Looking For Reasons To Laugh

Why “canned laughter,” a controversial element of most television comedy, feels so unnerving in its absence—and why it’s so fascinating in the first place.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: As our life has been thoroughly disrupted twelve days from Tuesday, I’ve found it difficult to ignore the evil beast in front of us, a beast that flattens the curve in more ways than one. Beyond preventing an evil uncontrollable disease from decimating our entire way of life, it takes people who excel at reaching people at scale and cuts them back down to an individual size. Which has been particularly interesting to watch in the case of late-night talk show hosts—who suddenly found themselves without live studio audiences last week as warnings began to pick up. Episodes of the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon were shot in front of the show’s staff; Last Week Tonight With John Oliver had no audience at all, along with a new set, due to COVID-19 cases that occurred in its normal location. These talk shows—particularly Oliver’s—made me think about the nature of laugh tracks, which are so often treated as a given in modern entertainment, and the ways it’s missed when it’s not there. Today’s Tedium talks about “canned” laughter. LOL. — Ernie @ Tedium

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The year that Bing Crosby, getting sick of having to record multiple shows for different coasts with the same material, came up with the idea of putting a laugh track on his material. (This was around the time Crosby made a key investment in magnetic tape.) Per a biography of Frank Sinatra that discussed recording techniques of the era (yes I know, weird source), Crosby apparently had his sound techs borrow the laughter from a comedian whose material was too blue to air. “We couldn’t use the jokes, but Bill asked us to save the laughs,” recalled Jack Mullin, an early recording engineer for Ampex. “A couple of weeks later, he had a show that wasn’t very funny, and he insisted that we put in the salvaged laughs. Thus, the laugh track was born.”

Why does canned laughter stand out so much when it’s missing?

This past Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight had me feeling just as discombobulated as COVID-19 has.

Oliver is a man who has a lot of experience telling good jokes, and he has done so for many years, but I can’t think of another time in his entire career where he’s made such jokes without the benefit of a laugh track. At least Fallon and Colbert had that going for them—Oliver just winged it in a new environment without any benefit of a crowd to soften the blow of the difficult truths he was throwing at the audience in regards to a scary crisis that forced his show off the air faster than a New York City snowstorm.

But while a missing laugh track was a new experience for someone like Oliver, it was not one for television in general. In recent years, shows as diverse as Arrested Development, The Office, and Modern Family have not only survived without them—they’ve thrived. But the starkness of a show built around a laugh track not having one felt like a commentary on the crowd itself, the way that people make the world feel just a bit more whole.

To put this all another way, it highlights the way that laugh tracks have remained highly contested elements of what makes good television. Some shows thrive on the laughter; others feel sharper without it.

The rise of studio audience-based laughter was driven by two aspects: One, audience expectations, and two, a need to help beef up the reaction to what was happening on the screen. Because people had previously experienced comedy inside theaters or movie houses rather than in the comfort of their own homes,

From its beginnings in radio, when audience applause and laughter was added to the performances, the laugh track was seen as extremely controversial. Erskine Johnson, a well-known Hollywood gossip columnist, wrote of the problem of “canned laughter” as early as 1952, taking the stance that it was an unwelcome nuisance.

“My theory is that if it’s funny I’ll laugh—and I don’t need howls of an unseen audience bursting into my living room to convince me that Lucille or Gracie or Eve are hilarious people,” Johnson wrote. “Hollywood has been filming comedies for years without ‘canned laughter.’ Laughs never made an unfunny comedy funny.”

Hollywood apparently disagreed, even if some of the people on the ground sided with Erskine Johnson. Marc Daniels, a TV director known for his work with I Love Lucy and I Married Joan, told newspaper columnist Hal Humphrey in 1953 that laugh tracks ruined the integrity of the shows by forcing a perception of humor.

“We’re dictating to the viewers when we add studio laughs in any form,” Daniels told Humphrey. “We’re saying, ‘This is funny, so laugh!’ We don’t trust the viewers, nor do we have faith in what we are doing. The laughs are added to convince both ourselves and viewers that the show is funny.”

Daniels himself said that he challenged the use of such laugh tracks when they began to be used on I Love Lucy, but lost the battle. “Now, of course, they will never find out if the show needed the laughs, because the pattern has been set,” he added.

And to this day, people call for the death of the laugh track. Writer Jordan Fraser, in a piece for Medium’s Overlords site, makes a compelling case that laugh tracks get in the way of good comedy.

“What I loved about Seinfeld was the amazing jokes that came one after another,” Fraser wrote. “What I hated was how slowly the jokes had to be delivered while the actors constantly waited for the studio audience to shut the hell up.”

For some modern shows, though, the pattern really works. Back in 2012, a series of videos went viral that did nothing but feature The Big Bang Theory, a show with a large number of haters alongside its many fans, without a laugh track. Some watch this and assume that it’s a clear sign that the show isn’t funny and has no jokes.

I have a more charitable view, as I actually appreciate the show: It’s a type of sitcom that works with a laugh track not to cover up bad jokes, but to keep things moving snappily. If they had designed the show without a laugh track, its dialogue would be built to match.

More sitcoms used to be built like that show, where the laugh track is actually a key part of maintaining the rhythm of the episode. Don’t blame Chuck Lorre for simply building a traditional sitcom using a key part of the form.

