Even though M*A*S*H was a beloved sitcom that has spawned fans of all generations, there was an element to the show that most despised.
Enter: the laugh track, also known for being the hallmark of any classic TV show. If you’ve seen the show, you know it’s a comedy series with some dark elements— which begs the question, why a laugh track?
When you imagine doctors performing dangerous operations on soldiers in the middle of conflict, your first response wouldn’t be to laugh. Yet, laugh tracks are all over each episode. If you find yourself amid a M*A*S*H rerun, you may notice that the laugh track seems very much out of place.
Why CBS Enforced a Laugh Track on ‘M*A*S*H’
According to Mental Floss, CBS included laughter because that’s what the network did with all their shows at the time. Laugh tracks began during the radio era to prompt an audience to laugh at a joke without an awkward silence. Even though it very much seemed out of place for the wartime series, CBS wouldn’t budge.
“I always thought it cheapened the show,” said series developer Larry Gelbart. “The network got their way. They were paying for dinner.”
Later, M*A*S*H producers were able to renegotiate with the network. “Under no circumstances would we ever have canned laughter during an O.R. scene,” Gilbert said. “When the doctors were working, it was hard to imagine 300 people were in there laughing at somebody’s guts being sewn up.”
The show was later able to remove the canned laughter from dark episodes such as “O.R.,” “The Bus,” “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” “The Interview,” “Dreams,” “Point of View,” and “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.”
After season six of M*A*S*H, the show could minimize the laughter, and later episodes in the series feature a track that much less noticeable. It was a sigh of relief for viewers after getting nothing but hooting and hollering in the early seasons.
Series Creator on Laugh Track: ‘So Dishonest’
“They’re a lie,” said Gelbart during a 1992 interview about the laugh track. “You’re telling an engineer when to push a button to produce a laugh from people who don’t exist. It’s just so dishonest. The biggest shows when we were on the air were ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ both of which were taped before a live studio audience where laughter made sense,” continued Gelbart.
“But our show was a film show – supposedly shot in the middle of Korea. So the question I always asked the network was, ‘Who are these laughing people? Where did they come from?'”
As a result, Gelbart persuaded CBS to air the show in private screenings with and without the laugh track. The results showed no conclusive difference in the audience’s enjoyment. “So you know what they said?” Gelbart said. “‘Since there’s no difference, let’s leave it alone!’ The people who defend laugh tracks have no sense of humor.”