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LAUGH TRACKS GET THE LAST LAUGH

SHARE LAUGH TRACKS GET THE LAST LAUGH

If you can't make 'em laugh, you can always fake 'em laughing.

Canned chuckles and applause - known as sweetening - have flavored television programs for four decades despite the sour taste it leaves in some mouths.Comedians tend to shy away from the artificial approval. Viewers gripe about being overrun by fake guffaws.

But nearly every comedy ever on TV - not to mention game shows, rock and comedy concerts and awards ceremonies - has been sweetened.

The few sitcoms that tried to go without, such as "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" in the late '80s and 1994's "Bakersfield P.D.," tended to be short-lived.

Talk about the last laugh.

Laugh track pioneer Carroll Pratt contends that the industry has learned to judiciously use a process it once abused.

"It's not a dishonest profession anymore," Pratt said. "The need has been seen, and since it's become more conservative I think they're (critics) living with us OK."

Only news programs, dramas and sports events are exempt from the wizards of mirth, technicians who sit at small, putty-colored consoles and use 12 buttons and three levers to coax audience tapes into a symphony of glee.

Titters, chuckles, belly laughs, catcalls are part of the mix.

Pratt began working in the late 1950s with Charles Douglass, who invented a laugh machine while at CBS, and has doctored shows ranging from "I Love Lucy" to "It's Garry Shandling's Show."

It all started honorably enough, says the semiretired Pratt.

Radio listeners were used to getting laughs with their programs, the sound of studio audiences picked up by microphones. Conventional wisdom also decreed that the communal laughter enjoyed by movie audiences was vital to making TV comedies work.

Originally, canned laughs were used to fill in when scenes were added or changed after an audience had viewed a show, Pratt said. Later, a spate of series were filmed sans audience, like "The Donna Reed Show" and "Father Knows Best," and required technicians to provide all the reaction.

Eventually, says Pratt, "it got out of control" as producers and writers pushed for bigger chuckles. The public began to rebel.

"The major complaint was we were laughing at things that weren't funny. Then we got letters saying we don't need some guy pushing a button to tell us when to laugh," he recalled.

The industry finally began practicing restraint - to an extent.

"In pilot seasons, things are overlaughed terribly," Pratt says.

There are other ways to cheat.

"Some producers bring in all of their underlings and writers and get close to an audience mike and yuk it up," he said. "It's bad in one area because the writers, knowing the gag is coming, usually start laughing before it spills."

"You don't make a joke funny by laughing at it," Pratt said.