Once Upon A Time, There Was A Man Who Put Laughter In A Can

by Bob Walsh

I just read an interesting article about laugh tracks. Yes, that canned laughter that you find on many sitcoms that is supposed to make watching a show more funny and entertaining. The simple reasoning behind it is this: laughter is contagious. And even if it is just pre-recorded laughter that is played back to us – when we see something that’s funny (or even just has the potential to be funny) then hearing the sound of other people laughing actually makes it more funny.

(Of course, there are other ways to become more funny).

How did it all start?

Laughter is contagious. That’s why radio comedies in the 1930s often employed studio audiences -their laughter showed listeners at home which lines were supposed to be funny, and make them think the show itself was well liked by many people. Television continued that tradition. The problem: Sometimes nobody in the live audience laughed, or they laughed at the wrong parts, or too hard, or for too long.

In the late 1940s, CBS sound engineer Charley Douglass came up with the solution for the problem of underwhelming audience responses: artificial laughter. Making fake laughter was fairly simple: create tape loops of ideal audience responses, then insert them wherever they were needed.

Douglass started collecting audiotapes of shows from the CBS archive. He listened carefully to them, analyzing why one laugh worked and another didn’t. Douglass soon noticed that laughter came in many varieties: An audience could titter slightly, chuckle, or roar. And then there was the timing: the instant laugh, the surprised laugh, the delayed one, and, with a particularly intelligent or obscure joke, the rolling laugh as members of the audience got the joke at different times. Douglass realized that dozens of taped laughs would be required.

Ideally, Douglass thought, the canned laughter should be hearty but not too loud, enthusiastic but not disruptive, and just long enough to not throw off the performers’ delivery. He aimed to make it consistent and reproducible, and realistic enough to augment and even replace an actual audience.

And then he created what’s called a Laff Box – a machine that creates artificial laughters. As you can see, even at those early days there was quiet a “science” to it (if you stretch the meaning of the word science just a bit too far). The first time this Laff Box was used was in the 1950 NBC sitcom The Hank McCune Show.

It’s also interesting to learn how he worked:

Here’s how Douglass worked: He’d arrive at a TV studio pulling a dolly that carried his machine in a padlocked box. The session would start with Douglass in an editing room watching the finished recording of the show, and the producer would dictate when to insert a laugh while Douglass took notes. After the meeting, Douglass would head into a room that could be locked from the inside. There, he would add the laughter. Nobody else was allowed to be present or watch him work.

Extensive analysis of the laughs Douglass added to shows indicates that each of his Laff Box keys could offer ten different variations of the same kind of laugh, and all of his recorded laughs were sped up slightly to pack in more laughter. Douglass could adjust the volume with a foot pedal so the response could begin with a burst, or with a rising wave, a split second after the joke and drop off in time for the next piece of dialogue.

Some shows required relatively subtle additions; others would add a laugh after nearly every line. Hogan’s Heroes was notorious for its overwhelming laugh track; The Andy Griffith Show, on the other hand, had a barely audible one. Douglass also added subtle audience noise- “uh ohs,” whoops and hollers, and wild applause greeting a star’s first entrance. It took him a full workday to “sweeten” a half-hour sitcom, for which he charged $100 ($800 in today’s money).

You can read the whole article here.

But what’s most interesting to me is how powerful this effect of contagious laughter really is. We all know that the laugh track on a sitcom isn’t real – and when we consciously pay attention to it we often even find it annoying.

But most of the time, for most people, when we’re just watching the show and not focusing on the laugh track – it actually makes watching a show more fun and entertaining. It’s kind of like with a hypnotic trance state: when we’re immersed in watching a show, then we’re more susceptible to the “laugh suggestions”. In the same way, when we’re hypnotized, we’re more susceptible to whatever suggestions are given during the hypnotic trance state.

Recommended hypnosis download: Learn Humor & Be More Funny.