Canned Laughter Lives!

The ghost of the laugh track survives online.

|

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 (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.

Advertisement

NEXT: The Second Amendment and the Living Constitution

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    1. I promise those aren’t Rick Rolls.

  1. I think the Hit & Run comments section should have a laugh track.

      1. Did the spambot just reply to my comment? I blame threaded comments for this development.

  2. An editorial defending the laugh track? And “News Busted?” For real? -_-

  3. Shows with laugh tracks tend to suck. That’s just a fact. But this is more due to the fact that the show is poorly written to begin with than simply because it has a laugh track.

    I still love I Love Lucy, though. But when shows like The Office can thrive and be hilarious without the aid of some tacky laugh track, it’s more due to the brilliance of the writing.

    1. No laugh track and no juiced-up studio audience, which is almost the same thing.

  4. On the other hand The Simpsons never had a laugh track.

    The Get A Life DVD’s offer laugh-track and non-laugh-track options of the show. That’s a case where the laugh track actually made a good show bad, although there was a certain subversive, mocking use of it on that show. Sometimes it seemed like they used it at inappropriate moments on purpose and the network zombies were too stupid to realize it.

  5. Do you know of any cartoon that has had one?

    1. I’m pretty sure The Flintstones and The Jetsons had laugh tracks.

  6. “Eventually, Johnson left CBS and started his own company, Northridge Electronics.”
    Who’s Johnson?

  7. M*A*S*H had one of the most ridiculous canned laugh tracks ever, and it was one of the most successful shows ever. I think all those 70’s shows used that same lame laugh track.

  8. M*A*S*H is another example of a show that was miserable to watch in the episodes that left out the laugh track. Which is weird, because the movie certainly didn’t have a laugh track.

  9. I don’t necessarily object to a laugh track, though newer comedies like Scrubs do plenty well without it and it’s probably best left in the past. But good or bad, NewsBusted doesn’t use the laugh track well at all. It’s not spliced in very well and it trips up the joke delivery. Conservatives have a target-rich environment, so there can and should be better conservative comedy than this. Relying on the laugh track has kept NewsBusted from reaching its full potential.

  10. Interesting discussion of Charlie Douglass’s contribution, but there’s a couple of inaccuracies. The vast majority of sit-coms were shot with studio audiences. As editors, we worked very hard to protect the laughs of the live audience. The laugh addition process was called “sweetening” because its primary function was to supplement and smooth the live audience reactions.

    While it’s true Douglass’s company was involved in sweetening almost all last decade’s comedy shows, Charlie wasn’t the lone operator. He had several employees, and producers had a choice of ‘sensibilities’ by choosing operators. The average session took 60 to 90 minutes, and the “laugh box guys” spent their days dashing from one sound mixing facility to another.

    Charlie’s loop system died with the advent of quality computer sound cards, and the system’s all computer based now. While the original system had some “old reliable” laughs, we regularly recorded a clean laugh track from the audience shows, and he frequently build loops customised to that particular show. The computerized system makes that process much easier.

    I don’t know what the source of the laughs on NewsBusted is, but they’re few in number, and the opening audience reaction has a hugely obvious double “whoop” in it, both the kinds of thing that would have made Douglass cringe.

  11. A downside to advancing media technology is that it becomes a crutch for mediocre talent – and the laugh track was the leading edge of that trend.
    A “live” or theatrical style of TV show should have a real audience to give the viewers a sense of immediacy as well as provide feedback for the performers (imagine a stand-up comic telling jokes to an empty studio and a laugh track). And it’s completely ridiculous for a cinematic style program to try to create the illusion of an audience. Where was the audience supposed to be sitting on Gilligan’s Island? Or on the Flintstones?

  12. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on

  13. As a sports fan I adore all kinds of sports

  14. This kind of shoes are very especial and beautiful. I recommend it to you. Hope you like it!

  15. This kind of shoes are very especial and beautiful. I recommend it to you. Hope you like it!

  16. I totally love this article.

  17. Ugg boots (sometimes called uggs or ug boots) have been considered a fashion trend since the early 2000s.The combination of its soft shank and sheepskin interior means that ugg boots are designed for casual, short-term use, and not for situations which require sturdy, protective footwear, as the design emphasis is on style and comfort rather than protecting the feet. While in the boot, the sockless foot is in full contact with the sheepskin lining, thereby maximizing the insulative properties of the boot.

  18. More difficult but still essential is changing the state’s budget rules. Christie must pull the plug on the Property Tax Relief Fund and reject the state Supreme Court’s Abbott funding requirements. He must return the state to a flatter income tax and put the revenues in the general fund. And finally, he must discontinue the fiction that this immense redistribution of revenues has anything to do with property tax relief.

  19. These kind of post are always inspiring and I prefer to read quality content so I happy to find many good point here in the post, writing is simply great, thank you for the post!

  20. This is probably why Seinfeld did so well. He tried to make it a point to make sure he had a live audience for every episode that aired. Shows like I love Lucy had so much canned laughter they would need a flatbed trailer to hall it all around. I don’t care if something is fake, but I do care when I can completely tell when it’s fake.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.