This Piece Was Written Before A (Once) Live Studio Audience

From: Season 1, Episode 1, The Good Son
Transcribed by: Someone who clearly hasn’t spent much time getting intimate with television chuckles (and who doesn’t disclaim this with a nasally haughtiness, but to confess a genuine ignorance to the medium. Which is just to say, she admittedly may be a little out of her element, but is just confident enough to attempt to split the ends of hairs here. She can fudge it.)
Scene: Frasier is interviewing Daphne for the position of live-in housekeeper and physical therapist for his father. Personalities of these characters are being hammered into one another for the first of what will evidently be many times. The Manchesterian Candidate has just claimed possession of psychic abilities, which apparently rubs Frasier in a way not unlike that of a holey sock to a blister.


Daphne: Wait a minute! I’m getting something on you – you’re a florist! [Uproarious laughter from the laugh track, causing the left eyebrow of the transcriptionist to reach for the top shelf in confusion]
Frasier: No, I’m a psychiatrist.
Daphne: Oh, well, it comes and goes. [Someone has turned the can over and there’s more laughter, a lot of it, far too much for the non-joke delivered here, and your transcriptionist suspects she’s missing something, or maybe the real joke happened off-camera, which thought leaves her teeming over with sixteen-year-old-girl alienation] Usually it’s strongest during my time of the month [Some more diffused knowing titters from the pre-recorded audience. Menstruation jokes? I’m so removed from this I may as well be out behind the school library smoking a surreptitious cigarette]… so I guess I let a little secret out there. [Swelling random chuckles, and at this point, I’ve just given up trying and am acknowledging my existence in this scene as an “awkward phase.” If experience knows anything, I’ll grow out of it]
Frasier: It’s safe with us. [There’s more laughter here, but I’ll leave it to you to figure out why. I’ve given up, remember.] Well, Miss Moon, I think we’ve learned everything we need to about you, and a dash extra! [More pealing crows and snickers. This program was on the air for how many years?]
Daphne: (turning to Eddie) You’re a dog, aren’t you? [Note that Eddie is, in fact, a dog. And there’s only one possible explanation for the outburst of utter hilarity that bursts forth from the soundtrack here: this program was intended for psychotics and stoners.]


Far be it for me to stuff words into a dead lady’s mouth, but I don’t think she’d have minded being the harbinger of a half century of increasingly bad jokes. She knew — and said she loved — that hers was the most distinctive voice in a crowd, and there’s no reason to think that would have changed just because the daisies she’s been pushing have taken over the garden. And some of the lines later plied with her peals were titter-worthy. But she — or her voice, inasmuch as she owned it — had one real transgression, for which she was just a puppet: it was responsible for the longevity of Frasier, unscientifically proven to be the least funny in a long and grueling line of unfunny television sitcoms.

Let’s back up. DeDe Ball [mother of Lucille, Requiscat etcet to both], brimming over with pride for her daughter in the way that mothers do, is known to have attended every taping of the I Love Lucy show, where she regularly out-laughed her studio audience compeers. Hers were big, gut-busting, ferociously contagious emissions – there was no more effective kind, as far as television sitcoms go. Now, half-believable cultural legend has it that Lucy’s show [with its reliance on sight gags coupled with Lucille’s versatile maxillofacial muscles and uncanny ability to flap them] was used in the earliest recordings of audience laughter that would later serve to “sweeten” less punchy comedy on television’s laugh tracks.

The scene worked reliably to this model: Desi Arnaz would set things in motion by walking in as Lucy was getting herself into heaps of trouble, in his signature Havanese style [Lu-cy, I’m ho-ome], at which point Lucy would react without words [generally a knowing grimace that prefaced her futile attempt to cover up whatever mess she’d gotten herself into this time], and in that unrestrained moment, silent except for the waves of laughter from the audience, the sound man on the production would have a clean and easy-to-sample audio track to use later. And, because it was the Lucy show, the laughter that was saved, more often than not, belonged to the eminence grise of DeDe.

The original intentions behind the laugh track were mostly benign [even altruistic, maybe, as original intentions can be]. As considered by the sound guys [serious audio geeks], the addition of recorded laughter was meant to even out a show’s sound levels, technically, and fill in the otherwise awkward silences left by the reshoots that inevitably took place after a studio audience returned [to their own less hilarious lives]. Later, a lone home viewer would maybe even achieve a sort of solidarity with DeDe Ball and others [or so they hoped], and as such, be more inclined to relax into a program, and maybe even to laugh, to connect by proxy to the situation.

