Laugh because you mean it

Are you too stupid to know when something is funny? Don’t take offense at the question. Or don’t take offense with me, at least, because I’m not trying to question your sense of humor. It’s the producers of television comedies that don’t trust you to laugh at the right times, and maybe you should stop to wonder why.

I’m talking about laugh tracks, the ubiquitous peals of prerecorded laughter (not to mention hoots and whistles and dramatic gasps) that comedies use over and over again to indicate that you’ve heard what the writers considered a punchline. Heard something funny but didn’t hear people laughing? Better not laugh yourself, because the real punchline is coming up. Well, I know funny when I hear it, and I don’t need any sound engineer to tell me what he thought was funny in a certain show.

Given that, it’s a nod to the intelligence of a show’s audience when it eschews the studio laughter and lets you figure things out for yourself. It’s sometimes less laugh-per-minute, but it can also result in some of television’s best comedies. Here are my three favorite still-running, “unassisted” comedies good luck finding many others without laugh tracks anywhere; and note that none of these are “traditional” sitcoms.

The Simpsons. Much has been said already for FOX’s long-running animated series _ so much that I fear wasting your time talking more about it. It’s fast and funny and has the same crossover appeal as a good children’s movie: half broad, physical humor that nearly anyone can understand, and half subtle, intelligent humor that the young or uninformed wouldn’t notice. The Simpsons is not above getting big-name guest stars (from rock bands to movie actors to former presidents) to draw in casual viewers, but it never sacrifices the unexpected and ironic facets of its humor that appeal to its most diehard viewers.

There must be a reason that The Simpsons inspires such a legion of fans. Few other shows boast such a dedicated audience. Think of how many people on a college campus like our own can spout off entire segments of Simpsons episodes verbatim. The show’s witticisms, usually best found in those moments least relevant to each week’s plot, pepper fans’ daily conversations; those who don’t watch and love the show get lost in the barrage of references common to those in-the-know.

It’s not just a college phenomenon. The intelligence of The Simpsons increases its appeal to an older audience that might not be as spellbound by the physical humor. And the show acknowledges and encourages an intelligent audience by leaving out the laugh track. The Simpsons doesn’t need to tell you when to laugh, both because it is terribly funny on its own and because it trusts its audience to be smart enough to get it.

Malcolm in the Middle. Critics pinned this show as a “live-action Simpsons.” While that comparison doesn’t indicate the remarkable differences in character and family dynamics between the shows, it’s an accurate observation of the many other similarities. First and foremost: there’s no laugh track. Just as with The Simpsons, you forget why other shows use prerecorded laughter because it’s no longer necessary here.

On a thematic level, Malcolm follows The Simpsons by highlighting blemishes in American family life. Homer and Hal are horrible, dangerous, irresponsible fathers, and we love them for it. This isn’t merely the comically dysfunctional family you see elsewhere (think of Chandler’s father with the drag club on Friends) but legitimately frightening models for parenthood. Imagine an actual family subjected to the oblivious, childlike role models of Homer and Hal; it’s tragic, not funny.

Both Malcolm and The Simpsons turn the tragedy into comedy, however, by making the children smarter than the parents _ Malcolm, Lisa, and Maggie _ or at least by allowing them the leeway to subvert the father’s dubious authority. Homer’s dangerously inept parenting remains funny because his children remain remarkably unhurt; meanwhile, Hal’s own shortcomings are softened by the shortcomings of everyone around him. No one is quite sane or normal on Malcolm in the Middle.

Scrubs. That’s right, FOX isn’t alone in its defiance of laugh tracks. NBC’s Scrubs may follow Friends (the most coveted timeslot out there), but its qualities as a show are entirely different. It also seems quite different from The Simpsons and Malcolm at first glance, but (you guessed it) there’s no laugh track.

Is that a solid connection by itself? Not necessarily. However, Scrubs has many of the same qualities that make The Simpsons and Malcolm intelligent comedies. It has a strong moral sense _ an oft-overlooked facet of The Simpsons and Malcolm _ and a willingness to make the entire world seem improbable and ridiculous while still considering realistic character relationships.

Much of the comedy on Scrubs is either faintly surreal or else grounded in the personal interactions and banter of the cast. Is this a realistic portrayal of a hospital? No, but neither is ER or Chicago Hope. The world of Scrubs is not the real world, and the writers know it.

Ironically, while all three of these shows present funny, twisted, and unrealistic versions of our own world, they’re still more realistic (and have more opportunities for social commentary) than nearly any other comedy on the little screen. After all, do you hear canned laughter every time one of your friends crack a joke? Excluding the laugh track makes these shows _ and the laughs they earn _ more real.

And why aren’t there more examples? Looking back, there have never been very many comedies without laugh tracks; eliminate animated numbers like Family Guy and South Park and you’ll find even fewer. Maybe most people expect or even like laugh tracks. They remind you that what you’re watching isn’t serious and that you shouldn’t fret too much about the ultimate outcome _ it’s just for laughs. If something is just for laughs, though, it’d better make me laugh without any extra help.