Let's Reminisce: Revival of the laugh track
By Jerry Lincecum
Sep 13, 2021
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One result of the pandemic is that the laugh track is finally being taken seriously. Critics have long viewed adding the taped sound of laughter to TV shows as an exercise in mind control. At best, TV viewers have tolerated it as a necessity on par with elevator music.

But canned laughter, which began after World War II as a way to “sweeten” radio comedies, is now playing a starring role in two cutting-edge TV miniseries, and it may have a future in late night talk shows.

 Research has shown that the sound of group laughter enhances humor’s impact. During the early months of the pandemic last year, late night TV talk shows had to broadcast without a live audience. Producers didn’t want to replace audience response with a laugh track, to avoid appearing corny, dated or gimmicky. But they found that jokes delivered from a host’s silent den seemed a lot less funny to at-home viewers.

The reason laughter makes jokes seem funnier is that it’s contagious. The laugh track was introduced initially to take the place of a studio audience and let TV viewers know what was funny.  People are 30 times more likely to laugh if there are others with them. They want to be part of the collective experience.

In recent decades, the laugh track became unfashionable, while incidental music remains essential to TV and film. But the two aren’t as different as they might seem. Background music is there to build anxiety and fear. The laugh track performs the same role for humor, to trigger an emotional response.
In the U.S., recorded laughter began in 1920 with the release of “The Okeh Laughing Record.” Originally recorded in Germany, the album featured music from a sad cornet interrupted by a woman and a man laughing. The odd novelty 78 disc sold more than a million copies.

As a juicer for live entertainment, however, canned laughter made its first appearance in 1946. To raise the spirits of American troops stationed overseas, sound engineers for Armed Forces Radio doctored comedies with the recorded sound of audience laughter. That same year, Jack Mullin, an electronics specialist in the Army Signal Corps, returned from the war with two radio-quality German magnetic tape recorders that could reproduce sound as if it were live.

Mullin’s technique caught the ear of Frank Healey, who worked on Bing Crosby’s popular radio show. The crooner wanted to record his program in the relaxed environment of a studio, but felt it had to sound live; the new tape technology made that possible. Crosby’s first taped show was broadcast on Oct. 1, 1947.

During one recording session, the live audience laughed too long at a joke, pushing the program over its running time. After the laughter was shortened, Crosby asked the engineer to save the strip of spliced tape in case it was needed later. Before long, they had 42 tapes of different types of audience laughter. These allowed Crosby to record his show at home in Nevada with no audience, interspersing it with outbursts and groans of just the right length.

As television caught on in the early 1950s, most comedies were filmed in front of a live audience. Taped laughter was used for shows that didn’t have audience space. “The Hank McCune Show,” a sketch comedy program, is widely considered to be the first sitcom to use canned laughter, in 1950. Others quickly followed.

When videotape began to replace live cameras at the end of the decade, TV shows could be edited before airing. But splicing left audio gaps that needed smoothing out. Producers called in Charles Douglass, a sound engineer who had invented a mysterious and complex “laff box” in 1953. It featured a keyboard that could combine a wide range of taped audience responses, holding 320 different laughs.

Douglass’s work picked up considerably in the 1960s, when sitcoms began dropping live audiences. Shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Addams Family” were taped in multiple locations per episode, including outdoors, so adding taped laughter made more sense.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the laugh track remained common. In the 1990s, “Friends” used a live audience while “Seinfeld” went with a laugh track. Not until the 2000s did hit sitcoms such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” start to dispense with both, relying on characters’ laughter and facial expressions to cue at-home responses.

Today, the laugh track has evolved. Which brings us to “The Daily Show.” When the Covid-19 pandemic began sending Americans home in March 2020, the taped Comedy Central show shifted from the studio to the New York apartment of host Trevor Noah. “We had to come up with a new set of pandemic rules,” said “Daily Show” executive producer Jennifer Flanz.

If late-night hosts are forced to broadcast from home again later this year, will canned laughter be more palatable to audiences? Probably, but the laugh track is still tricky.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: