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A Brief History of Canned Laughter

Before television came along, comedy was largely a social thing. If you were seeing comedy live on stage or in a movie, you were likely seeing it with other people. And you had to listen to them all laugh. The guy two rows behind you with the forced belly laugh he uses for jokes he doesn’t get. The woman in the front row with the shrill cackle that makes the Wicked Witch of the West sound like Barry White. And where is that whistling coming from?

Augh!

Early television producers tried to recreate this atmosphere by including laughter and other crowd noises in the soundtracks to TV shows. This made the quiet desperation of sitting alone in front of the tube in your underwear with a pint of Cherry Garcia seem like a social event. The simplest way to do this was filming the show in front of an actual audience, but live audiences couldn’t always deliver. They would laugh at the wrong lines, laugh too long, laugh too loud, or not laugh enough. Poorly timed laughter could throw off the rhythm of the performers, forcing them to shoot multiple takes.

Charley Douglass, a sound engineer at CBS, eventually got tired of what he called the audiences’ “God-awful responses” and set out to fix things. Douglass began adding additional pre-recorded laughter to the audio track where jokes flopped with the studio viewers, and he started tapering off too-long laughing bouts. During the filming of an episode of I Love Lucy, wherein Lucy dances the tango with raw eggs stuffed in her shirt, the studio audience laughed for a full sixty-five seconds. Douglass’ technique of augmenting and adjusting the response of the studio audience became known as “sweetening” and he was asked to use it to polish the audience track on filmed-live shows like The Jack Benny Program and make up for the lack of live audience on The Hank McCune Show (the first show to feature a laugh track).

Douglass needed laughs to fuel his laugh tracks. He spent hours extracting laughter, applause and other crowd noises from recordings he made of The Red Skelton Show and Marcel Marceau performances. Eventually, he took the collected recordings and fed them into his 1953 invention, a one-of-a-kind, two-foot-tall tape machine he called “The Laff Box.” The box operated like a cross between a sampler and an organ, with Douglass using a keyboard (think old-school mechanical typewriter keys) to select audience laugh samples (from a bank of 320 laughs on 32 tape loops) and a foot pedal to control their length.

Douglass created the laugh tracks for different shows on a seasonal basis, adding newly recorded samples, dropping old ones and even bringing back old favorites from previous seasons. By the end of the decade, as many television programs were transitioning from film to videotape, Douglass’ role expanded. Videotape allowed for more post-production editing, but some edits could cause gaps and other problems with the audience audio track, so Douglass and the Laff Box were brought in to fill the holes, as well as sweeten the crowd reaction.

The Rise and Fall of the Laff Box

Despite Douglass’ eccentricities — when he came in to “lay in the laughs” for a show, Douglass would often butt heads with producers about when and where to insert certain types of laughs, and usually insisted on working out of sight from everyone else in the studio — he had a monopoly on the “laff” business into the early 1970s. He was the only canned laughter game in town.

During the early 1960s, as studios began to film without a live studio audience, Douglass had to go from sweetening an audience to creating one. It was a challenge at first, because shows that taped without a live audience had no pauses into which he could insert laughter or applause. But writers, directors and actors quickly learned to adjust and leave the laugh track a little breathing room. (Which is to say, awkward pauses. Check out Friends without the laugh track and note the odd silences.)

Douglass, his Laff Box, and canned laughter all peaked in the late 1960s and hit hard times beginning in 1971, when All in the Family debuted on CBS, “recorded on tape before a live audience.” The success of the show prompted other shows (like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple and The Bob Newhart Show) to begin using live audiences again. Douglass went back to sweetening. In the 1990s and 2000s, completely laugh-track-free production came into vogue and shows like The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development, The Office and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia found success with without a single canned laugh to be found.

Charley Douglass’ company, Northridge Electronics, still produces the lion’s share of what little canned laughter you hear on TV these days (though they no longer have a monopoly on the laugh track business). His son Robert runs the show (Charley died in 2003). The Laff Box is still around, too, though in a slightly different incarnation. The tape loops and bulky machine have been replaced by a digital collection of laughs — some of Charley’s originals (yes, some of those laughs you hear are from people who are now dead), plus new ones and additional tracks for foreign audiences and kids’ shows.

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