M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart called the laugh track a 'thorn in the side'

Ultimately, the network got the last laugh.

"The laugh track was always a thorn in the side." 

Those were the honest words from Larry Gelbart, the creator of M*A*S*H, regarding the use of a laugh track throughout the show, during a 1998 Television Academy Interview

By the time M*A*S*H hit the air in 1972, CBS had long been using a can of laughter for comedies on the network. A show that had several jokes per episode and scripted comedic relief, like M*A*S*H, the use of a laugh track made sense. A show that was set during the Korean War, like M*A*S*H, perhaps the laugh track would be better left behind. Though with how popular the production tool was at the time, Gelbart said a laugh track was bound to be on the table. 

Using a laugh track was essentially a broadcast tradition ever since it was carried over from the radio waves. On radio, however, the tradition was a live audience actually laughing at a skit or show. Those laughs would then sneak through the radio waves so listeners heard it. It was popular, and executives found that real laughter from the show would further entice listeners to chuckle at home.

Whether there could be real laughter from a studio audience was out of the question when it came to M*A*S*H, given the production nature of the comedy drama series.

"If you're doing what we [M*A*S*H] did, working on a sound stage, there are no bleachers [and] there's no audience," Gelbart said. "We were told we would have to add a laugh track, that is to say after the picture was finished, we would go into a mixing studio and we would add laughter. Mechanical laughter."

As a result, mechanical laughs infiltrated M*A*S*H, but Gelbart and other personnel made at least one thing clear.

"We told the network under no circumstances would we ever have canned laughter during an O.R. scene... When the doctors were working, it was hard to imagine that 300 people were in there laughing at sombody's guts being sewn up. They bought that."

Despite a win on the operation room front, Gelbart never felt the laugh track was adding a welcomed element to the show for viewers at home. In fact, he said he felt it was doing the opposite. 

"I always thought it cheapened the show. I always thought it was out of character with the show."

In some episodes, the laugh track was left out. Gelbart added viewers in England never heard the boxed giggles in any episodes, as the entire series was broadcast without the laugh track across the pond.

"We did a number of shows, not many, where there were no laugh tracks at all. 'The Interview' comes to mind, a show that we did in black and white that was meant to be a documentary."

The show creator isn't alone in his stance on the M*A*S*H laugh track, as several fans also deemed it unnecessary. Gelbart felt trying to generate real laughs with fake laughs wasn't the best way to make viewers actually laugh. At the end of the day, it was out of his hands.

"By and large, the network got their way. They were paying for the dinner."

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45 Comments

BenSobeleone 2 months ago
The only show that I liked the "canned laughs" was The Munsters.
PattyHerbst 2 months ago
I always hated the laugh track. I always thought it sounded forced, as if a viewer couldn't fond anything to laugh at themselves. When the show came out on DVD and I started buying each season, I was pleased to see the menu option for turning off the laugh track on each disc. I turn that function off every time I put a disc on to this day.
Coldnorth PattyHerbst 2 months ago
I love that option. I have the dvds and always choose no laugh track
BorisK 2 months ago
Look ... I love M*A*S*H and have seen every episode, but I think the shows actors and creators to this day suffer from just a little too much self-importance. Don't get me wrong, great show, I can't think of an episode I still do not enjoy -- but from Gelbart to Alda and even Farr, they seem to believe MASH profoundly changed America, changed television, changed comedy ... when it did not. It was just a great show, still is. The laugh track was fine, and yes, good choice to leave it out of the OR scenes. Period.
fuzzball329 2 months ago
I can't stand laugh tracks on any show, i am smart enough to know when something is funny or not. but also, every sleepy joe speech, interview or comment could have one.
More like Drumpf's incessant little kindergarten temper tantrums.
BorisK fuzzball329 2 months ago
Guys -- please. Take the politics elsewhere. No one hear wants to hear or cares what your politics are. Knock it off -- we don't want to hear it.
KevinButler 2 months ago
I agree with Mr.Gelbart..there was no need for the intrusion of that damn laugh track..especially certain "Mash"episodes which deal with serious subjects.
F5Twitster 2 months ago
The article fails to mention that, to Fox's credit, when the show was issued on DVD the discs offered buyers an alternative audio channel that contained no laugh track.
PattyHerbst F5Twitster 2 months ago
I was thrilled to see that when I bought each season.
rockaria 2 months ago
I hate laugh tracks. I feel like they think we're too stupid go know when they're being funny, so they're saying, "this is where you're supposed to laugh." Thankfully, when I bought the M*A*S*H series on DVD, there was an option to view without the laugh track. I wish every DVD had that option.
JosephScarbrough rockaria 2 months ago
Laugh tracks don't tell you when to laugh, or that something is supposed to be funny; that's a common misconception. They emulate the ambience of watching comedy within the company of other people, as opposed to by yourself, as comedy is best enjoyed as a communal experience.
Thank you, I wish I could've said that in as few words as you did!
Barry22 2 months ago
I wish Perry Mason had a laugh track.
Pacificsun Barry22 2 months ago
I know! Perry Mason is positively giddy in those first few years of the Series. He's smiling at Paul and Della even the Lunch Lady who told him a hamburger was only $.35. And he told her he was on a diet! That line has always looked to me like the writers sneaked it in after rehearsal. I swear he was blind-sided!
Barry22 Pacificsun 2 months ago
Guilty Guy on the stand: " I did it, I killed him!" Cue the canned laughter. Guilty Guy: "WTH?"
JPound 2 months ago
Agreed. However, Gelbart "developed" the series based on Richard Hooker's book which Robert Altman based his movie on. Created, is a bit of a stretch. Whether Gelbart had a vision for a series before the film is something I am unaware of. Seems unlikely. A good, if neutered show, without the dark humor pf the movie.


