By Alan Sepinwall
Laugh tracks: threat, menace or godsend?
In the beginning, there was The Hank McCune Show, an NBC sitcom that lasted all of three months in the fall of 1950. McCune is long forgotten, but his show's chief innovation—canned laughter designed to cue viewers at home to feel amused—has been burned onto the DVD-R of our collective pop culture consciousness. With the success the next fall of I Love Lucy and its live studio audience, laughter has become an indelible part of TV's soundtrack, whether produced by actual humans or by machines.
And for nearly 50 years, the price of doing business in TV comedy was having to feed the laugh track monster, writing jokes designed to produce laughs every 10 or 15 seconds, if not faster. Occasionally, networks tried laugh-track-free comedies like Hooperman and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, but their failure only reinforced the belief that TV audiences wanted to be told when to laugh.
Then came January of 2000 and the premiere of Fox's Malcolm in the Middle, which became a mega-hit while violating that cardinal sitcom rule. It was shot in what's called single-camera style (on film, no audience laughter, lots of location shooting), as opposed to the traditional three-camera sitcom format (on video in front of a studio audience), but it was so funny that viewers didn't need to be told it was.
The success of Malcolm opened the doors for shows like Scrubs, The Bernie Mac Show, My Name Is Earl and The Office, none of which would have gotten the time of day at a network a year or two earlier—at least, not without radical format changes that would have robbed them of everything that made them unique.
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