Watching M*A*S*H Without the Laugh Track

Despite having owned the Season One set since 2002 and the Martinis and Medicine Collection since 2006, until last weekend I hadn’t watched any episodes of M*A*S*H without the laugh track. I don’t recall the ability to watch episodes of the series without the laugh track being used as a selling point back in 2002 (not that M*A*S*H needed any help selling itself on DVD) but it was something of a bonus feature for an otherwise bare bones release.

Personally, I’ve never found the laugh track on M*A*S*H to be obnoxious or overwhelming. But after sitting down to a mini marathon of six episodes — “Requiem For A Lightweight,” “The Army-Navy Game,” “There Is Nothing Like A Nurse,” “The Late Captain Pierce,” “Death Takes A Holiday,” and “Sons and Bowlers” — I realized that the laugh track does occasionally overpower dialogue. I can’t think of any examples where the laugh track intruded upon an actual conversation or ruined a joke but there were certainly times where laughter covered up the reaction to a joke.

Hearing each and every one of these words for the first time was a treat. So why did it take this long for me to try out the audio track without the canned laughter? A combination of laziness and forgetfulness. Popping in a disc, selecting an episode and hitting play is easier than selecting the audio track without the laugh track. Not much easier, I admit, but a little easier. I had also more or less forgotten about the ability to watch without the laugh track. On a whim, while I was turning on the closed-captions, I decided to select the option for the audio track without the canned laughter.

I don’t know if I’ll be watching every episode without the laugh track from now on. I’m so used to hearing the laughter that it was a little strange not to hear it. I’ll probably watch some episodes without the laugh track and some with it. But what about everyone else? Am I the only one watching the DVDs with the laugh track? Or is watching M*A*S*H without the laugh track a little weird? Hit the comments with your opinion on being able to watch the series without the laugh track.

19 Comments

  • Dalton says:

    For a little while after buying some of the seasons, I left the laugh track on. However, I started turning them off, and have done so ever since. I think the show just somehow fits better without the laughter. Like you said, it was never obnoxious or anything, but it was definitely not missed when I started watching it without it. The show, in my opinion, seems better without it, just like how the producers intended it to be before CBS objected.

  • Eric says:

    I have watched it without the laugh track since I bought the DVDs. After reading Larry Gelbart’s comments regarding the laugh track, I decided to leave it off. I prefer it now! Syndication episodes seem strange!

  • Sorry for popping in, but being an actual supporter of the laugh track, I HAVE to add my half-a-cent’s worth to this posting…

    First of all, as far as M*A*S*H is concerned, I DO keep the laugh track on when I watch DVDs, but I HAVE turned it off before just to see how the episode played out, and I have to say, as smart and as well-written as this show was, it still needs the laugh track… without the laugh track, the show is riddled with awkward pauses full of silence that make the episode feel slow-paced and such. Although, the episodes that didn’t already have laugh track (“OR” and such) work out fine, and at times, you don’t even realize at first… such as “Quo Vadis, Captain Chander” from Season Four, I never realized it had no laugh track until I read about it… but “The Bus” on the other hand, I don’t understand why that episode had no laugh track, as it had a lot of funny moments, jokewise, and sight gag wise.

    That said, as for the laugh track in general, like veteran producers like Si Rose and Lou Scheimer, I greatly support the laugh track… what people don’t want to admit is that the laugh track was NOT invented to say “Hey moron, this is funny, why aren’t you laughing?”, the laugh track was invented to recreate the experience of watching a comedy with a group of people. In the early days of entertainment, people would go to the theater and the movies, where several other people were, and whenever something funny happened on stage or the silver screen, the entire room would be filled with the sounds of laughter… then when you watch something funny on TV, and you’re the only one laughing, it leaves a lot to be desired. And admit it… who among us actually laughs a lot more at a movie you’ve already seen by yourself when you watch it with a group of friends?

    Not only that, but the laugh track is a lot more practical than a live audience anyway… as much as I love a “live” show like Sanford and Son, sometimes the audience gets so worked up, the actors have to just stand there and wait for the audience to calm down before they can continue with the scene, but with a laugh track, you can make the laughter as long, as short, as big an outburst, or as soft a titter as you want. Especially for shows, such as cartoons and such where it’s impossible to record before a live audience.

    Finally, the people from other M*A*S*H-related boards and such who know me know all to well that as someone working his way through the entertainment industry himself, I plan to always incorporate the laugh track onto all of my shows, and I’m here to tell you, I have actually spent a great deal of time obtaining the laughs you’ve heard on M*A*S*H and other sitcoms from the 60s and 70s that all incorporated the same laugh track, because I not only want my shows to look classic and old-fashioned, but I want them to SOUND like that as well, right down to the laugh track; on a CD-Rom, I’ve got roughly 35+ of these old classic laughs, ranging from the mid 60s to the mid 70s, some of them outrageous belly laughs, some more subdued chuckles. And they might come in handy, because honestly, sometimes people don’t quite know how to react to puppets and such. 😉

    *Gets off of soap box, and disappears*

  • Jens says:

    I am from Germany, so my take might be a bit different.

