Can that Laughter

The Archive of American Television recalls the day that canned laughter began, on the Hank McCune Show

In its online “Daily” feed, The Paris Review has reprinted an interview with Ben Glenn II, a TV historian and expert in the history of canned laughter. It’s from Mike Sacks’ book, from last year, And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft (Writers Digest Press).

The interview will do little to appease anyone who realizes that canned laughter is an abomination – well, arguably – but it does put the practice into perspective. It may perhaps even make you wish you had a laugh track for your own humor among friends.

Glenn describes the beginnings of the laugh track on television, after limited use in radio. “Its first TV appearance was in 1950, on a rather obscure NBC situation comedy, The Hank McCune Show,” he says.

Glenn explains producers’ motivations for using the device – it facilitated shooting outside and on location, and of course it also provided laughs where there were none, sometimes because who laughs at the fifth take?

Another, less common motivator was that some programming provoked live audiences “to laugh too long” – seems an odd euphemism for “to laugh genuinely,” but there you have it. The most renowned instance of that occurred on an I Love Lucy show: the March 1957 “Lucy Does the Tango” sequence where Lucy dances the tango with raw eggs stuffed into her shirt – the mishap that ensues provoked a 65-second chuckle.

Much of the interview relates how Charles Rolland Douglass invented the “Laff Box,” a tape-loop device that he wheeled around on a dolly and locked up at night, to guard its secrets. Glenn also describes the uncanny skill Douglass had in storing, manipulating, and deploying laughter from various sources – Douglass was able, for example, to recall and reuse particular snatches of laughter, sometimes many years later, according to his needs for guffaws, titters, or other varieties of genuine response.

Some of Douglass’s earliest canned laughs came from a Marcel Marceau performance in Los Angeles in 1955 or 1956, during his world premiere North American tour, while others are believed to have come from The Red Skelton Show, Glenn says, although he adds that many of the secrets of Douglass’s methods went to his grave with him in 2003, and have remained well kept by his heirs and colleagues, even now that other companies have long been in the market, supplying chuckles via computerized programs.

Douglass’s company, Northridge Electronics, now run by his son, Robert Douglass, still produces most of TV’s canned laughter.

Among the most interesting notes of the interview are Glenn’s discussion of how canned laughs have changed, over time. For example, he told Sacks that in the 1960s “you could hear more individual responses – chortles, cackles from both men and women.”

He added: “Laughs are now much less aggressive and more subdued; you no longer hear unbridled belly laughs or guffaws. It’s ‘intelligent’ laughter – more genteel, more sophisticated. But definitely not as much fun.”

For his contributions, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences awarded Douglass a 1992 Emmy for lifetime technical achievement.

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