Pacificsun JPound 2 months ago
This is nothing new under sun, but what people go to the movies for, is not the same as to what they invite into their home off of broadcast TV, at least regarding back in the day. Now, it's almost one and the same with streaming, etc.. But the Series' Developers were "inspired" by all kinds of ideas. Gelbert's challenge was how to make the premise acceptable for the range of viewers who they expected. This was going to be a Primetime Series, for family viewing. It's a wonder they cleaned it up as acceptably as they did. Currently, as readers here, we're stressing over whether or not they should've (or should) have a laugh track. I've watching the earlier years lately with Wayne Rogers and there were humorous shenanigans deserving of a laugh. The deal was, originally, that there would be no laughter in in the OR and control over the visibility of blood. But when AA started cranking up the philosophy (and poignancy) of the storylines, maybe they should've been more selective about how to use the laugh track. Growing up in that era, I don't even hear them anymore.
JosephScarbrough 2 months ago
I myself am of a proud minority of self-proclaimed "Laugh Track Nerds." We very much love and enjoy these classic canned laughs heard on so many of these shows of yesteryears - so much so that we not only can recognize specific canned laughs, but we even have names for them ("Oh, there's the woman who ruptured her spleen," "There's the guy who laughs like a goat.") My friend Paul Iverson is not only one of the biggest experts on all these canned laughter and audience reaction, but he even got a tremendous opportunity to work on WANDAVISION as a "Laugh Track Consultant" for episodes that paid homage to classic sitcoms (for real, he did). He and I have both amassed our own libraries of recreations of these old laugh tracks, and use them in productions of our own: in his case, he reinserts them into THE PINK PANTHER shorts to recreate their TV broadcast versions; in my case, I use them in my own original productions as part of my paying homage to classic sitcoms of yesteryears.
Don't be too proud: the laugh track's presence implies that you're too dumb to get a gag, and so need to be led around by the nose, or ear in this case.
More like your belief in such a common misconception implies that you're too dumb to think for yourself, and instead, have to be spoon-fed whatever the populace tells you to believe.
BorisK JosephScarbrough 2 months ago
You are one angry person. How about being nice?
AgingDisgracefully 2 months ago
Laugh tracks, like bad nudge-nudge musical cues...always signal Compulsory Fun.
Individual voluntary or INvoluntary laughter is the best kind.
The group needn't be considered.
edbreyer 2 months ago
Laugh tracks in general are very effective for classic comedy shows. It's proven that - just as a smile helps generate other smiles - hearing a laugh makes others prone to feeling it too. Don't believe it? Then watch the Hogan's Heroes shows that don't have it or a reunion show of Andy Griffith or maybe Gilligan's Island where there is no laugh track and you will immediately realize something is really missing. The same humor doesn't seem as funny.
JosephScarbrough edbreyer 2 months ago
Back in those days, the laugh track was simple an ingredient of a bigger recipe that made those classic shows such a joy to watch.
Rob 2 months ago
I seem to be in the minority here because the laugh track never bothered me.
Ratt1959 Rob 2 months ago
Me neither, it was in so many shows, I just kind of ignored it. In fact, I watched it last night and couldn't tell you if there was laughter or not, other than my own. It's till one of the greatest shows ever.
lmahabhashyam 2 months ago
Those that truly love and appreciate the genius of M*A*S*H will agree with Mr Gelbart. The audience is intelligent enough to know when a laugh was because someone said or did something funny, and when it was meant to be a way to release the tension of a mash unit 3 miles from the fighting.
JH21 2 months ago
I hated the MASH laugh track in the original run and I loathe it today. Being "told" when to laugh did not work on me. I stand with Mr. Gelbart!
JosephScarbrough JH21 2 months ago
Laugh tracks don't "tell you when to laugh," that's long been a common misconception. Laugh tracks emulate the experience of watching comedy within the presence of others, as opposed to by yourself, because, by human nature, we feel more comfortable to laugh at something when we're with other people who are laughing, as opposed to all by ourselves.
Yes, they DO tell you when to laugh. When actually watching a film with an audience no one gets every gag, and to the same degree, but when one person who does get it starts to laugh, other suddeny realize, "hey, that's funny," and begin to laugh, too.
Psychologically, laughter is infectuous, much like yawning.
I would rather have a laugh track than the screaming on Happy Days when certain actors appear. Sometimes I can’t hear the first words they say. I am probably in the minority, but it is my opinion
rikkirat 2 months ago
“ always thought it cheapened the show. I always thought it was out of character with the show.”
Larry Gelbart was absolutely correct, IMHO.
Barry22 2 months ago
Laugh tracks were annoying. Even cartoon series had them. OK, just curious, what was the last TV show to have a laugh track? I honestly don't know.
JHP 2 months ago
he is so correct!!!!!! why was don knotts a "great comedic" actor? 90% of what he did and said was followed by that canned laughter - Raymond show is infamous for it - it leads the dumb viewer to believe that the show was funny
McGillahooala 2 months ago
When M*A*S*H premiered it was way too early to do away with the laugh track. You leave the laugh track out of M*A*S*H* and the show is over five episodes in. Shows like the office and the middle can pull it off now, but I don’t think it would’ve been well received in the early 70s. You still had people walking up to Andy Griffith and saying hey where is Barney. Think of how boring those Gilligans island and Andy Griffith reunion shows are without canned laughter. It just seems like something’s missing.
I never understood the appeal of THE OFFICE anyway. Such a droll, dull, boring, and ghastly show. The mockumentary format makes it difficult to even believe these are characters we can invest in.
rikkirat JosephScarbrough 2 months ago
Characters in that god-awful show were despicable.
MrsPhilHarris 2 months ago
I never really liked a laugh track. I can figure out when something is funny by myself.
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