Out of the 15 live action sitcoms on the 5 major networks currently, only 5 use laugh tracks. Compare that to 20 years ago where every single live action sitcom had audience laughter. Some may attribute this change to the fact that this trope has been used to death and after 50 years it has finally gotten old. Others may argue that we have grown more intelligent as viewers of entertainment so we don’t need laugh tracks to tell us when to laugh. However, my theory is that we are only interested in entertainment that falls under the pseudo-reality genre.
Sitcoms with audience laughter are more joke centered, meanwhile these evolved new sitcoms are more context centered. A sitcom is a situational comedy. Meaning the comedy comes from how a character handles a conflict they are in. In Ross’ case in Friends, he keeps insisting that he and Rachael were “on a break!” In terms of That 70’s Show, Eric and his friends sort their problems out with the help of a little pot. Both of these examples’ shows have laugh tracks and both of these examples are jokes that are the whole show’s comedy. While there is comedy in the situation too, most of what makes these shows funny is the commentary from the characters about the situation. Chandler’s stupid punchlines to make things less awkward, Red Foreman’s catchphrase “I’ll kick your ass”, Kramer constantly barging into Jerry’s apartment…jokes and gags. Since these shows rely on presenting jokes to an audience, it only makes sense for you to hear feedback, in this case a laugh track. Since the focal point is more or less the jokes, the show needs to put as much focus on them as possible which is why laugh tracks were invented in the first place.
Meanwhile, current sitcoms focus more on the reactions of characters to a situation, as opposed to their punchline about it. Sitcoms now have taken a liking to the mockumentary style where there is a “camera crew filming the situation as it happens”. Parks and Recreation and The Office are perfect examples of this. While there is comedy in the jokes, most of what makes these shows funny is the context and the situations. Most of the comedy in Parks and Recreation and The Office is the camera zooming in on the reactions of the characters. Giving the audience a genuine idea of what the character is feeling about the situation. But why are more sitcoms doing it this way now? Why are they focusing on genuinely understanding a character’s reaction as opposed to jokes?
Well, we still are entertained by jokes, but we have undergone a revolution where we want our entertainment to be as real as possible. Ever since the creation of reality television, our sitcoms have slowly went from a presentational show where the jokes are the entertainment, to documentary-style where the entertainment is the people and their reactions. There are no laugh tracks anymore because that’s not reality. The things we laugh at on Parks and Recreation are reality because it looks like there are camera people filming these situations as they happen. We want to understand how the characters are feeling, and that happens whenever April looks into the camera with anger or Dwight gives a little smirk before he does something ridiculous. Character’s telling jokes about what’s happening isn’t entertaining because it’s not real. As funny as it is, it’s not natural, but being sarcastic and reacted to a situation is natural. And we are obsessed with that…being natural.
So the reason laugh tracks are becoming extinct is the same reason why we watch the daily lives of: vloggers, the Kardashians, people who want to find love, and random C-listers that were relevant once for a short period.