Ask Matt: Laugh Tracks Going for ‘Broke,’ ‘Windsor’ Withdrawal, TV in Pandemic Times & More

Broke CBS Season 1
Ron Jaffe/CBS

Welcome to the Q&A with TV critic—also known to some TV fans as their “TV therapist”—Matt Roush, who’ll try to address whatever you love, loathe, are confused or frustrated or thrilled by in today’s vast TV landscape. (We know background music is too loud, but there’s always closed-captioning.)

One caution: This is a spoiler-free zone, so we won’t be addressing upcoming storylines here unless it’s already common knowledge. Please send your questions and comments to [email protected] (or use the form at the end of the column) and follow me on Twitter. Look for Ask Matt columns on many Tuesdays and Fridays.

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Who’s Laughing?

Question: I don’t think I’m too old for these new comedies, but the laugh tracks drive me up the wall. Why do comedies need a laugh track, especially if they are good? I watched Broke last week but was really turned off by the unnecessary chuckles, often at inappropriate times. Can’t the producers allow us to judge when something is funny? I remember the old days when many of the shows were “filmed in front of a live audience.” Thus, the laughs were natural. Now it seems that even situations that are not really funny need a burst of laughter. I watch The Unicorn and find it extremely funny (even without a laugh track). But I refuse to be coerced by canned laughter and, therefore, turn the show off. Maybe the laugh tracks are only used on less-than-funny comedies. — Terry B

Matt Roush: This issue raises its we’re-not-amused head every so often, usually when a particularly unfunny and high-profile comedy like, for instance, Broke arrives on the scene. For the record, this and a number of other shows (Mom, The Conners, Will & Grace, Last Man Standing, to name just a current few) are still filmed in front of live audiences, and some (though likely not all) of what you hear is authentic laughter from the spectators in the soundstage. It’s like theater, only on TV, and is part of a tradition dating back to TV’s earliest days (I Love Lucy) — and as I’ve noted many times before, these shows tend to be among the most popular of any era (Friends, anyone?), though like all comedy is not to all tastes. Obviously, the laughter on the soundtrack is sometimes goosed up a bit — in the case of Broke, it sounds like quite a lot — but this style of TV is not going away. (Thankfully, the classic “laugh track,” in which entirely canned laughter is added to a show filmed without an audience, seems largely to be a relic of the past.)

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Thanks, though, for the shout-out to The Unicorn, which I miss. Single-camera filmed comedies are a very different breed and often have a quite different rhythm in delivering their humor. These shows tend to reap most of the praise and awards nowadays, but they can be just as uneven as the traditional multi-camera sitcoms.

Seeking Royal Relief from the News

Question: Will CNN be broadcasting episodes 5 and 6 of The Windsors since they were pre-empted by reports on the coronovirus? If so, when? — Winston

Question: PLEASE try to convince CNN to air the final two episodes of The Windsors! We don’t need corona-shows 24/7! I don’t care if they run the last two at 4 am; we have a DVR. — Scott S

Matt Roush: I looked into this, and CNN regretfully has no date set yet for the remainder of this series, which like so many things is in limbo until the current situation calms down. They do plan to air these episodes, though, when they can. (But probably not overnight.) I was told, however, that another postponed documentary special, Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer, has been rescheduled from its original April 5 airdate to May 17. Subject, of course, to change.

Memories Die Hard

Question: While I agree that the three-year renewal for Law & Order: SVU is not a death-knell, I’m hesitant to view the fact that the fourth year out would be the 25th. This is the same franchise where NBC declined to renew the original for what at the time would have been a record-breaking 21st. — Charles

Matt Roush: I doubt there are many decisions NBC regrets more than its unforgivably abrupt cancellation of the original Law & Order after its 20th season. I don’t see them making that mistake again. (In other words, even if SVU does call it quits after Season 24, the third year of this extension, it would likely be a mutual decision agreed upon by network, producer and series star Mariska Hargitay.)

