We are gathering here, dearly loved, to remember the passing of one our most frequent visitors. The creature that could speak with 100 voices but not have a face is what we remember. According to studies, the creature could manipulate our emotions more effectively than any other TV show over the years. We're calling it. The sitcom laughter track, also known as sweetened audience laughter and canned laughter to its enemies in the trade, is now dead after eight decades.
Many will not be saddened, it's fair to say.
If we are able to stand for a moment at the tomb, we will see that there are many lessons to be learned from this bizarre 1950s invention, which has shaped almost every American comedy over the decades. It's crucial that we recall how entertainment networks made us laugh, even when they weren't funny, and how this tyranny ended.
To start at the end...
Last of the laughs: The cast of 'The Big Bang Theory’ go out on a sweetened note. Credit to CBS
Historians will disagree on the exact time of death. It was the year 2019 saw the end of The Big Bang Theory, a popular sweetened sitcom. It was during the COVID pandemic when even the most unfiltered studio audience began to sound strange and possibly illegal. It was only later in 2021 that it was declared brain dead, and no sweetened TV sitcoms were shown on U.S. channels during the crucial fall season.
We knew for years that the deceased had been on life support. Its illness began in the 1990s when the laugh-trackless comedy shows of the early 2000s believed that the audience would know what was funny. The tipping point came when The Office's U.S. and UK versions became the most loved comedies on both the Atlantic and the Atlantic. The decline was swift: The Office won its first Comedy Emmy in 2006. No show with more laughter won that category again.
Laugh-track comedies had begun to retreat by the middle of 2010, no longer being protected by anxious executives. They were losing out in the marketplace for jokes. Fast-paced shows such as 30 Rock can really pack in the humor without having to stop for laughter. This YouTuber has done an experiment that counts the jokes in each type of sitcom.
The internet has made audiences more sceptical and savvy. Many people saw YouTube videos that removed the laugh track from high-quality sitcoms. This turned shows like Friends into sad stories of automatons staring at each other in creepy silences. Even Seinfeld's most memorable moments were revealed to be utterly dull without the laughter track.
The science was next. A 2002 study comparing Seinfeld to the Simpsons found that the former's laughter track didn't activate any additional comedy centers in the brain. However, a 2019 study showed that laughing tracks can make us laugh when we wouldn’t otherwise find the jokes funny. Laughter is not limited to language. Other primates use laughter to bond with others.
This begs the question: How have we been tricked into believing that we can laugh with everyone for so many years? One disturbing answer is found in the 2021 AMC comedy Kevin Can F**k himself. A haunting fake studio audience approves the protagonist's sad and destructive antics. It disappears when he leaves the room. This suggests that canned laughter has been covering up misogyny on sitcoms for many years.
It has been widely reported that it is returning to primetime. The Wall Street Journal stated in August that "the laugh track" was back in fashion. However, WandaVision and Kevin Can F**k Him were the only two examples. These shows use canned laughter in small doses to increase creepiness. These were exceptions that helped to break the rule.
It's as if we have all been living in Wanda Maximoff’s Westview. Only now can we finally break the spell that has kept us from erasing decades of horrible fake smiles. Who was pulling the strings?
Laff Box was the guy who did it all.
Canned laughter was created in the age of radio. This was helped in no small measure by Bing Crosby's discovery that sound engineering allowed him to pre-record shows while still sounding like he was entertaining in a playhouse. (We modern work-from homeers salute Bing. Radio comedies are still recorded live before an unsweetened audience. Radio is the medium.
Television required multiple shots from different angles and each one was accompanied with laughter by the audience in a different manner. This was when a new problem was created and quickly solved by an engineer. Charley Douglass, the inventor of the Laff Box was a typewriter-like device. For a total of 321 laughs, each key connected to a different type of taped laugh. Many of these were taped at The Red Skelton, as early 1950s comedy featured many mime sketches that didn't require dialogue.
Douglass held a monopoly on laughter, so it would have been heard for decades. Nearly all 1960s sitcoms feature his stamp. Executives couldn't get enough LaffBox and realized that more would make them more funny. Douglass and his family were virtuosos in the audience's laughter organ. They kept the machine secret to protect it from prying eyes. In fact, they even took it to the toilet when it needed repair.
Douglass' monopoly was broken in 1970s when other engineers discovered how to play the audience. As the laughter became subtler than the Douglass-era shrieking, more shows were filmed in front of a live studio audience, which, as the announcer wouldn't say, would still have an organ player controlling it. As you can see from this video, the basic formula was still in place in the 1980s. A wizened white man was deciding where to put the show. This was something America would enjoy.
The rest of the world, however, was a much more relaxed utopia. British comedy didn't need any sweetening. If someone in Monty Python's audience coughed or missed the joke, they heard about it. Even though some sitcoms from the USA were exported by BBC, they were stripped of their laugh track. I grew up in the UK and have never been able watch M*A*S*H* here in America. The canned laughter is sacrilegious, as if it were crayon marks on the Sistine Chapel.
(M*A*S*H* producers tried to get CBS to remove the program for many years and were unsuccessful. The Hulu version is still the most popular.
Sweetening software became more softening the more it was made. It had become an art form: pruning wild cheers at an actor's entry here and trimming too-long audiences laughs here during the Big Bang Theory era. Just in time to be rejected by society, the form was perfected.