Canned Laughter: A History Reconstructed – An Interview with Ben Glenn II, Television Historian
(Originally appeared on ParisReview.com, July 20 2010)
How did canned laughter come about?
The concept actually goes back at least five hundred years. History tells us that there were audience “plants” in the crowds at Shakespearean performances in the 16th century. They spurred on audience reactions, including laughter and cheering—as well as jeers.
How about more recently?
Canned laughter was used to a certain degree in radio, but its first TV appearance was in 1950, on a rather obscure NBC situation comedy, The Hank McCune Show. Remarkably, there are a couple of clips from the show on YouTube. Shortly after the show’s debut, there was an article in Variety noting that the show’s canned laughter was a new innovation, and that its potential for providing a wide-range of reactions was great. Of course, that eventually came true.
How odd did the laugh track sound to those early TV audiences?
I can only imagine that it seemed odd to viewers, but using a laugh track held many advantages for television producers. The most important was that it made it possible to film exteriors and on location. It gave producers freedom. For example, scenes from Leave It to Beaver were shot outdoors on RKO’s—and later Universal’s—back lot. With the laugh track, a studio audience was no longer absolutely necessary.
Who invented the canned-laughter machine?
Actually, its official name is the Laff Box, and it was invented by a man named Charles Rolland Douglass. He served in World War II, and when he returned to civilian life, he worked as a broadcast engineer at CBS. Douglass was responsible for everything from recording sound levels during production to adjusting them in post-production.
Shows often needed sound correction before broadcast. Sometimes a joke didn’t get a big enough laugh, or, in the case of a famous I Love Lucy episode, the laugh was too long and had to be cut down. This particular episode was broadcast in March 1957, and it was called “Lucy Does the Tango.” The laugh, in response to Lucy dancing the tango with raw eggs stuffed into her shirt, lasted about sixty-five seconds.
There were other reasons, too: For example, I once attended a taping of Alice in the seventies, and the actors kept blowing their lines. Of course, by the third or fourth take, the joke was no longer funny. A Douglass laugh was inserted into the final broadcast version to compensate.
How did Douglass originally invent the prototype for the Laff Box?
According to his wife Dorothy, Douglass would bring home tapes of television shows and then pore over them for hours and hours in his living room, finding and isolating the precise audience reactions he wanted. He spliced together tapes into spools—essentially tape loops. There was a keyboard for this machine, and each key was connected to a separate tape loop. At the bottom was a pedal that would either increase the volume or fade it out. So, really, it was like playing a musical instrument. And Charles Douglass was a virtuoso at the keyboard.
It’s actual tape we are talking about?
Oh, yes—analog tape, recorded in mono. Incidentally, Douglass ran into a real problem with the advent of stereo television around 1976, when he had to convert his laugh tracks, which were mono, into simulated stereo. The result wasn’t entirely successful, as the sound of the re-engineered tapes didn’t quite match the sound of the show. It was the beginning of the end of the great Douglass laugh tracks.
Where did the laughs on the Laff Box originate?
Reportedly, the earliest reactions came from a Marcel Marceau performance in Los Angeles in 1955 or 1956, during his world premiere North American tour. This would make sense, because Marceau was, of course, a mime, and therefore, the only sound in the theater was the audience’s reaction.
Other reactions are widely thought to have come from The Red Skelton Show, especially the show’s mime sketches. I can state this with relative certainty, as it has been reported repeatedly by various sound engineers who worked closely with Douglass. It’s interesting to note that the Skelton show aired on CBS, where Douglass worked. So, in theory, he would have had access to those tapes. But, in the end, it’s also important to note that we may never know his exact sources.
As far as my research shows, there were never any interviews with Douglass or with anyone who worked at his company, Northridge Electronics. The secrecy surrounding his work is Hollywood legend. Only a very few people witnessed him using his machine, and it was always kept padlocked when not in use. Part of this secrecy was to protect his invention, to be sure. But part of it, too, was that, for some, inserting a laugh track may have been the same as admitting that a show wasn’t funny—or not “funny enough.” There was a real stigma surrounding the use of the laugh track, which continues to this day.
Have you ever seen a Charles Douglass Laff Box?
I have seen photographs of it, but very few people have ever seen this machine firsthand.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to some of the original “laugh-track men” who worked with Douglass during his heyday. What they have to say is fascinating. What’s even more interesting is that they continue Douglass’s tradition of secrecy by speaking only off the record, and with the condition that I not reveal their names. It’s still a secret, even fifty years later.
That’s astonishing—you can even find C.I.A. and F.B.I. agents who are willing to talk once they’re retired.
I know, but this is a very small industry. It’s a brotherhood—very insular.
When they spoke with me, they described Douglass’s method, which is quite fascinating. Producers would call Douglass into the studio to “laugh” a show. Douglass would show up with his Laff Box, which he carted around on a dolley that he invented. When he was finished, he’d pack up his machine, load it on his dolly, and drive off to the next job.
What made Douglass so good, exactly? Is there an art to canned laughter?
