Why are laugh tracks still around? When are they going to die?

Zach Dewoody

The humorless Noel Murray responds:

Actually, the "laugh track" as you're probably imagining it is more or less dead, and has been for years. The concept of "canned laughter"—pre-recorded laughs added to a show in post-production—dates back to the '50s, and became especially pervasive in the '60s, when CBS' wave of backlot-shot rural sitcoms and Hanna Barbera's stabs at prime-time glory were fortified with that annoying 100-bowling-pins-falling-down-a-staircase "laugh" sound. By the '70s, the track was popping up on Saturday-morning cartoons and Sid & Marty Krofft productions, making them sound annoyingly dated today.

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But the '70s were also the beginning of the end for laugh tracks as we knew them, thanks to Norman Lear shows like All In The Family, which were shot in front of a live studio audience. This became the standard for sitcoms—especially the ones with a little more sophistication—and fans of shows like Taxi and Cheers even learned to recognize the laughter of some of the shows' creative personnel, who were standing in the wings. (Producer James Brooks, for example, has a distinctive bray.)

Today, most sitcoms are either shot in front of an audience (albeit without the little top-of-the-show announcement that was so common in the '70s and '80s), or shot single-camera style with no studio audience and no canned laughs at all. And some shows—like How I Met Your Mother—don't use an audience during taping, but bring in an audience to watch the finished show, and record their laughs, to create a "plausibly live" feel.

Of course, even shows that get their laughs from real people have been known to "sweeten" the track by adding a few canned chuckles. But the end result doesn't sound nearly as horrendous as, say, The Abbot And Costello Show, where the natural rapid-fire delivery of the two principles plays out in front of rolling waves of faux-guffaws.

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I get the sense, though, that your real problem might be with the traditional three-camera sitcom, as opposed to the in-vogue single-camera style familiar to viewers of NBC's formidable Thursday-night lineup. To that, I can only say that there's room in the TV medium for a variety of approaches, and that there's something to be said for writers and directors who can work successfully within the more restrictive three-camera format. It's like finding someone who can still write an effective sonnet, or stage an original piece of kabuki theater. It's entertainment history, brought back to life.

Step Two: Put Your Rat In That Box

Hopefully you can help me find a movie I saw as a kid. We used to watch something on Friday or Saturday nights called Night Flight, in the '80s. I saw a movie once on that show, and it was kind of a fantasy-type movie. All I can really remember is that in one part, there were these creatures watching a commercial on their TV for "Rat In A Box," and the tagline was, "We serve what you won't eat." This became a huge in-joke in my family, but none of us can remember the name of the movie, or anything else about it.

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Alaina

TV detective Noel Murray is on this case, too:

I haven't seen the movie in question, but a Google search for "rat in a box" led me to Nick Danger In The Case Of The Missing Yolk, a 1983 made-for-video movie created by avant-garde comedy troupe The Firesign Theater, and produced by The Monkees' Mike Nesmith, who had a thriving second career in the '80s as a music-video pioneer and entrepreneur. (Nesmith's productions were frequently featured on Night Flight.) Nick Danger is a private-eye parody, not a fantasy, but in the surreal world of The Firesign Theater, nothing is fixed, and according to all reports, the movie is as much a riff on retro-futurism in Reagan-era suburbia as it is about mocking genre clichés.

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I say "according to all reports" because the movie is unavailable on video at present, though you can see a YouTube clip of "Rat In A Box!" below. (Warning: This is pretty gross.)

Crossing The Line

I remember watching a short cartoon in the early '80s (although it was probably made MUCH earlier) that involves a line, a ball, a scribble, and a narrator as the only characters. I believe this was shown as one of those weird one-off cartoons that would show during Tom And Jerry or Woody Woodpecker. The story starts out with the line meeting the ball and falling in love. After some time, the ball gets bored with the line and meets a scribble who she falls for. The line is obviously pretty distraught and mopes around for a bit before realizing that he can make angles. After that, he starts making all sorts of Spirograph-like shapes and uses his newfound skillz to win the lady ball back from the scribble. None of my brothers remember this, although they were probably sitting next to me on the couch every time this came on. My mom vaguely remembers but doesn't know any more than I do.

