The title card for the new AMC series Kevin Can F**K Himself isn’t accompanied by a jaunty tune or a wild sound effect. When the title appears on the screen, it’s soundtracked by a smattering of aggressive laughter. Creeping up below the laughter is a distressing screeching noise, meant to indicate the rapidly fraying sanity of our heroine.
So it’s quite fitting that Kevin Can F**K Himself makes a compelling case for why laugh tracks (or canned laughter) need to die a quick death. The series centers on Allison McRoberts (Annie Murphy), a woman trapped in a marriage to the titular Kevin. Kevin is an infuriating man-child. He throws keg parties on his wedding anniversary, spends obscene amounts of money on sports memorabilia, and treats Allison like an accessory. He is emotionally abusive, often making Allison feel worthless by telling her things like she’s a bad driver or that she never finishes things so that he can keep her all to himself.
Approximately a third of the series takes place in lala sitcom land in which the lighting is abundant, the set is clearly facing an audience, and Kevin is always there, chewing up the scenery like Pac Man chowing down on glowing dots. However, whenever Kevin exits, Allison finds herself in a more contemplative and complex (aka: single-camera) existence. The trouble is she doesn’t have much of an identity anymore because her entire life has hinged on being Kevin’s long-suffering wife. The juxtaposition of the sitcom world against a more realistic setting serves to illustrate just how jarring and unnecessary canned laughter is to a TV show. When we watch dramas, we don’t hear people bawling over the sad parts or gasping during the shocking moments. Nope. So why do laugh tracks persist?
As an early millennial, I grew up in a world in which laugh tracks were the norm. From “Must See TV” on NBC in the ‘90s to the vintage sitcoms on Nick at Nite, comedy was always served up with a heaping side of giggles and guffaws. Historically, the sitcom cadence did rely on a call-and response reaction as they actually were often filmed in front of a live studio audience, but it was rare that the responses that made it to the final episode were genuine and uncut.
To be clear, when I’m referring to canned laughter here, I’m not just referring to the prerecorded kind. Sure, that might be the official definition, but even the laughter we hear from live studio audiences is goosed in some way prior to airtime. The practice of “sweetening” the laugh track, or adding in favorable reactions to amplify certain jokes has been in practice for decades, and it’s still in use today. While the creators of a show might be able to proudly say that the reactions came from an actual audience, the reactions are almost always tweaked in post-production in order to punch up the jokes that the creators or network want to land. Therefore, the laugh track on all of your favorite sitcoms is a lie.
An argument could potentially be made that the practice of adding in a laugh track might make people feel a sense of camaraderie or community with others watching. And this is somewhat true. In a 2011 article on laugh tracks, NBC News noted a 1974 psychological study in which it was found that people laughed more frequently if they heard canned laughter following a joke. These types of social cues can make individuals feel comfortable, but they can also promote conformity. Looking back on the history of sitcoms, it sure seems as if laugh tracks have been complicit in keeping misogynistic and racist messaging at the forefront of comedy.
Kevin Can F**K Himself plays with this idea in every frame of its sitcom world. Nothing is actually very funny within the brightly lit walls of the McRoberts’s house. As previously established, Kevin is simply awful. He’s a huge loser. Yours truly wanted to throttle him, Homer Simpson style, during every scene he was in. Yet, since the sitcom land dictates that Kevin is a damn delight, the audience plays along.
(It’s worth noting here that Kevin Can F**K Himself was filmed in front of a studio audience. However AMC tells us that, due to COVID restrictions, the audience was small and far away, so the laughs were not picked up on the audio. Therefore, much of the laughter you hear on the show was added in post-production.)
The dynamic between Kevin, Allison, and the viewers in the studio is an exaggerated version of a tableau that has been unfolding on our TV screens for decades. We see a harried, hot wife play a straight man to a dumpy doofus husband, and we’re all supposed to think it’s simply hilarious. It’s worth noting that Kevin Can F**K HImself cribs its title from the Kevin James’ sitcom Kevin Can Wait, in which the series unceremoniously killed off James’s first super hot wife on the show (Erinn Hayes), only to replace her with his prior super hot sitcom wife, Leah Remini. Because women are oh so very interchangeable in the sitcom world, the laugh track on that show never skipped a beat.
Canned laughter has historically enabled the entertainment world to lift up mediocre men such as Doug Heffernan (Kevin James), Raymond Barone (Ray Romano), and Kevin Gable (Kevin James, again) at the women’s expense. For ages, only a very small handful of white males were allowed to create content as showrunners, directors, and writers at networks. As they had control over the laugh track, they became the arbiters of what was funny and what was not funny. They got to shape reactions according to their worldview, painting the schlumpy dudes as heroes and the women as eager sidekicks.
