NEWSBUSTED, a three-minute comedy news show that appears on the Internet, doesn't have a fancy set like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Nor does it boast an Emmy-winning staff of writers, a stream of high-profile guests, or branded coffee cups. There's no room for an audience either: NewsBusted appears to be shot in a closet at the Media Research Center, the conservative nonprofit that produces the show. But when host Jodi Miller cracks one-liners about senior citizen stimulus giveaways or Mike Huckabee's presidential chances in 2012, a chorus of hoots and guffaws erupts just the same.
That the laugh track has fallen into the hands of upstart outsiders is the sort of irony that deserves a mechanical chuckle of its own. For most of its 60-year life, the eternally jovial chorus that graced so many of America's favorite sitcoms has been portrayed as a tool of monopolist coercion, favored by heavy-handed network executives attempting to orchestrate our responses to their force-fed fare. "Canned laughter is the lowest form of fascism," Paul Krassner opined in a 1990 issue of The Realist. "It is propaganda that falsely—almost subliminally—implies something is funny when it isn't.…It is TV's ultimate insult to the audience."
But there's another way to view the laugh track, a way that also explains why its migration to the Web is so appropriate: The laugh track was, if not our first virtual social network, then at least our most ubiquitous one. It acclimated us to the idea that sharing our leisure hours with unseen strangers in the privacy of our own homes was a perfectly normal, extremely enjoyable endeavor.
While critics like Krassner portray it as a cheap trick corporate hacks use to pass off shoddy merchandise, its origins suggest more benevolent intentions. In the early days of radio, producers started staging their shows in front of live audiences in a bid to make at-home listeners feel less at home. They might not be a part of the happy crowd, but at least they could hear that crowd.
When TV came along, the convention stuck. At-home viewers expected an audience to be a part of the show, but live TV audiences didn't always deliver suitable performances. They got distracted by the crew and equipment it took to film a show. Sometimes spectators missed important bits of action. Sometimes they laughed too long. So the industry's sound engineers got to work, "sweetening" audience responses when they weren't up to par, and in some cases simply dubbing in an entire audience from scratch.
In 1953 one particularly enterprising engineer, a CBS employee named Charles Douglass, created the "laff box," a proprietary mirth-making machine. Inside it were tape loops of various kinds of laughter and other audience responses: a chorus of applause, a lone hysterical woman, scattered giggles. Each loop was connected to a button on the outside of the laff box. Using a knob to control volume levels and a foot pedal to fade the various effects in and out, Douglass played his laff box like an organ, creating appropriately joyous crowds on the fly.
Eventually, Johnson left CBS and started his own company, Northridge Electronics. When his machine wasn't in use, he kept it padlocked shut. If the laff box suffered technical difficulties while he was on the job, he wheeled it into the men's room, locked the door behind him, and made repairs. "About 80% of sitcoms in Hollywood were 'sweetened' by one man, Charles Douglass," Jib Fowles writes in his 1992 book Why Viewers Watch. So much for network hegemons angling to make audiences enjoy The Beverly Hillbillies against their will. The laughter that boomed from millions of television sets for the latter half of the 20th century was largely the product of a single hard-working entrepreneur.
From a technical perspective, the laff box was a tool of liberation, freeing producers to film in studios that weren't big enough to accommodate an audience, or on a desert island in the South Pacific where seven strangers on a three-hour tour had the misfortune to get shipwrecked for eternity. It also allowed actors to do take after take after take, secure in the knowledge that they would still get a big reaction no matter how many times they repeated the same punch line.
More important, canned laughter increased viewer enjoyment. A 1957 Time article explained how the ratings for a show called Dear Phoebe plummeted after its sponsor ordered the removal of its laugh track. Then the sponsor's advertising agency showed versions of the show on stations in two cities, one with a laugh track and one without. "The laugh-packed version ran 25% higher in its ratings," Time reported.
No doubt the laugh track's efficacy derived partly from the fact that we enjoy the sound of laughter—so much so that it doesn't matter all that much if the laughs are mechanically reproduced. As Jacob Smith recounts in the 2008 book Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media, recorded laughter as a source of entertainment predates both television and radio. In the early 1890s, one of the best-selling records of the nascent music industry was George Washington Johnson's "Laughing Song," the chorus of which consisted simply of Johnson laughing.
But television laugh tracks didn't just beget more laughter. They also provided people with a sense of virtual community. "No one likes to laugh alone," NBC president Sylvester Weaver told the comedian and New York Post columnist Joey Adams in 1956. "An honestly made laugh track can project you right into the audience, with the best seat in the house, to enjoy the fun."
The fun was decidedly communal. While TV may have been turning us into isolated shut-ins, seeking amusement in far more solitary ways than we once did, the boob tube's limited choices also united us. In the late 1940s and early '50s, millions of Americans spent their Tuesday nights doing the exact same thing at the exact same time: watching Milton Berle on Texaco Star Theater. They were watching alone or in small groups perhaps, but they were also watching together, and the synthetic, overamplified laughter blaring out of their TV speakers represented not just an idealized studio audience but themselves as well, collectively. It was the sound of an entire country having the time of its life, celebrating technological innovation, affluence, leisure, and a unity of purpose no communist country ever came close to achieving, all by virtue of sharing a laugh over a loud Jewish man wearing a dress.
Over time, of course, TV offered more choices to its viewers. Video games and the Internet popularized the idea that personalization was the future of media. With power shifting from content creators to content consumers, the laugh track, with its connotations of top-down direction, seemed increasingly out of place. As if to prove that it finally does get interactivity and does respect the autonomy of its customers, Hollywood began to distance itself from the laugh track: Of the 15 shows that have been nominated for an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy since 2005, only four have used one.
But Hollywood's problem is not that the laugh track is obsolete; it's that the Internet offers better ones now. While sitcom auteurs abandon the simulated community of ersatz laughter in pursuit of more sophisticated programming, the masses flock to richer, more expressive laugh tracks such as Facebook and Twitter. When Kanye West bum rushes Taylor Swift, or when Balloon Boy allegedly takes flight, these services project you right into a vast virtual audience, in the best seat in the house, to enjoy the fun. You can listen to the 140-character cackles of unseen strangers. You can contribute a snort or giggle of your own. Best of all, the show never ends, so you never have to LOL alone.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from San Francisco.