Media & EntertainmentTech

The Laff box: (Not) a laughing matter

The Laugh Track

Friends, Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory and even Netflix’s newest show Merry Happy Whatever (2019) all share one thing in common: the laugh track. Loved by few, hated by many and iconic to some. But how did the track come to exist? And how did it get so big? The short answer: a man and a box.

Hollywood’s laughter was kidnapped and held hostage for over a decade, and not a soul outside of tinsel town knew. A single man and a fascinating cross between a type-writer and an organ was all that was necessary to execute the crime. Confused yet? Welcome to a brief deep-dive on a (no) laughing matter: Laugh tracks

Douglass and his creation
Charles Douglass was an American naval engineer, who after working on shipboard radar systems during WWII, became a sound engineer at CBS. It was there, in 1953, where he created one of the most crucial and mysterious items of the late 20th century: The Laff Box (or more formally known as: “audience response duplicator”).

The purpose of this invention was to sweeten reactions from live audiences, create smoother reactions, or strengthen laughter

The purpose of this invention was to sweeten reactions (a term for the addition of audience noises) from live audiences, create smoother reactions, or strengthen laughter where jokes didn’t hit as intended. Additionally, these tracks provided the audience at home with a sense of a communal experience and made them more comfortable when laughing out loud by themselves, encouraging even more laughter.

Trapping laughter: The perfect crime
Douglass spent countless hours categorizing various types of real laughs from live audiences, which he combined with real laughter form actors, and ‘trapped’ these into his ‘box’. His invention – a washing machine looking metal box – consisted of type-writer keys and a foot pedal which controlled the volume of the laughs, to fade the sounds in realistically. This information however, was unknown by most of the world until an episode of Antiques Roadshow in 2010.

The Laff box was patented and handmade by Charles Douglass, and for decades, no one except his immediate family knew exactly how it worked or what the machine even looked like. Douglass worked with producers and took notes of where and how they wanted him to sweeten the sound. He would then wheel his creation into a room and proceed to lock himself in to work his magic.

Finally, in 1960 Douglass hired and trained a sound engineer, Carroll Pratt, to aid in the sweetening industry, and be a part of his company: Northridge Electronics. Producers often requested for a specific sound engineer to ‘laugh’ their show, as each engineer had their own signature laugh track compositions. In fact, one could technically identify the year as well as the engineer who worked on certain shows just by the laugh tracks. Add that to the list of important procrastination activities.

Were shows with laugh tracks funny in the first place, or were we unknowingly manipulated into thinking they were?

Shaping comedy
Douglass’ pre-recorded laughs were initially used sparingly but quickly became a staple of televised comedy. Soon, writers and networks became slaves to canned laughter, producing comedies often written around the tracks, causing awkward rhythms in dialogue. This begged the question: Were shows with laugh tracks funny in the first place, or were we unknowingly manipulated into thinking they were?

The truth is that it depends. Many shows are debatably still hilarious even without the laugh tracks, though it’s hard to not find clips of FRIENDS without canned laughter at least a little unsettling.

The fate of canned laugh
Pre-recorded laughter reigned the television kingdom for decades but the early 2000’s marks the date where laugh tracks began to disappear. Many hit shows including The Office, 30 Rock, or Scrubs, proved that a show can be both funny and successful without canned laughs.

So, what happened? Were networks wrong for over half a century? The answer is unclear. Laugh tracks were well received in the past and there didn’t seem to be much debate about their use for the first 50 years of their existence. The greater appreciation for isolated/individualistic activities of the current society could be to blame. Think about it, you lock yourself in your room alone, put on your earphones to isolate yourself from your surroundings and enjoy another season of a show. We experience it alone, so why have the company of an imaginary audience?

 Cover: Tim Mossholder

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Rita Alves
Rita Alves was born in Portugal but is currently living in the Netherlands, where she studies Communication Science.

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