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We may hate laugh tracks -- but they work, studies show

NBC.com

Hahahaha, laughs the live studio audience watching NBC's new sitcom, "Whitney."

Two new fall TV shows premiering this week, "2 Broke Girls" on CBS and "Whitney" on NBC, are counting on an old-fashioned sitcom standby to help them get chuckles and ratings: the laugh track.

Some TV networks and producers may love to use laugh tracks, and some viewers have grown to accept them as part of a program's background noise, much like the music or special effects used in a drama. Others -- including many television critics -- loathe the made-for-TV mirth.

But no matter your opinion of the canned ha-ha's, shows continue to use them because they work! They're meant to make the audience at home feel like they're part of a bigger crowd sitting in a movie theater or at a comedy club.

"We're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people," says Bill Kelley, a psychology professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H, who has studied the brain's response to humor. Hearing others laugh -- even if it's prerecorded -- can encourage us to chuckle and enjoy ourselves more. In fact, a 1974 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that people were more likely to laugh at jokes that were followed by canned laughter.

Kelley's own research compared student's reactions to an episode of "Seinfeld," which has a laugh track, to those watching "The Simpsons," which lacks one. Brain scans suggested that people found the same things funny and the same regions of their brain lit up whether or not they heard others laughing.

While his findings may give reason to do away with a laugh track, Kelley still sees value in them. When done well, he says, they can give people pointers about what's funny and help them along. But when done poorly, he admits, you notice a laugh track and it seems unnatural and out of place. 

Some beloved shows, like "30 Rock," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Modern Family," "The Office" and "Glee," have said no to the laugh track, preferring the audience's authentic reactions to their humor and punch lines. They let viewers decide for themselves when and how much something tickles their funny bone.

But not all laugh tracks are created equal. Both "Whitney" and "2 Broke Girls" tape before a live studio audience and record the audience's giggles and guffaws. Even though they get a genuine human reaction to the show's jokes and humor, producers often "sweeten" a laugh track, meaning they edit it. 

Sound engineers might insert some chortles if a wisecrack fell flat or lengthen the time an audience spends cracking up. They may also tone down the woman who loudly cackles at the wrong times or the obnoxious guy who is perpetually in stitches.

For comedies that don't shoot live, such as "How I Met Your Mother," they rely on "canned laughter," a pre-recorded mix of tee-hees and chuckles that may sound phony. Hearing it may make you wish had a mute button for the synthetic snickers. 

Popular shows that currently dub in the yuks, whether they tape before a live audience or not, include "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory" and "Mike & Molly." Past sitcom sensations, from "Seinfeld" and "Cheers" to "Friends" and "Frasier," also turned to some form of electronically enhanced giggles.

Do shows with TV laugh tracks make you yuk or say "yuck"? Can you tune them out or do they drive you crazy?