didn't begin with series VII, though. Long before then, numerous episodes had had lengthy sequences pre-recorded due to their reliance on location shooting or effects work. For example, the series IV episode "Bodyswap" was entirely pre-recorded, due to the actors having to overdub each other's voices.
During "Bodyswap", you can hear the cast of the show on the laugh track. (They were sitting in the audience during the laughter recording.)
Married... with Children is one of those cases where people bitch and moan about the "laugh track"... and are ignoring the fact the series was taped in front of a live audience. Live audiences can provide situation-specific reactions that would be difficult to get from a can; in one episode, a tarantula crawls across Al's face while he sleeps, and as the audience's "Eeeew!" dies down, one voice rises above the crowd to ask, "Is it real?"
The show's studio audience by the latter half of the run was actually filled with hardcore fans of the show that were excited to be there (versus the "Hey you're visiting Hollywood, come in and watch a TV show being filmed!" that many shows did)and maybe at times were a little...overboiserous (the many moments where its obviously breaking the flow of the characters waiting abnormally long times to speak or continue a conversation because the crowd's going crazy), but they crew and actors were always extremely offended at the notion. They didn't NEED sweeteners/canned laughter.
I Love Lucy was filmed in front of a live studio audience, and is rumored to be the source of a good deal of the canned laughter used in later shows.
All other sitcoms which starred Lucille Ball or were produced by her Desilu Studios also used a studio audience instead of a Laugh Track, largely because that's how it was done on I Love Lucy.
Cheers is probably the most famous example of a show drawing attention to their live studio audience; a random cast member announcing that fact would be the first thing audiences heard every episode (as opposed to most shows, like All in the Family, which did so over the end credits). Not that they really needed to; watch any given episode and you can hear every last titter or cough from some random audience member. That set must have had some great acoustics...
Most sketch shows are filmed in front of studio audiences. In shows that have a weird sense of humor or play with format a lot, this is often self-evident, because there'll be a lot of apprehensive tittering if the audience doesn't know where a sketch is going, or one person howling uncontrollably while the rest of the audience is just mildly amused, or occasionally a punchline or an important silence being ruined by premature laughter. Understandably, performers of shows like this can get quite exasperated when they're accused of using canned laughter — why would anyone deliberately add in audience reactions that get in the way of the jokes?
According to the "liner notes" on the Monty Python's Flying Circus Ultimate Collector's Edition, the Pythons never used a "laugh track". The laughter on their skits all came from the studio audience. If a routine didn't get enough laughs, they didn't "sweeten" the laughs- they just left that routine on the cutting-room floor and didn't air it.
SCTV did sketch comedy without a live audience. The formative years for the show were shot in Edmonton, Alberta where television talent was apparently so sparse that the laugh track was done by the guy who did the farm reports, just adding laughter at regular, arbitrary intervals.
Delta House, a sitcom version of the surprise hit movie Animal House, went beyond canned laughter to canned wolf whistles, canned villain-booing, etc. in a vain attempt to capture the feel of the movie.
The current trend of mockumentary style sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation has dealt another blow to the laugh track. Obviously, shows like these can't use laugh tracks, since that would destroy the illusion that the shows consist of documentary footage. This type of series doesn't use music (except in the opening credits) for the same reason.
Glenn Martin DDS, a stop-motion show, had a laugh track for about 8 episodes until it was removed entirely because the creators claim "it gave the show too much internal thinking".
Some Nick shows have no laugh track, such as Zoey 101, Big Time Rush and The Troop, which are somewhat unusual for the channel but are all justified by not being typical Three CamerasKid Com shows and being shot extensively on location. It also helps than Zoey101 is a dramedy and The Troop is an action/adventure show. Subverted at least with Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide in which the laugh track was replaced with a set of specific "stand-in" soundsnote (the show was filmed mostly on-location, and by the time it premiered, laugh tracks were in their way out), having one for a determinate situation.
