The case of the missing laugh track in ''Opie the Birdman''
Did the Andy Griffith Show need a laugh track? Academics tried to find out.
The Andy Griffith Show opened each season with the spotlight on Opie. The comedic talents of Don Knotts may have delivered the most laughs, and Andy's name may have been in the title, but the sitcom relied on the acting skills of adolescent Ronny Howard to kick off each new year.
Just look at the first episodes from each season: "The New Housekeeper," "Opie and the Bully," "Mr. McBeevee," "Opie the Birdman," "Opie Loves Helen," "Opie's Job," "Opie's Girlfriend," and "Opie's First Love." Each of the eight seasons begins with an episode about Opie Taylor. In those early years, Howard shows off his acting chops with tearful moments and growing pains. From this perspective, one could argue he is quietly the central character of the series. After all, he earned the first big laugh of the entire series when he objects to Rose's marriage in the opening moments of "The New Housekeeper."
Speaking of laughter, there is an interesting tale when it comes to "Opie the Birdman," which some fans hold in esteem as their favorite episode of the entire series. Like the other Opie-centric season-openers, this is a coming-of-age tale. The boy kills a bird with a slingshot and the act eats him up inside. Opie commits to raising the orphaned baby birds — which he has named Wynken, Blynken, and Nod — after taking away their mama. It hurts even more as he himself can identify with these motherless chicks.
Certainly, this particular plot is not funny. When Opie cries, our eyes get a little dusty, too, we must admit. But this being The Andy Griffith Show, laughter is had, especially when Barney expounds his expert knowledge of tweezers, wild animals, birdsong and goldfish death rates. The episode ends with a big laugh when Barney mistakes a radio in Andy's desk drawer for the sound of talking fish.
As with every episode in the series, this uproarious moment is accompanied by a laugh track. The Andy Griffith Show did not film with a studio audience, at the insistence of the star, who preferred the quieter moments that working without spectators allowed.
However, when Paramount released a DVD collection of The Andy Griffith Show - The Complete Fourth Season in 2005, a handful of episodes, including "Opie the Birdman," lacked the laugh track. This led to confusion and complaints on fan forums, like here and here. Some tried to recall if "Opie and the Birdman" ever had a laugh track — after all, it is a rather serious episode. When you watch it on MeTV, you will find the laugh track. The missing laugh track was a DVD pressing error.
The story does not end there. In 2007, researchers at Cleveland State University's School of Communication used "Opie the Birdman" to study the effects of laugh tracks on viewers. The results were later published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media in 2009.
The study showed four episodes — which happened to be the episodes from the DVD with the missing laughter — to 114 people, both with and without the laugh track. The above chart shows the results, as the researchers quantified the "funniness" of each episode with a lengthy survey following the episodes. The funniness of "Opie the Birdman" was found to be insignificantly heightened by the presence of a laugh track. (Interestingly, the audience found "Black Day for Mayberry" to be much funnier without the laugh track, which the paper goes into length to understand.)
Anyway, it gets pretty academic. The fact is, scientifically, the show is funny. Did you ever come across the missing laugh track?