But we all know where good intentions belong, and at some point, someone behind a big mahogany desk spotted an opportunity to gild his own pocketlint. Studio audiences were sent home, which saved money and studio space and reduced the dependence on the strength of a joke. Laughter, as television knew it [and with only a few exceptions], became factitious, and with that, the laugh track became a spit-and-chewing-gum solution to the worst imaginable excuses for comedy [c.f. the transcript excerpted above, if you have the stomach juices]

Nobody intended those original voices to be the same as those used in laugh tracks fifty years later, and nobody really has a good explanation for why those specific people are still laughing in our collective faces. I’m guessing that it was a self-directed groin-kick, and that by the time later audiences were brought in to record, the life had already been sucked out of sitcoms and it just wasn’t possible to get them up to collective snuff. And, if you’ve ever attended a taping of a live program, you’ll know that the warm-up comics hired to work up an audience is a mushy spitball compared to DeDe’s ballistics.

So here they are, on the set of Frasier, in the spirit if not the flesh, DeDe leading a choir of the dead in cracking up to what can barely be classified as jokes. In an (admittedly unscientific) random sampling, she turns up in nearly every episode, as she did on I Love Lucy. But this time, her cackle’s volume and intensity are inversely proportional to the level of actual comedy she’s responding to. With sitcoms, see, one can put out a fire with gasoline. [This is not a trick recommended personally in other areas. Not that I’ve tried it. Not even accidentally.]

It’s starting to sound as if Frasier kicked the personal puppy of your correspondent, so know now that this isn’t a personal grudge. It may be a fine program, as far as I know. I can’t tell; I’ve never been able to tolerate more than a nibble without reaching for the antacids. Were the people responsible for this laughter back in their bodies and sharing a live environment with me, I’d likely rudely shish them, probably several times over the course of the show, and later I’d write a blog post all about the decline of social mores in live comedy venues. And it would be the most cluelessly indignant polemic ever posted to a blog, and Frasier himself would respond or maybe the paranormal sector would try to rouse DeDe herself so that she could chime in [at which point, rest assured, she’d just confirm what I’ve already said.]. While alive, these people laughed from their gut to fill a soundscape silent from sight gags, and now, as dead windbags, they’re uproarious over a whole lot of nothing.


Let’s see what ten years on comic crutches has done to our much-maligned performers and writers:

From: Season 10, Episode 12: The Harrassed
The scene opens on Martin and Daphne having dinner when Niles and Frasier walk into the apartment.

Niles: Hello all.
Martin: Hey.
Daphne: Hello. How was the Wine Expo?
Frasier: Horrible! [what emerges from the cathode ray bathtub here leads one to long for a supersized version of the word “effusive.”]
Niles: Frasier ran into a fan.
Martin: Ow, that smarts! [some subdued giggling actually comes in over this line and persists through it, with a nicely orchestrated crescendo carrying all the way through to the next line]
Frasier: Yes, Dad. [laughter from above is continuing here, all the way through this delivery. I’m starting to think my earlier suppositions about intended audience are true. If I smoked grass I’d search far and wide for what these people have.] You have been using that same old joke for the last ten years [maybe this is why we’re supposed to think it’s so funny? It’s an ongoing gag? But a search through some random stoner’s Frasier transcript website tells me later that this isn’t true. Not an ongoing gag, as far as I know…]. So, anyway, I ran into this fan…
Martin: Ouch! Are you okay? [All around us they’re just going nuts. Maybe this is what killed them in the first place?]

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    2 responses to “Before A (Once) Live Studio Audience”

    1. Logan Sachon says:

      Love love love the descriptions of the laugh track. Brilliant.

    2. […] Man Who Can’t Die starting tomorrow. Catch up while you can. Also, I have a little something over here, if you need to listen to more.    A Woman of Properties by Jack Matthews [42:53m]: Play […]

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    The Author


    With a distinctive lilt whose origins are best attributed to continental drift, Miette Ornes began narrating books as a way to get under the hood of great writing. As hostess and producer of Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast, she has spent the past six years compiling a continually growing anthology of the world's greatest short fiction. Sometimes she's also a writer.

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