Same goes for some Disney Channel Shows, such as the channel's earliest shows, the show Lizzie McGuire and more recently Jonas L.A. which was shot on location in (you guessed it!) L.A. Jonas L.A. also was Disney Channel's first show with a continuing story in each episode. It too was a drama, so no need for laugh track.
In an inversion, some taping reports for the filming suggests that some laughter and other audience responses were edited out because it clashed with their intended mood for a scene (such as when Penny kissed Leonard for the first time after they get back together, the scene as aired has no audience noise but apparently the crowd was "whoo"ing on every take).
This is referred to as Sweetening, which involves using a live studio Audience, but also editing in canned laughter in order to smooth out transitions or edit scenes where audience response drowns out the acting. Other shows which use this method have included Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Cheers, Seinfeld and Friends.
Oddly enough, The Mighty Boosh was supposed to have a laugh track in its early stage of production, as we can see with the pilot episode (it's included in the DVDs). They actually showed the episode in front of an audience and recorded their laughter. Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding found the audience overdid it so much that they decided not to keep it. It sounds disastrous indeed, as The Boosh is clearly not a "laugh out loud" type of comedy.
All in the Family was recorded in front of a live studio audience, as announced at the end of nearly each episode. In the later seasons they stopped using live audiences, presumably because they were distractions to the actors; they played back each episode to the audience instead.
Latin American hits, El Chavo del ocho / El Chapulín Colorado. It is a long story. These shows were originally filmed in front of a Studio Audience and then got increasingly abusive of the laugh tracks late in their run, but the later sketch show Chespirito from the same author that often included El Chavo Del Ocho and El Chapulin Colorado did not have a laugh track and it was explicitly mentioned that it was for respect of the audience. However, it is worth noticing that it actually used certain music tracks that played after each joke.
The Seinfeldian German sitcom Pastewka doesn't use a laugh track. German critics agreed that this vastly improves the deadpan quality of the show.
Home Improvement not only used a live studio audience's laughter, but they also got their extras from audience volunteers. For "Tool Time" the studio audience was the actual studio audience, and you can see how people are laughing at the gags on the show as though they were at a sitcom taping.
The Daily Show and likewise its sister show The Colbert Report are filmed in front of a live audience. Both hosts interact with it fairly often, usually by telling them an off color joke was still funny, or criticizing their choice to laugh at a gag.
Even more annoying than the audience laughing at a bad joke: the audience bursting in laughter too soon, obviously mistaking a mere set-up line for the punch-line. It's the exact opposite of Late to the Punchline, but it still confirms that Viewers Are Morons.
Fox's Titus also used a live studio audience; episode tapings were performed as if the episode was live, with the show unfolding in the exact manner it would appear on TV (with the cast rehearsing the episode all week for the Friday taping) and capturing the studio audience's laughter as it happened. Even the cutaways towards Chris Titus' narration space were shown to the audience during the moments in the episodes they would occur.
The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack used this in the episode "Please Retire" and "Under the Sea Monster". Word of God states that this (along with a episode-long "drawn in front of a live audience" gag) is done whenever the crew thinks an episode could have been better, but they didn't have enough time to fix any problems with it.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was supposed to air with a laugh track, a common element of children's cartoons at the time. Charles Schulz objected, maintaining that the audience doesn't need to be cued to laugh.
The 1988 Mighty Mouse episode "Bat With A Golden Tongue" had Mighty Mouse attempting to help Bat-Bat kick his joke-telling addiction. Bat-Bat's last word to the audience was "Just say no to canned laughter" (which was removed at McDonald's insistence) followed by a pan shot to a busted ceiling (caused from an earlier scene) and canned laughter.
Averted in The Alvin Show. Ross Bagdasarian insisted that the show skip the addition of a laugh track, against the wishes of the network. Though there was the sound of clapping that sounded like it came from a recording in "Wild, Irish Rose."