    First of all, I am used to the dubbed version of the show – in German. That version was without laugh track, so I never missed it as it never was there. When I got the DVD, I immediately watched the show in English, as I hate dubbed shows or movies. And – considering I never had a laugh track before – it was the natural thing to go without laugh track. I tried watching one episode with it turned on, and it just felt strange.

    So: No laugh track.

    Jens

  • Guster says:

    I remember watching Mash on the BBC back in the early 80s. It was broadcast without the laugh track (canned laughter) and for years I never even knew that it existed with a laugh track. I thought it was great. It had a good mix of hilarious, mildly amusing and serious moments. The humour largely consisted of warm and casual banter. It didn’t matter what you thought was funny and what you thought was not funny, because it was what it was. The main thing was the story. The atmosphere was “fly on the wall”, obviously not appropriate for the sound of a hysterical audience. Having seen it recently on a satellite channel with the laugh track, all I can say is, it’s awful. No longer a “fly on the wall” experience, it is trying to create a theatre atmosphere. But for me, it just doesn’t work, it’s not that type of show.

  • CEThree says:

    Ive always enjoyed the laugh track and I certainly dont find it obnoxious, but I see the value both ways. About the only thing I wanted to say was I dont care for the pretentiousness of those who bellow about how terrible the laugh track is to their delicate comic sensitivities.

    • James says:

      I watched MASH without the canned laughter on the BBC and enjoyed it immensely. I never knew it had one, saw an interview with Alan Alda where he said it was better without the laughter track.

      I did see one episode with the track and it ruined it, it was unwatchable in comparison.

      It is not pretentious to say how terrible it was in comparison, I felt it was inappropriate and spoiled the show.

      The brilliant Sgt Bilko on the other hand was completely different and the laughter track did add to the show

      • Dave says:

        Bilko was a performance in a theater with live sound, as opposed to something filmed on a soundstage with laughter pasted on.

  • Chris says:

    I find it hard to watch with canned laughter, overbearing and not needed

  • todd says:

    I have always thought the laugh track on MASH was VERY overbearing, You can just about set your watch
    by the timing of it!
    Makes you wonder if the Directer was there to cue the actors’ dialog to match each episodes pre-recorded laugh track! As if the Laugh Track was the first part of the screen play. (script playing a secondary roll)
    Sort of like Benny Hill running around to the Sax Music no word even needed.
    I’m willing to watch it IF I can find the way to play it without the “extra seasoning”

    • BDOR says:

      Just about all sitcoms back then had to time their scripts to allow space for the laugh track to be added, otherwise, if the time and pacing is poor, the laughter can interrupt and overlap the dialogue, making it difficult to hear what the characters are saying. That’s one of the reasons why watching M*A*S*H without the laugh track is disorienting, because it leaves all of these awkward pauses where nothing happens.

  • Bose denage says:

    I think that considering the situation and the subject matter whilst it is ok to use humour as a foil to what was a terrible situation it was supposed to be a dark humour that made one reflect – not a ‘ ha-ha’ comedy that required canned laughter to tell us when something was witty.

  • Neil says:

    I guess I come at at from a different angle. Being a child in the 70s, all comedies had a laugh track, and M*A*S*H was always a family favorite, so I really didn’t give the laugh track a second thought – until about 20 or so years ago watching reruns (when cable companies would show 2 or more in a row). I started to notice the use of the same laughs over and over (especially a gasping laugh and what I call a monkey laugh). Once I noticed this, the laughter became grating and really intrusive for me. Therefore, I much prefer watching without the laugh track.

  • William Turner says:

    No laugh track is better , just as no commercials is better (on the DVD’s) than the original broadcast or syndicated commercial interruptions . If I find something funny , I don’t need a prompter to laugh at it . Not at all bothered by the pauses or by a few seconds of silence . I think it makes the show stronger without the canned laughter , and emphasizes the serious undertones of the themes of the show , war , death, Catch 22 military logic and rules , the draft ,fighting to remaining sane and humane , and the situation of being forced to live with brutal life or death overwork alternating with tedious boredom acting out . That type of show begs a moment of silence and thoughtfulness more than it needs a clown on the stage waving a “ Laugh Now “ sign .

  • Scott says:

    I’d actually never really given it much thought. At least, pertaining to MASH episodes. Maybe that’s because having grown during the 60’s I became used to a laugh track from an early age. But Hawkeye often had a Groucho Marx style. And if you’re familiar with the Marx Bros. you’ll remember that Harpo often accentuated a joke with a horn honk. And I guess that’s sorta’ the way I accept the laugh track on MASH. It’s part of the shtick.

  • wolfeman says:

    Try watching the movie MASH and imagine a laugh track under it… doesn’t quite fit does it? it was never intended to have one.

    the network wouldn’t let them run the series without it but you can bet nobody “wanted” it, the producers just didnt have a choice.

    it’s the age old story of the network underestimating the intelligence of its audience.

    screw “shtick, MASH is supposed to be raw and messy… tears of laughter and the horros or war all jumbled together… raucous laughter from the cast followed by the eerie silence of the operating room after a soldeier doesn’t pull through.

    there is no laughtrack in war

    …neither should there be one in MASH

  • Dave says:

    I hate laugh tracks on programs, it is not something that most U.K. comedies incluse and it makes it feel that the producers expect the audience to be total idiots who need to be prompted when to laugh.

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