Another subject of similar criticism is Friends, which often feels flat and lifeless without all those cackling voices pushing it forward. It also changes the tenor of the characters—Ross Geller takes on a particularly dark tone with the loss of comedic context.

So, who’s right?

“Those phony, recorded laughs on television comedies have done more to destroy comedy than anything else. The laugh track has made it too easy for writers. They know that if a joke doesn’t go over, it can be covered with a laugh track.”

— Groucho Marx, explaining in a 1967 interview with the Associated Press his view that the laugh track, a staple of television from its earliest days, has proved damaging to comedy. The laugh track, despite its prevalence, has always had its haters.

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(via PBS)

The guy who turned the laugh track into a musical instrument of sorts

A decade ago, an unusual gadget turned up on Antiques Roadshow, and it turned out to be quite a find.

Uncovered as a part of a storage auction, the one-of-a-kind device surprisingly worked despite its age, but figuring out what, exactly, it was offered a bit of a challenge. Appraiser Gary Sohmers had a pretty good idea by the time he put his eyes on it: “You found out that this was the laugh track machine, the original one,” he said.

The guest had gotten his hands on the first machine for building a laugh track—making the addition of applause, cheering, and (yes) laughter as easy as pressing a few buttons.

“What this box is, is an important part of television history,” he added. “Because television would not be the same without a laugh track. To me, this is as important as early cameras, as important as many of the computer technologies that exist today.”

In 1953, this specific machine was developed by an audio engineer named Charlie Douglass, who felt that the nature of applause from crowds was too inconsistent to rely on without a little bit of help.

The interesting thing about the resulting device, called a Laff Box, is that, despite its use case, it was effectively a musical instrument—and a specific one, at that: It shared numerous elements with the Mellotron, a type of keyboard that used tape to expand its aural horizons into something that sounded akin to an orchestra. The device, just like a Mellotron, could be used to develop a wide array of padding noises—but the Laff Box, developed more than a decade before the instrument that it unintentionally worked like, limited its abilities to laughter and applause.

That was a powerful thing in the early days of television, and meant it could be used set the mood for the reaction to an entire show. Often, though, it was used primarily to “sweeten” the existing audience reaction, which could at times have gaps or areas that needed to be filled out.

The device was in many ways proprietary to Douglass, who used them on his various gigs in television over the years. As Arthur Schneider’s 1997 book Jump Cut! Memoirs of a Pioneer Television Editor explained, Douglass was able to bring new power to shows such as Laugh-In using his device, which he was very protective of:

In order to change tapes, he had to unlock a large brass padlock on the side of the box (he didn’t want anyone to see what was inside). Every time he needed to change tracks, he would disconnect the machine and wheel it into a corner or behind a curtain so as not to have anyone peek over his shoulder. Sometimes a laugh would be too strong or too weak, so we would stop and back up to just ahead of the area needed to be corrected. Then Charlie would redo the laugh, then continue adding new laughs or go back and modify laughs he had just done. Generally, mixing all the separate soundtracks together and adding laughs took about one eight-hour day.

However, it didn’t necessarily mean that Douglass was always the right guy to use it. As Jason Kottke noted on his site in 2013, Douglass took a too-conservative approach to doling out the laughs compared to other family members who were also trained on the device.

“Since more than one member of the Douglass family was involved in the editing process, it was natural for one member to react differently to a joke than another,” the site explained. “Charley himself was the most conservative of all, so producers would put in bids for other editors who were more liberal in their choice of laughter.”

Nonetheless, the wide use of the device, even with all the modulation that was possible with the Laff Box—including a foot pedal to control the length of the laugh—meant that it was inevitable that people would hear the same laughs more than once. After all, just 320 laughs on 32 separate tape loops, played in order, means that you’re going to eventually hear your favorites again and again in differing contexts.

So if you ever felt like you were in a loop when watching an old sitcom, feeling like a funny moment seemed awfully familiar, this is probably why—you probably were.

“He took an awful lot of flak for that. Some of it should have been pointed at the nervous producers and directors, but he was the recipient.”

— Carol Pratt, a recording engineer who frequently worked with Douglass during the early television era, discussing the criticism that Douglass received for his invention of the laugh track. As a 2003 Los Angeles Times obit about Douglass noted, he rarely talked about his invention because of the debate his invention created in the entertainment world. The obit notes that Douglass borrowed many of his laughs from a Red Skelton Show episode in which Skelton was pantomiming, meaning that he got a clean sample of the laughter Skelton was generating.

Going back to The Big Bang Theory and Friends, and whether or not the laugh track is an important part of their effectiveness as sitcoms, it turns out that a group of academics have actually researched this topic recently … and came out in favor of the laugh track.

A study done by the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London actually found that jokes that were not perceived as funny suddenly gained a new energy when the same jokes were padded with built-in cues for laughter—especially when the laughs were genuine, rather than simply forced.

“The addition of laughter increased how funny the jokes were perceived to be: there is a significant difference between the baseline ratings and the joke and laughter ratings of the neurotypical adults, irrespective of type of laughter,” the researchers wrote last year in Current Biology. “Furthermore, the increase in perceived humorousness was modulated by the kind of laughter: the addition of spontaneous laughs led to jokes being rated as funnier than with the addition of posed laughs.”

This is, perhaps, natural. Laughter always seems a little easier to elicit when someone else is starting the joke.

Perhaps if we had a laugh track over all the news stories about the global emergency that is the coronavirus, this might be all a little bit easier to take.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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