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Why ‘M*A*S*H’ Creator Larry Gelbart Hated the Laugh Track

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M*A*S*H was a popular sitcom that aired on CBS from 1972 to 1983. The show, based on Robert Altman’s 1970 film of the same name, focuses on the hijinks of Alan Alda’s “Hawkeye” Pierce and Wayne Rogers’ “Trapper” John. Despite its general acceptance by viewers, there was an element of the show which fans have shown utter disdain for. It was something they shared with the show’s creator, Larry Gelbart.

In a 1998 Television Academy Interview, Gelbart revealed that he was not a fan of the laugh track CBS insisted on simply because they’d been used for all the network’s comedies up until that point. “The laugh track was always a thorn in the side,” he said.

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Larry Gelbart speaks on the use of the laugh track

Larry Gelbart, writer and producer, 1960s. ph: Van Williams

According to Mental Floss, the technique started during the radio era to prompt an audience to laugh at a joke without awkward silence. Even though it very much seemed out of place for the wartime series, CBS did not change its position. Larry explained that ever since mechanical laughs became the order of the day, real laughter could not be used during the show’s production.

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RELATED: Fans Are Still Big On ‘M*A*S*H’ Even After Five Decades

“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 revealed. “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.”

Larry Gelbart opposed the use of the laugh track in some scenes

MASH, (aka M*A*S*H*), from left: Donald Sutherland Jo Ann Pflug, Elliott Gould, 1970, TM & Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection

Even though the network enforced the mechanical laughs, which Gelbart and other crew members disagreed with, they persuaded CBS to cut it out on some scenes. “We told the network under no circumstances would we ever have canned laughter during an O.R. scene…,” he said. “When the doctors were working, it was hard to imagine that 300 people were in there laughing at somebody’s guts being sewn up. They bought that.”

Gelbart also explained in a 1992 interview that the track made the whole show look like a sham. “They’re a lie. 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 creator said. “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.”

He claimed that the audience did not like the laugh track

MASH, (aka M*A*S*H*), Elliott Gould (print shirt), Donald Sutherland (camouflage cap), 1970, TM & Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection

Despite winning the battle in regards to the operating room scene, Gelbart believed that the laugh track was not a welcomed element of the show for viewers at home. He said, in fact, that 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.” He felt trying to generate real laughs with fake laughs wasn’t the best way to make viewers actually laugh.

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