It's the TV-industry equivalent of viagra. A couple of hits of it can make even the weakest specimen more potent, and the thinking goes leave unsuspecting entertainment seekers like you positively limp with merriment. That's right, we're talking about the laugh track. And, according to some, it's not just the networks that are addicted to it. ''People watching TV are so conditioned to hearing laughs that when shows are tested without them, they don't do well,'' says The Drew Carey Show executive producer Bruce Helford. ''American audiences need a laugh track to be told it's okay to laugh out loud.''
There are those who beg to differ who believe the general public is smart enough to discern humor without any artificial prompting. Radical, yes, but clinical evidence does exist! Believe it or not, fans of laugh-track-free shows like The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, Dream On, The Wonder Years, and that so-called comedy Ally McBeal will vouch for spontaneous bursts of uncued snickering.
ABC, alas, chose not to believe, and that decision led to some fireworks over one of its new fall entries, Sports Night a comedy about an ESPN SportsCenter-like show. Imagine Television and Disney's Touchstone Television, producers of the sitcom, wanted to film the show without a live audience or laugh track, which go hand in hand (tracks are used in postproduction to smooth out or enhance live laughs; M*A*S*H is a very rare example of a sitcom that used a track only). Given a choice, network suits insisted it be shot with an audience. ABC's senior VP of comedy programming, Carolyn Ginsburg Carlson, admits there were ''emotional and difficult'' arguments on both sides, but ABC won out. While Ginsburg Carlson and ABC appreciated the producers' concerns about making ''the show feel forced,'' they ultimately felt the laugh track was valid: ''If done right,'' she says, ''it can be wonderful.''
Sports Night exec producer Aaron Sorkin, now resigned to ABC's ultimatum, explains his original reservations: ''Once you do shoot in front of a live audience, you have no choice but to use the laugh track. Oftentimes [enhancing the laughs] is the right thing to do. Sometimes you do need a cymbal crash. Other times, it alienates me.''
Probably because it's nearly always a cymbal crash, with canned laughs boosting fresh ones to fever pitch. Remember the scene in Annie Hall where Tony Roberts' character asks his sound engineer for a ''medium-size chuckle'' after a particularly bad joke? Does a medium-size chuckle even exist anymore? ''Laugh tracks have become much more obtrusive,'' concedes Tony Jonas, president of Warner Bros. Television. But, he adds, ''the TV industry has made a science of this...it'll be around for a long time.''
Nevertheless, detractors are becoming more vocal. ''It's morally wrong,'' says Everybody Loves Raymond exec producer Philip Rosenthal. Laugh tracks ''are overused, and it makes the TV viewer look like they don't have a brain in their head.'' Rosenthal's solution is to use them sparingly: ''The majority of the time [on Raymond], the laughs viewers hear come from the live audience; tracks are only used for 'pickups,''' occasional scenes reshot after the audience has left.