Experience Seinfeld’s Famous “Soup Nazi” Scenes With & Without Laugh Tracks

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

Jacques Der­ri­da on Sein­feld: “Decon­struc­tion Doesn’t Pro­duce Any Sit­com”

David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Theme Song Gets the Sein­feld Treat­ment

David Lynch Made a Dis­turb­ing Web Sit­com Called Rab­bits: It’s Now Used by Psy­chol­o­gists to Induce a Sense of Exis­ten­tial Cri­sis in Research Sub­jects

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.

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Comments (4)
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  • Mr. Screens says:

    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”).

  • E says:

    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.

  • Milo says:

    Sein­feld did not have a laugh track. It was record­ed in front of a live audi­ence, duh!

  • Steve says:

    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…

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