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Fake laughs! The invention of the laugh track.

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2018

Encyclopedia Of Misinformation

On Tuesday, my friend Rex Sorgatz came out with the very timely book, The Encyclopedia of Misinformation, the full subtitle of which is “A Compendium of Imitations, Spoofs, Delusions, Simulations, Counterfeits, Impostors, Illusions, Confabulations, Skullduggery, Frauds, Pseudoscience, Propaganda, Hoaxes, Flimflam, Pranks, Hornswoggle, Conspiracies & Miscellaneous Fakery”. Today I’m happy to present an excerpt about the genesis and use of the laugh track on television. [The video insert on how the laff box worked is mine.] -jason

No technique in television production has been more maligned than the laugh track, yet it somehow perseveres through decades of ridicule.

It all started innocently, as a quick hack to solve a technical problem. Charley Douglass, a sound engineer at CBS in the early ’50s, was annoyed at studio audiences who inconveniently laughed at the wrong moments. Sometimes they chuckled too long at unfunny bits; other times, they refused to bellow with sufficient gusto. To evenly redistribute the laughter, Douglass invented a contraption that looked like a steampunk organ collided with a cyberpunk adding machine, connected on the back end to magnetic tapes with recorded laughter. By pressing buttons on the laff box (that’s actually what he called it), an orchestrator could punch up guffaws, chortles, and giggles on demand. The magical machine also acted as a sort of demographic keyboard, with inputs for specific genders, ages, and ethnicities, plus a foot pedal that controlled the duration of each laugh. One keystroke might simulate frothy housewife giggle; another, guy who missed joke but laughs anyway. Keys could be combined into melodic chords of laughter, bringing down the house in a crescendo of hilarity.

The gizmo was a success, smoothing out the aural wrinkles in programs like The Abbott and Costello Show and I Love Lucy. It was a necessary evil of this nascent era, when television was rapidly changing from live broadcast to taped recordings. Audiences were still growing accustomed to the big square tube in their living rooms, and the laugh track helped ease the transition by simulating an intimate theater experience at home. You knew when to laugh because they told you when to laugh.

Naturally, this quaint bag of laughs was quickly abused. Sitcoms in the ’60s and ’70s took the laff box and cranked it to eleven. Realizing canned chuckles freed them from the burden of a live audience, shows like Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch ratcheted the laugh track to egregious levels. No show could escape the canned laughter craze — beloved programs like The Muppet Show and M*A*S*H used laugh tracking, even during outdoor scenes, when a studio audience was improbable. When animated shows like The Flintstones and The Jetsons added tracks of artificial mirth, the entire illusion of a captive studio audience was finally shattered.

Show creators hated the laugh track, spurring a constant feud with network executives who believed audiences enjoyed the audio cues. To adjudicate the conflict, CBS held a controlled experiment in 1965 with its brand-new show Hogan’s Heroes. The network tested two versions of the World War II comedy — one with canned laughter, one without. The test audiences overwhelmingly preferred the laugh-tracked show. Since then, nearly all CBS comedies have contained audience laughter.

Fake laughter was far from universal though. Many beloved shows, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Friends, Cheers, and Seinfeld, used studio audiences for most of their laughter, only adding dashes of the canned stuff through sweetening (that’s the term of art).1

But laughter of all kinds — live or tracked — was becoming the joke of the sitcom industry, as a morose aura started to envelop the merriment. An oft-told anecdote asserted that due to track age, the laff box contained the chortles of dead people. The canard seems to have originated with Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999), who ad libbed this bit of dialogue about sitcoms like Taxi:

It’s just stupid jokes and canned laughter! And you don’t know why it’s there, but it’s there! And it’s dead people laughing, did you know that? Those people are dead!1

It might have been true in the ’70s, but the claim is likely not accurate today, as audio engineers are known to assiduously update their libraries with new snorts and snickers.

Regardless, the stench of dead laughter was in the air. Starting in the early aughts, shows began to jettison the laugh track, as most celebrated comedies of the era — The Office, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Orange Is the New Black, 30 Rock, Community, Louie, Modern Family — abandoned the cheesy blandishment. Some programs maintain laugh tracks today (especially those on CBS), and they do tend to get good ratings. In fact, one can almost divide sitcoms into two categories — “critically acclaimed” versus “high ratings” — on whether they use a laugh track. As a generalization, shows that cozen a laugh from the viewer perform better in the ratings but seldom win Emmys.

Although widely derided, the laugh track served its purpose. Television began as a medium for viewing live events with an audience (essentially theater-at-a-distance), and it took decades for television to evolve into its own medium. The laff box allowed producers to literally play the audience, like an organ. Perhaps it was synthetic, but the technical innovation put the audience into the tube, creating a more communal experience in our homes. Today, that role — incorporating a disembodied audience — is played by social media. LOL.

If you’re interested in reading about more simulations, skullduggery, and flimflam, The Encyclopedia Of Misinformation is now available on Amazon.

  1. Sweetening is demonstrated with dismay in Annie Hall when Woody Allen witnesses laugh tracks being added to a live broadcast in a Los Angeles television studio. The term is also invoked in other commercial arts. When Kiss’s Alive! was released in 1975, it claimed to be a live album but many tracks were clearly sweetened, as they say, with studio overdubs to sharpen the sound.

  2. Another oft-cited (but inaccurate) source for this old saw is Chuck Palahniuk’s 2002 novel Lullaby: “Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.”