David dances for Patrick, Schitt's Creek

TV Comedies without Laugh Tracks

Karin Kallmaker Favorite Things 0 Comments

It makes sense that three four recent favorite sitcoms have one thing in common: no laugh tracks. I generally don’t like them, especially when they’re loud and kick in after every other line. Clever writing delivered with wit and panache will make me laugh without a laugh track (or studio audience) to encourage me.

Laugh tracks and primed studio audiences were a mandatory part of sitcoms until the 1970s. It was producer Larry Gelbart, helming what would be a phenomenally successful sitcom called M.A.S.H., who got a network to realize that a laugh track was not essential for viewers to realize something was funny. He went to the mat to not use one in any of the scenes in the operating theater, saying there was nothing to laugh about in those scenes anyway. Later in the series the laugh track disappeared for many types of scenes, especially those that confronted grim realities of war. In the fortunate U.K., the entire series never had a laugh track, and guess what, Brits thought it was funny anyway.

Not on this List. . .

One of my favorite sitcoms on the wit and panache scale, The Big Bang Theory, is not on this list because of the persistent step-on-the-line bursts of laughter from the studio audience (especially in later seasons). It is so loud and manically timed that my wife remains convinced it’s a laugh track, not live. (Thank goodness there’s no laugh track on Young Sheldon, and it’s a contender for this list.)

These three four recent faves in Department Sitcom have no laugh tracks. Perhaps the freedom that comes with not trying to goose a laugh out of the viewer every 15 seconds freed up the writers to go beyond traditional sitcom territory – all are original in concept and delivery. So original they’ve scored a rewatch more than once.

Logo for Kim's Convenience

Kim’s Convenience

Kim’s Convenience, based on a successful stage play, features immigrant Korean parents who settled in Canada and their two Canadian college-aged children. Over the years what begins as an irascible father, placating mother, spunky daughter, and estranged son, melds into a long conversation about friendship, forgiveness, faith, loyalty, reverence for old and new cultures, and claiming individuality within your community. The final episode was a lovely bow on top.

Logo for The Good Place

The Good Place

The Good Place almost didn’t catch my interest. Yet so many people whose opinion I respected raved about it that I persevered. At the end of Chapter 4 it happened – the twist that makes all four seasons worth it.

With spectacular writing, a diverse cast, and a premise that seems unsustainable, The Good Place juxtaposes screwball antics with all the big philosophical questions of human existence. Yes, it’s a comedy. And the finale was so very good in the very best teary way. Tissues, lotsa tissues. Even on the rewatch.

What is a moral life? What does it mean to be kind, truthful, or supportive? How are you ever sure you serve a greater good? In today’s complicated and globally interconnected world, how can we give and not take? Yes, honest, it’s a comedy.

After the past 4 years where selfishness was held up as godly, The Good Place reminded me that there are certain truths that are self-evident: we are here for each other, a rising tide lifts all boats, and love is the current that powers the world toward good. Yes, I’m not making it up – it’s a comedy.

Logo for Schitt's Creek

Schitt’s Creek

What can I add to the already stellar reviews of Schitt’s Creek? Like The Good Place I nearly didn’t make it based on the first two episodes, but again, the recommendations of others plus a pile of awards convinced me to give it a longer try. It’s episode 5 that cinched the deal. It’s not about a family of One Percenters finding small town life incomprehensible and everyone looks foolish (though that happens), it’s about what happens when life forces us to see another way to live our lives and respect people who have chosen a different path.

The utterly self-absorbed Moira learns other people have lives too, including her own children. Johnny Rose goes from greasy promoter back to the kinder, better man he was when he and Moira fell for each other, when they had nothing. Alexis, so much like her mother, determined to grow old as a party girl, finds a desire to be useful to others and have pride in herself. The single saddest moment of the series is also one of the most romantic – after episode 1 who could have guessed Alexis could actually make a heart-shredding sacrifice because someone else’s happiness matters more to her?

And what is there to say about the romance of David and Patrick, with wonderfully realized fear, risk, all the tentative steps toward each other, all the mistakes. So worth every minute. All of this wrapped up in laughter, some tears, and so much satiric wit that moments that could turn saccharine never do.

logo of the romantic comedy sitcom New Girl

New Girl

New Girl is a late entrant to my favorites list for two reasons. No laugh track, of course. The other is that, while it’s the familiar premise of a group of people sharing unlikely living quarters and most of the humor derives from their stuff with each other, the dynamic includes one change that few earlier sitcoms that fronted women dared: the male ego is not the center of the story universe.

When Jessica Day shows up to interview for the fourth bedroom in an L.A. loft, we know right away the three guys who live there are idiots in their own special way. There’s even a douche bag jar where the chauvinist ladies man is frequently required by the other guys to put in money.

Jessica has her own weird too, and its the way their weird overlaps (and doesn’t) that creates 6+ seasons of fun, growth, mistakes, and new beginnings. More than once I did say, “Oh please, will you all just either grow up and get over it, or have a basic conversation please?” It is, after all, a sitcom where a four-bedroom loft has only one toilet and one shower.

Nevertheless, for a mainstream network sitcom it’s miles ahead of many. Jessica and her best friend pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, every single episode. A number of groundbreaking sitcoms that fronted women (from Julia and The Mary Tyler Moore Show onward) are full of stomach-churning sexism, blatant workplace harassment, entire episodes devoted to what the women will sacrifice so the men feel better (including promotions, salary, and dignity), and women friends whose only conversation is their love lives and appearance.

It’s a new millennium, and New Girl shows it. Give it about four episodes and if it doesn’t grab, check out the other three. If you stick with it, watch for all instances of the game True American, and the finale episode is worth it, all the way.

I highly recommend all of these programs. They’re unlikely to ever leave my favorites list.

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