You’re sitting at home, watching an alleged comedy on television. A character in the show says, “My butt hurts,” or something else that falls well below your standard of what constitutes funny, but unseen people inside your television are roaring. Some are even applauding a line of dialogue that made you sneer. You dismiss the crowd reaction as “canned laughter”, assuming that it must be a recording stolen from some other show and cynically edited into this one.
Well, you’re wrong.
OK, maybe not completely wrong (as I’ll explain in a bit), but generally the laughter you hear on a TV show soundtrack is supplied by people who are reacting to what they are seeing and hearing in person: a real studio audience, in other words. When you’re watching at home, you have no way of knowing that the actor had flubbed that mediocre line three takes in a row. The studio audience knows, though, and when he finally gets it right, their boisterous laughter and applause is sort of a sarcastic cheer.
Now, here’s where you’re not wrong about canned laughter: Occasionally there are jokes that do get the benefit of “sweetening”, as it’s called, but usually that means adding a few recorded chuckles, not major guffaws. And that doesn’t happen nearly as often as you suspect. For the most part, you’re hearing the honest audience reaction, whether you think it’s deserved or not — it’s fresh laughter, not canned.
So who are these studio audience people, and why do they find everything so darn funny? There are the agents, managers, and current spouse of the star; the writer’s wife; some relatives of other cast and crew members. Those people all have a financial interest in laughing loudly, but they represent a small percentage of the total audience. Most of the 200+ seats are filled with people who are under no obligation to even smile.
There is an outfit in Los Angeles called Audiences Unlimited that is used by most of the show production companies to recruit guests and distribute tickets, which are free. It probably was a breeze to find people interested in seeing Cheers or Seinfeld or Everybody Loves Raymond. On less popular shows, recruiters may have to resort to, “Hey, man, at least it’s a chance to get out of the rain for a while.”
Once inside the studio, the audience is greeted by a “warmup man” (or woman) who keeps convivial patter going during the breaks in filming – it often takes 2 or 3 hours to film a half-hour show. The warmup man also reminds the audience about plot developments in previous scenes. I’m guessing that when you watch the show at home you don’t have a warmup man; you have a sour stomach from that leftover pizza you probably shouldn’t have eaten, and the dog is clawing at the door so it can go outside and do its business. Distractions like that may make the show seem less funny to you than it does to the people who are seeing it in person.
There’s also something to be said for the collective experience they’re having — laughter is contagious, as the saying goes. (The star’s spouse may also be contagious, but that’s just a rumor.) Real laughter — fresh laughter, not the canned stuff — is definitely a live virus.