Laughtracks always bugged me, except in the case of "The Flintstones". For some reason the idea of a fake audience roaring at cartoon characters as though they're all in the same room amuses me. It fits. It's the one instance where phony laughs made the product better.
But for live action, laughtracks are regressive. They muddy and cheapen great jokes while bestowing honor on bad jokes. I understand why they're needed. Much of what passes for TV comedy is horribly unfunny (and not in the good way), so viewers must somehow be convinced that what they're watching is hilarious. And while shows like "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Arrested Development" contain no laughter, the majority of shitcoms do. That wonderful scene in "Annie Hall" where Tony Roberts urges a techie on his shitcom staff to ramp up the laughs pretty much said it all. After Roberts asks the techie to insert a round of applause for some wretched line, Woody Allen replies, "What, are they booing on that?"
Why laughtracks, of all topics, today? Well, I've been watching much of the second and third seasons of "M*A*S*H" on DVD, a show that was smothered with canned laughs -- that is, outside of the operating room. Inside, during meatball surgery, fake laughs were forbidden. This was the one real concession that "M*A*S*H" series creators Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds wrenched out of CBS. Apparently, they tried to eliminate laughs altogether, but the network didn't go for that. How else would the audience know that "M*A*S*H" was a comedy? Oh, and CBS also balked at showing any blood during surgery. Not even on the surgeons' gloves. The concept that these were doctors working on war wounded near the frontline made little difference to the network. So an element of unreality found its way into "M*A*S*H"'s operating room after all.
By the third season, some blood was allowed. High ratings open tiny doors. More importantly, you see in the third season how the writing and ensemble work by the cast really began to cook. There's good stuff all through the first and second seasons of "M*A*S*H" (the first season was hampered by a near-total fidelity to Robert Altman's film, which Gelbart and Reynolds eventually dropped), but for me it gels in year three. Larry Gelbart's scripts remain sharper than 99 percent of TV work written today, and he set the tone for the rest of the "M*A*S*H" staff to match or approximate, which they pretty much did.
And now, thanks to DVDs, you can watch "M*A*S*H" minus its laughtrack. You can see what Gelbart and Reynolds wanted to do all along, and it makes the show even better. You can actually hear and enjoy the wordplay, and the mood is much much subtler. I always enjoyed the early "M*A*S*H", but not to this degree. Without laughter it's a superior show.
It's also nice to hear really witty antiwar jokes, one-liners and comebacks. I can't imagine a "M*A*S*H"-type show set in Iraq, not with the original's attitude and outlook. The rightwing media would go nuts, causing the centrist (i.e. "liberal") media to go nuts as well in an effort to duplicate broadcast outrage (ratings help to define moral boundaries). All the more reason for there to be one. The negative publicity alone would put it immediately on the map. It would have to be on HBO where, without old CBS-style restrictions, a deeper graphic horror could frame the humor. The language and imagery would be rougher and more realistic. It's a hit waiting to happen. I think I'll phone my agent . . .
A sidelight: after Larry Gelbart left, "M*A*S*H" began its decline. From the fifth season on the show slowly became earnest, literal, and dull. The snap and anger was replaced with hugging and sharing, and even a softer laughtrack (it set the mood). Now, I'm not against the softer side of human existence. In fact, I very much enjoy it. But "M*A*S*H" was better meaner, for the softer side was more richly portrayed. Being pissed off at mass murder, state lies and bureaucratic folly shows that you care, that you want to protect that which is being destroyed. Early on, Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers played this emotion beautifully. Then, Rogers exited while it was still good, while Alda hung on till the mushy end and got rich.
So check out "M*A*S*H" sans laughter and take in a different show. Me, I gonna see if "Hogan's Heroes" is improved at all without a laughtrack (there's a hint of this in Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus"). I'm betting that John Banner's Schultz is a tragic figure waiting to be appreciated.