While there are oodles of examples of the long-suffering wife throughout sitcom history, we rarely think of these women as victims. All in the Family is considered a classic, but Archie Bunker was viciously verbally abusive to his wife Edith in almost every episode. Sure, it was a different era (and Archie surely isn’t intended to be a role model), but take away the laughs, and what’s left is a depressing portrait of a red-faced husband straight up screaming at his beleaguered wife. And don’t even get me started on The Honeymooners classic line, “to the moon, Alice!” Ahahahaha, yes, spousal abuse. Hilarious. Well, the laugh track thought so, anyway.
In more recent years, verbal abuse on sitcoms focusing on husband-wife dyads has given way to a more subtle form of emotional abuse. Often, this appears in the form of financial abuse in which a spouse spends or hides money from the other in order to keep them in their place. In Kevin Can F**K Himself, Kevin consistently spends money without consulting Allison first. In one episode, he even proudly states that a recent purchase cost “more than our wedding, but less than our car.”
This type of abuse has played out in sitcoms forever. Doug Heffernan often hid his spending from Carrie, Raymond Barone invested in a go-cart venture without telling Deborah, and even Fred Flintstone stole money from Wilma’s hidden stash (yep, The Flintstones was a cartoon, but it inexplicably also had a laugh track). These transgressions are generally perceived to be harmless on screen, leading to those canned laffs and a resolution in 30 minutes or less, but in real life, this type of clandestine behavior in relation to finances can be catastrophic, trapping an unhappy wife in a relationship with no means to escape.
Even TV series that didn’t utilize the wife/husband premise – notably Frasier and Friends – often used audience laughter to support misogynistic punchlines. Friends notoriously used the laugh track to support harmful jokes about fat shaming and transphobia while Frasier’s archaic attitudes towards women were often played for comedy. Personally, I will never ever get over how Frasier Crane treated Roz Doyle, slut shaming her at every turn for over a decade when, in fact, Frasier was sleeping with half of Seattle with nary an eyebrow raise in his snooty direction. (Sorry, rant over. But, seriously, Peri Gilpin rules. #JusticeForRoz)
Laugh tracks help normalize these behaviors. If you’re not laughing at the joke when everyone else is, something must be wrong with you. Women have faced this exact dilemma since the beginning of time. Laugh along or be judged as cold and unfeeling. Be in on the joke or be tossed to the side. This truism is even noted in the recent HBO Max series Hacks in which aging comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) confesses to a newbie comedienne why she makes fun of herself in her own act. With a wan smile, Deborah says, “I realized they would rather laugh at me than believe me.”
These are the same exact challenges that Allison finds herself facing in Kevin Can F**K Himself. When Kevin is around, Allison tries her best to play the role she’s been given so that he won’t make her life even more miserable. No one believes or cares that Kevin is awful because they think Allison is lucky to even have landed a man at all. The series overtly illustrates that these types of stories have always just shrugged at viewers, telling us, oh well, boys will be boys, while women’s suffering is shoehorned into punchlines instead of taken seriously. Rather than confronting the thorny reality of disentangling the institutions that lift the Kevins up and keep the Allisons down, the sitcom world treats women’s pain like a joke.
After years and years under Kevin’s oppressive thumb, Allison isn’t laughing anymore. She’s full of rage and ready to break free. When we see her in her life without Kevin, there are no prescriptive beats dictating what’s funny and what’s not. And it’s so refreshing. Life can be funny! Sometimes Allison is funny in her real life too! Annie Murphy is also very very funny! And yet, even in the absence of a laugh track, viewers can pick up on the funny. Because in this modern age of entertainment, viewers are savvy enough to know what they feel.
As canned laughter has slowly disappeared, TV has opened up to more nuanced emotion, allowing viewers to discover and explore the highs and lows for themselves. It’s probably not surprising to learn that the few existing series that do still use laugh tracks, such as United States of Al and Bob Hearts Abishola – both airing on CBS and both created by Chuck Lorre – have been critiqued for leaning on racist and sexist stereotypes. Oddly enough, an urban myth has been circulating the internet for years, claiming that everyone on laugh tracks is actually dead because the recordings were made so long ago. As modern audio engineers now update their recordings regularly, this is not true, but the truth is that the laugh track itself is soon headed to an unmarked grave in the entertainment cemetery alongside tube televisions, Smell-O-Vision, and home video rentals.
With critically acclaimed comedies such as Schitt’s Creek (also starring Annie Murphy!), Fleabag, and The Good Place getting laughs without any pre-recorded assistance, home audiences are getting more savvy as to what’s actually funny and what’s just a cheap shot. In addition, social media and the ubiquitous sharing of memes have effectively displaced the laugh track, as people can now actually be part of an interactive community with others, watching and reacting to the same show at the same time.
In Kevin Can F**K Himself, canned laughter has finally taken its rightful place as a relic of the past. The chuckles and chortles that pepper the series are a knowing nod to a bygone era in which TV series tried to force the funny on viewers instead of letting them find their own way. Finally, laugh tracks aren’t in on the joke; they are the joke.
Kevin Can F**k Himself airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.