originally published January 9, 2014
It was once so commonplace, so natural, so subconsciously integral to the very essence of comedy that we hardly noticed it. The laugh track came with the medium; it was swept in as part of the original package, like the wheels on the first car or the door on the first refrigerator. It was the oily black fingerprint of television comedy, first by tradition then by mandate. If you didn’t hear laughs, you weren’t meant to laugh. Bing Crosby’s team brought the technology to radio in the 40’s when they had to jazz up the flaccid responses to some flat jokes. It seeped into the realm of TV with ease.
In the early 1990’s, the state of small-screen comedy began to transform, and with this came a subtle erosion of the dominance of the laugh track. Those shows with the broadest base appeal – by which I mean the ratings hogs that comedy connoisseurs and critics tend to loathe… yes, Two And A Half Men, I’m talking about you – still make use of laughter prompts. But for the most part, as an audience we’ve decided we don’t need them.
Good for us, not so much for the fleet of companies that made their mint by plopping requisite ha-has into prime time programming over the past half-century. Except there is no fleet. Most of the laughter beamed into our homes all those years ago came from the fingertips of one man.
That’s Charley Douglass, who was a sound engineer in the nascent days of television at CBS. Back then, many comedies were broadcast live from the stage to the screen. Those that weren’t live were shot with a single camera, with scenes re-staged several times to capture different angles. Studio audiences were used, but they couldn’t be counted upon to deliver the chortles when the writers wanted them to, particularly on the third or fourth take. Charley came up with a process to ‘sweeten’ the laughter. It was brilliant and effective, and when Charley was ready to leave CBS in 1953, the network claimed it was their intellectual property.
Fortunately for Charley, his prototype laugh-booster tape system broke down shortly after he left. He devised something new: a machine comprised of numerous tape loops of different laughs, many taken from audience reaction to the pantomime sketches of The Red Skelton Show, due to the pure, dialog-free clarity of the laughs. Charley had a host of different reactions, from giggles to gut-splicing guffaws. And he wisely built them into a proprietary machine that only he knew how to operate.
That’s Charley’s Laff Box. It features a ‘keyboard’ that would trigger the 32 tape loops inside, with each loop containing ten distinct laughs. Using a pedal for volume, Charley could manipulate the sounds to appear natural and dynamic, and his masterful editing skills enabled him to integrate these bottled laughs into the genuine studio response, creating a hearty stew of whatever the producers wanted.
The technology behind the Laff Box would later be adapted with tape loops of actual instruments – such as an entire string section – and developed into the Chamberlin Music Master, and later the Mellotron. Those opening notes of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the hooky string part in Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” were played on a Mellotron. That’s right – two of the greatest rock anthems of the classic era exist because of the same weird technology that told us when to laugh during The Flinstones.
I never paused as a child to wonder why a cartoon needed a laugh track. Clearly there was no studio audience. If the jokes are funny, shouldn’t we simply know when to laugh?
Actually, when CBS was getting ready to roll out Hogan’s Heroes in 1965, they did extensive testing of the pilot both with and without a laugh track, and audiences overwhelmingly preferred to hear the laughter. This might be because they were accustomed to comedies giving these cues, or it could be because we have an instinctive need to share laughter together in a group. Watching a play or a movie in a theatre provides this – watching a comedy in our underwear at home does not.
By the mid-60’s, live televised comedy was dead and almost every sitcom employed the single-camera technique. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show and a few others still slapped their goofiness in front of an audience, but that wasn’t practical with The Munsters, Bewitched or The Beverly Hillbillies. And when the laughs were needed, everyone called upon Charley Douglass and his magic Laff Box. He kept the thing in his garage and waited for the stream of producers to show up with tapes and instructions.
For shows like The Brady Bunch or The Andy Griffith Show, a laugh track was fairly practical and expected. But a laugh track insisted up on a forced pause, which slowed down the pace of even the sharpest comedy. While the laugh track seems inextricably bonded with the goofy early seasons of M*A*S*H, the greatest thing the DVD set ever did was allow the viewer the option of watching the show in the more natural, laugh-less state that creator Larry Gelbart had envisioned.
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman hated the laugh track. They had no studio audience for the first season of The Odd Couple, and the requisite pauses during filming felt jilted and arrhythmic. When the show moved to a live audience, they could treat each episode as a theatrical performance, which allowed for a more natural acting performance. Conversely, when the Monkees insisted on the laugh track getting yanked from their show, they wound up with dipped ratings and a swift cancellation.
By the early 70’s, Charley Douglass faced competition from a former protégé named Carroll Pratt. Carroll’s technology was more realistic and allowed for a greater dynamic, particularly when it came to quieter and more subdued laughter. Carroll moved onto Charley’s turf, adding to the audience guffaws for Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and the later, more dramatic seasons of M*A*S*H.
Charley’s business continued to thrive as the age of three-camera sitcommery took over, adding his laughs to the likes of Soap, Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Cheers. Perhaps the only hit show to remain true to its audience in that era was All In The Family, which taped before a live crowd and refused any laugh track sweetening in post-production.
HBO – which I refer to as the channel that saved television – forged ahead with hit comedies completely devoid of laugh cues in the 90’s, like Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show. It was the aesthetic of comedic film, imported to TV. In 2000, only one of the five comedies up for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy (Sex And The City) used no laugh track. In 2009, the only nominated show *with* a laugh track was How I Met Your Mother. The very feel of comedy has shifted. As an audience we have become accustomed to a faster pace, and to figuring out for ourselves what’s funny and what isn’t.
And so the recent spate of cue-less comedy juggernauts – Modern Family, The Simpsons, The Office, 30 Rock, South Park, Community, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Parks & Recreation, and Arrested Development – are most likely the beacons of a lasting trend, the eventual demise of show-prompted laughter. The Flintstones and the Jetsons are more antiquated than ever now, with literally every successful primetime cartoon forgoing cued laughter in favor of trusting its audience.
Have you seen those garbage shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel like The Suite Life of Zack & Cody or That’s So Raven that force laugh tracks in between their wretched interpretations of “comedy”? They aren’t kid-heavy laugh tracks either – they actually expect us to believe that grown humans are heaving forth chuckles at these terrible scripts.
I like a comedy that trusts me enough to laugh when I’m supposed to. Or one that trusts itself enough that its humor will be found.
Good riddance, Laff Box.