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Calling Bull

Question: I really liked the premise of Bull when the series began. It was very unique, analyzing jurors and watching their changing attitudes during the trials. Lately, though, there is no time spent showing the jury selection. Why the change? Now it seems like the show is more about “relationships” instead of juries. Just wondering. — Bonnie R

Matt Roush: Bull has undergone some changes among its production staff (in part from fallout after the Eliza Dushku lawsuit), but what you’re noticing is more likely the inevitable evolution of many procedurals, which tend to grow weary of making the same sort of episode over and over. It’s not unusual for ensemble shows like these to start emphasizing serialized personal stories, sometimes at the expense of the case of the week, or otherwise moving away from process in favor of different angles. But Bull hasn’t entirely moved away from its mission, if the storyline for Monday’s (April 13) episode is accurate: “Bull mounts the defense of an idealistic state judge… [and] during voir dire, Benny looks for jurors who believe the law is open to interpretation.”

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Could the Pandemic Change the Face of TV?

Question: I’ve been watching some online table reads of TV shows. And with technology permitting the distanced recording and editing of productions, do you think there might be a resurgence in the “radio drama” type of show? People are hooked on podcasts and audiobooks, both with single and multiple voices. The His Dark Materials trilogy as read by the author with character actors was engrossing. I’ve enjoyed stage productions where it was essentially a “live radio show” and been quite entertained, especially with watching the Foley artist. Is this going to be a time for an entertainment pivot away from (IMHO) salacious reality shows to something a little bit more challenging and entertaining? — Katee B

Matt Roush: Anything’s possible, and as we’ve seen with some recent music specials that have adapted to these bizarre times with performances from home, there’s no reason this couldn’t translate to dramatic readings as well. (Some of this is already happening online within the theater community, I’ve noticed, although I haven’t had time to sample it much.) I don’t think we’re quite at the stage yet where podcasts end up taking over TV, turning it into prime-time radio with static pictures, but I’d never have envisioned what late-night TV has turned into, and there’s no way of knowing what things will look like if this continues for a few more months.

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Question: Call it “isolation speculation.” With Hollywood production essentially shut down for the foreseeable future and no end in sight, what do you think the major broadcast networks will do when the annual fall season begins and there’s nothing new to show? Even if this ends sooner than the late summer, they can’t possibly ramp things up in time for September. What do you think they’re going to do to fill all that airtime? I recall that the last time this happened — one of the writers’ strikes — they vamped by creating game and reality shows, but they can’t do that here. They also imported a few shows unseen in the U.S., from England and Canada. But that was before streaming services bought up a lot of those rights.

I have only one idea and it’s not sustainable in the long run and the shows may not even be available. But how great would it be for a network like CBS to re-create one of their classic line-ups and show a night with the best of All In The Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H and The Bob Newhart Show episodes back-to-back, like they did in the ’70s? If they have to air reruns, why not use some of the best of all time? If worse comes to worst, what do you see as the future for the Fall TV season? Will there even be one? — Aaron

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Matt Roush: I’ll sidestep the fall question, because no one has an answer for that quite yet, and we’re still only in early April with a whole summer ahead of us for speculation. It’s quite possible, though, that depending on how things develop, everything old will be new again, and there are worse ideas than nostalgia TV. I was intrigued when CBS recently announced a temporary return to the “Sunday Night at the Movies” format, with blockbuster movies scheduled each Sunday in May. (That’s how I grew up, and I remember waiting impatiently way back when for the preview for the next week’s movie, so I’d know what to look forward to.) If movies are one option, can vintage TV from the network’s past be that far behind? (CBS already has a history of airing classic colorized episodes of I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show during holiday times.)

I also expect that networks with streaming partners (like CBS All Access, Hulu and Disney+ for ABC) may try to borrow some of the exclusive streaming content to fill some holes, though not without cost and complications, I’m sure.

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And Finally…

Question: I just read Carroll W’s question about an All Rise/Bull crossover. How about an All Rise/Tommy crossover? A couple of great strong female leads, and I’m sure there’s a great story there. — Cindy P

Matt Roush: That’s even a better idea, given the characters involved, but it’s the same problem. Different production teams, which means logistics would be difficult, and different coasts. While both series are set in Los Angeles, Tommy is mostly faking it, and is filmed primarily in New York.

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That’s all for now. Thanks as always for reading, and remember that I can’t do this without your participation, so please keep sending questions and comments about TV to [email protected] or shoot me a line on Twitter (@TVGMMattRoush), and you can also submit questions via the handy form below. Please include a first name with your question. Everyone stay safe and healthy!