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.
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.