For a twenty-first-century television fan, watching old network sitcoms can take some getting used to. Nothing about them takes more getting used to than their laugh tracks, which must strike anyone who didn’t grow up hearing them as utterly bizarre. But was it really so long ago that we took for granted — nay, expected — an eruption of pre-recorded laughter after each and every punch line? As late as the nineteen-nineties, even sitcoms well-regarded for their sophistication and subversiveness added “canned laughter” to their soundtracks. Take Seinfeld, the show famously “about nothing,” scenes from one of whose episodes you can watch without a laugh track in the video above.
The episode in question is one of Seinfeld‘s best-known: “The Soup Nazi,” originally broadcast on NBC on November 2, 1995. These scenes portray Jerry, George and Elaine’s encounters with the title figure, a harsh soup-restaurant proprietor based on Ali “Al” Yeganeh, owner of Soup Kitchen International in New York. (Unaware of the character’s real-life counterpart, actor Larry Thomas based his performance on that of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.)
With the laugh track cut out, the main characters’ interactions with each other reach heights of near-surreal awkwardness, to say nothing of their confrontations with the Soup Nazi and his rigid ordering rules.
The resultant tension, unbroken by the transplanted guffaws heard in the original scenes above, would become the stock in trade of later sitcoms like the improvisation-based Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring Seinfeld co-creator Larry David. But that show could only have existed under the permissiveness of a premium cable channel like HBO; on NBC, the legacy of the laugh track would be upheld for some years. After all, laugh tracks had been in use since the early nineteen-fifties, during television’s transition away from all-live broadcasting to the methods of pre-production used for practically all drama and comedy still today. Even then, live studio audiences were becoming a thing of the past — but the exploitation of television’s power to generate artificial feelings of community had only just begun.
Seinfeld & Nothingness: A Supercut of the Show’s Emptiest Moments
How Seinfeld, the Sitcom Famously “About Nothing,” Is Like Gustave Flaubert’s Novels About Nothing
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.
This history of sitcoms implies that the transition from all-live broadcasting in front of a live studio audience jumped straight into prerecorded shows with canned laughter. But that overlooks all the great TV shows produced by MTM: The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–77), The Bob Newhart Show (1972–78), Rhoda (1974–78), Taxi (1978–83), Newhart (1982–90), and Cheers (1982–93). Since they were all recorded in front of a live audience, the laughter is organic and earned, and these are the shows I gravitate to when I rewatch old sitcoms. I never watched Seinfeld when it was on the air, and when I recently tried streaming an episode, I was shocked by the canned laughter. As this post so clearly reveals, it was awful, and insulting to the audience (“see, THIS is the funny part”).
I believe Seinfeld was partly taped in front of a live studio audience, with the canned laughter only added in when they couldn’t get an audience for whatever reason.
But even if these particular scenes are ones that had canned laughter, it doesn’t seem any more revelatory to me than seeing movie scenes with the music removed. Of course it seems strange, it was designed to be viewed in a particular way. TV show dialogue doesn’t mimic natural speech (nor do I think we’d want it to), I don’t think that’s really a surprise. The difference is that laugh tracks have come to be viewed as corny, while soundtracks — even the kind that are emotionally manipulative and tell the viewer how to feel just as much as the laugh track does — are seen as an acceptable, even integral, part of the experience. They both have essentially the same function.
Seinfeld did not have a laugh track. It was recorded in front of a live audience, duh!
Without the laughs, the Soup Nazi episode is still laugh-out-loud hilarious. I may have laughed more at the lunacy of Jerry briefing on the ordering routine as they walked down the street than with “inorganic” laughter.
Now, could today’s sensitivities bear using ‘Nazi’ in a comedy context? I don’t know. It’s not ‘Hogan’s Heroes,” but still…