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Josh

Tasha Robinson knows more than you do:

You know, normally, it's possible to tell Chuck Jones cartoons at a glance, Josh, because of the tiny details of his characters' faces: the sentimental softness in the eyes, the weird little quirky, curvy smile that was almost exactly the same whether he was drawing Tom, Wile E. Coyote, Raggedy Andy, Bugs Bunny, the Grinch, or Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. But here's one Chuck Jones cartoon that doesn't look anything like a Chuck Jones cartoon, because there isn't a single eye or a mouth in it.

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You're remembering 1965's "The Dot And The Line: A Romance In Lower Mathematics," an abstract, jazzy little 10-minute MGM cartoon based on Norton Juster's 1963 picture book of the same name. (You may know Juster as the author of the children's classic The Phantom Tollbooth; Jones directed the 1970 animated film adaptation of that book, too.) You've got the plot pretty well down, with one minor exception, but you might as well rediscover that yourself by re-watching the piece. It stands up well, as it's too profoundly simple and stylized to look dated. Enjoy.

You Stink, But I Love You

So far, this feature has handled some pretty out-there queries, so I'll throw you this one and see if it sticks:

As a developing cineaste, I am often bothered by Hollywood's output and how easily it influences the masses. "The movies have been so rank the last couple of years that when I see people lining up to buy tickets I sometimes think that the movies aren't drawing an audience — they're inheriting an audience." That's the familiar first line to Pauline Kael's 1980 essay/rant "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers," and it still seems to hold true today, over two decades later. But working at a wage-slave job, I am repeatedly subjected to the vox populi as espoused by my co-workers. Where I might see the trailers for the recent Adam-Sandler-attempts-cultural-relevancy comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry or the $8-Babysitter Underdog, I see nothing but creative bankruptcy and low-common-denominator pandering. But then I hear a co-worker talk about how the movie looks funny or interesting, and I suddenly realize how Shrek The Third can do so well at the box office.

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But to my problem: How does one politely inform people that their taste is dreadful? I don't like to think of myself as a elitist snob (although sometimes I am), nor do I want to be seen as a sore, bitter crank, so I normally just bite my tongue in these situations. Perhaps the critics at The A.V. Club are only surrounded by smart, well-informed cinephiles (or at least people that can defend their bad taste), but this is a regular occurrence since Hollywood keeps green-lighting bad movies. Any feedback would be useful or entertaining.

Eric Johnson

Josh Modell attempts to be useful and entertaining:

Here's some solid advice that's even expandable to other parts of your life. Unless you have a really great, close relationship with someone, don't tell them that their taste is dreadful. Unless you two are close enough that they would appreciate that criticism, they'll wind up thinking you're an elitist jerk, and maybe even posting things on the Internet to that effect.

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Instead, why not recommend something similar-ish (but, in your opinion, better) that they might also like? "Hey, you like Fall Out Boy? You should check out the first Alkaline Trio record!" (You don't have to be that effusive.) An entrée into "higher art" has to come from somewhere. Be a helper, not a hater.

Also, keep this in mind: Just because somebody has different taste (in music, film, porn—whatever) than yours doesn't mean you can't be friends. I recently read a comment on our boards basically dismissing The A.V. Club's own Steven Hyden completely because he admitted to liking some Justin Timberlake tracks. I have zero interest in Justin Timberlake (beyond his dreamy eyes and "Dick In A Box"), but to dismiss someone whose opinion you might otherwise find real value in because they express a fondness for something you really hate—that's silly. And limiting. And on that fateful day you find yourself whistling "SexyBack," you'll be sad that you alienated all of your friends just because they liked it.

Next week: The fate elevator, the music of chance, and yet another round of Stumped! Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.

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