Oh, absolutely. First, Douglass knew his material inside out. He knew his library extremely well, which makes sense, because he had, of course, compiled it himself. He had dozens of reactions, and he knew where to find each one. In addition, he sped-up the reactions just a bit to heighten the effect.
Douglass’s work was crisp and clean. It was a real craft. And the range of reactions that he was able to find was incredible. Some of the big belly laughs are great. You just don’t hear laughs like that anymore. I also love the “shock” and “surprise” reactions, such as when a big audience says, in unison, “Whoa!” Those were used frequently on The Munsters when something extra-outrageous happened.
One more thing—Douglass not only had a terrific “ear,” he also had a terrific memory. Over the years he would not just add new tracks, but he would revive old ones that had been retired and then retire the newer tracks. For example, tracks heard in sitcoms of the early 1960s resurface years later in the late 1970s. The ABC series Delta House, which was a spin-off of the movie Animal House, is a perfect example. However, by this time, Douglass was using his most extreme reactions almost exclusively, and the result was pretty awful. To my ear, it rings of desperation.
How long would it take Douglas to add the proper laughter to each show?
It took him about one day to complete a thirty-minute episode. His daily rate was $100.
And he was the only person doing this? He could have charged a lot more than $100.
I know, which is probably why competitors began to appear, in the mid-seventies. Around that time, Carroll Pratt—who was a sound man trained by Charles Douglass—started his own company, Sound One. One of the company’s innovations was a set of new reactions entirely different from Douglass’s tracks, which, by then, were so familiar and ubiquitous that they sounded artificial. Sound One’s laughs sounded more natural, although they still had some very recognizable reactions. This was quite a departure from Douglass’s work.
I’m not a fan of canned laughter per se, but some 1960s sitcoms were so poorly written that I can’t help but think that canned laughter only improved them.
No question! In my view, the laugh track only adds to the fun of these shows, whether they are well written or not. I mean, Mister Ed, which I think is quite well written, would be so much less fun to watch if it had no laugh track. As far as shows with weak scripts—take The Flying Nun, for example—the laugh track saved that show.
Do the laughs today differ from the ones in the past?
They most certainly do. Today’s sitcoms are based mostly on witty repartee and no longer rely on outlandish situations or sight gags, such as you would see in an episode of Mister Ed or The Munsters or Bewitched—and today’s muted laughs reflect that. Generally, laughs are now much less aggressive and more subdued; you no longer hear unbridled belly laughs or guffaws. It’s “intelligent” laughter—more genteel, more sophisticated. But definitely not as much fun.
There was an optimism and carefree quality in those old laugh tracks. Today, the reactions are largely “droll.”
In what sense?
Just the way in which they sound. In the past, if the audience was really having a good time, it shone through. Audience members seemed less self-conscious and they felt free to laugh as loudly as they wanted. Maybe that’s a reflection of contemporary culture.
In the fifties, the laughs were generally buoyant and uproarious, although somewhat generic, because Douglass hadn’t yet refined his structured laugh technique. In the sixties, however, you could hear more individual responses—chortles, cackles from both men and women. The reactions were much more orderly and organized.
I can actually tell you the exact year that a show was produced, just by listening to its laugh track.
Have you ever detected an actual, authentic laugh on a live-action sitcom?
Yes, just once. There is one episode of All in the Family in which a reaction is real. The next TV season I heard it on a canned-laughter series, and I thought, Hey! That’s the same laugh I heard on All in the Family! But that’s been the only time—so far. I’m always listening.
How about shows that were supposedly “filmed before a live studio audience,” such as Cheers?
Cheers and other shows were indeed filmed in front of live audiences, but they were “sweetened” in postproduction by Northridge Electronics. Cheers was shot in the eighties and nineties, but you can still hear laughs recorded in the fifties and sixties.
Is there any type of comedy TV show that’s not sweetened?
Virtually everything you see on television has been manipulated—except late-night shows where the audiences are pumped. Even Sunday Night Football is sweetened. The Academy Awards broadcasts are sweetened—both with applause and laughter. They are sweetened live, right on the spot. In fact, Charles Douglass’s son Robert, who now runs Northridge Electronics, has won multiple Emmy Awards for sweetening the Oscar broadcasts.
When Robert accepted his awards, was the applause sweetened?
I’d have to go back and view the tape, but it’s quite possible.
Who’s in charge of the canned laughter on sitcoms today?
As far as we know, Northridge Electronics still produces the majority of canned laughter on television, and Robert Douglass carries on the family tradition by remaining as tight-lipped as his father. But the business is no longer a monopoly. There are many postproduction houses doing this work. The Laff Box has been replaced by the laptop, and I’m told there are multiple sets of laugh tracks that contain laughs specific to certain countries and cultural groups. Whatever the case, the technique is certainly a lot more sophisticated than in Charles Douglass’s day—which, to my mind, is not always a great thing. Nothing will replace those classic, vintage tracks, and I wish they’d bring them back.
And so, love it or hate it, canned laughter carries on into the next generation.