M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart called the laugh track a ‘thorn in the side’
Ultimately, the network got the last laugh.
“The laugh track was always a thorn in the side.”
Those were the honest words from Larry Gelbart, the creator of M*A*S*H, regarding the use of a laugh track throughout the show, during a 1998 Television Academy Interview.
By the time M*A*S*H hit the air in 1972, CBS had long been using a can of laughter for comedies on the network. A show that had several jokes per episode and scripted comedic relief, like M*A*S*H, the use of a laugh track made sense. A show that was set during the Korean War, like M*A*S*H, perhaps the laugh track would be better left behind. Though with how popular the production tool was at the time, Gelbart said a laugh track was bound to be on the table.
Using a laugh track was essentially a broadcast tradition ever since it was carried over from the radio waves. On radio, however, the tradition was a live audience actually laughing at a skit or show. Those laughs would then sneak through the radio waves so listeners heard it. It was popular, and executives found that real laughter from the show would further entice listeners to chuckle at home.
Whether there could be real laughter from a studio audience was out of the question when it came to M*A*S*H, given the production nature of the comedy drama series.
“If you’re doing what we [M*A*S*H] did, working on a sound stage, there are no bleachers [and] there’s no audience,” Gelbart said. “We were told we would have to add a laugh track, that is to say after the picture was finished, we would go into a mixing studio and we would add laughter. Mechanical laughter.”
As a result, mechanical laughs infiltrated M*A*S*H, but Gelbart and other personnel made at least one thing clear.
“We told the network under no circumstances would we ever have canned laughter during an O.R. scene… When the doctors were working, it was hard to imagine that 300 people were in there laughing at sombody’s guts being sewn up. They bought that.”
Despite a win on the operation room front, Gelbart never felt the laugh track was adding a welcomed element to the show for viewers at home. In fact, he said he felt it was doing the opposite.
“I always thought it cheapened the show. I always thought it was out of character with the show.”
In some episodes, the laugh track was left out. Gelbart added viewers in England never heard the boxed giggles in any episodes, as the entire series was broadcast without the laugh track across the pond.
“We did a number of shows, not many, where there were no laugh tracks at all. ‘The Interview’ comes to mind, a show that we did in black and white that was meant to be a documentary.”
The show creator isn’t alone in his stance on the M*A*S*H laugh track, as several fans also deemed it unnecessary. Gelbart felt trying to generate real laughs with fake laughs wasn’t the best way to make viewers actually laugh. At the end of the day, it was out of his hands.
“By and large, the network got their way. They were paying for the dinner.”