The Long, Strange History of the Laugh Track

The laugh track concept came along long before television. (Photo: Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock).

If you grew up anytime before the 1990s and watched television regularly, you have listened to hundreds of variations on the laugh track, from giggles and snorts to guffaws and even groans — and probably have an opinion about them. (If you grew up later you've heard them, just not as much.) When I was a kid in the 1980s, I was not a fan of "canned laughter" as my grandma called it; I remember being pretty annoyed at the regular imposition, specifically because sometimes something wouldn't be funny at all, and yet often there was a huge, fake laugh. I would think that maybe I missed something or didn't "get it," which made me feel excluded. I remember watching reruns of "Three's Company" and new episodes of "Perfect Strangers" and later "Seinfeld," and trying pretty hard to ignore the laughter which all three shows piped in.

But what I didn't know then were two important things: The first is that what people find funny is very subjective. For some shows, the laugh track was just an amplification of the live studio audience the show was filmed in front of, and people were genuinely finding those jokes funny. I just wasn't. (Though in some cases, it could be argued that laugh tracks are inserted over unfunny dialogue.) The second is that laugh tracks work — several studies have shown that they do make people laugh more.

But how did we get to the seemingly strange place where we had fake laughter inserted into our TV shows in the first place? The reasons were not what I expected.

First laughs

Laugh tracks were originally invented because before radio and TV, people watched comedy, dance, plays or other performances live. You were always hearing other people's laughs (or gasps, cries or sobbing), because these art forms were only ever enjoyed communally. Once radio began broadcasting directly into people's homes, people might listen to a radio program by themselves, or with just one or two other people in the room. So radio producers and early TV producers recreated the live experience with tracks — originally including various types of audience reactions.

Bing Cosby on his CBS radio show

Recording pioneer Jack Mullin describes how the laugh trace specifically started with Bing Crosby's radio show: "The hillbilly comic Bob Burns was on the show one time, and threw a few of his then-extremely racy and off-color folksy farm stories into the show. We recorded it live, and they all got enormous laughs, which just went on and on, but we couldn't use the jokes. Today those stories would seem tame by comparison, but things were different in radio then, so scriptwriter Bill Morrow asked us to save the laughs. A couple of weeks later he had a show that wasn't very funny, and he insisted that we put in the salvaged laughs. Thus the laugh-track was born," he told Channels of Communication, a trade journal, in 1981.

In early TV, shows were filmed several times from various angles because there was only one camera (most TV shows today use multiple cameras with various angles which are edited together later). Each take resulted in different laughter patterns from the studio audience — sometimes it was louder or softer or went on for a longer time than ideal. CBS sound engineer Charley Douglass would tone down too-loud laughs and bulk up jokes when laughter was thin. His technique was known as "sweetening" — though it was still based on actual audience response. Later, Douglass made the first laugh machine — a giant wheel with tape attached to it; each section would play a complete "set" of laughter. In 1950, the Hank McCune Show was the first to be recorded with a laugh track, and others followed.

In the 1960s the integration of the laugh track with the writing and editing of TV shows became more refined, and as costs increased, some shows did away with the live studio audience. A laugh track was much cheaper and infinitely more predictable, and could be used on jokes that weren't considered funny to make the show seem more hilarious.

While some people complained about laugh tracks, a 1965 experiment proved that they worked; the pilot for the comedy show "Hogan's Heroes" was debuted in some locations with a laugh track and in others without one. The broadcast with the laugh track did better and so laugh tracks it was for all comedies going forward at CBS.

The mysterious laff box

laff box, invented by Charley Douglass

In a fascinating twist, Charley Douglass (later it became a family business, with his son and other family joining in) kept a tight rein on his "laff box" invention, which evolved from his first iteration. The box was a very closely guarded secret invention. At two feet high, it was played like an organ, with the keyboard keys denoting the age, sex and style of the laugh, and a foot pedal regulated the length of the laugh. Douglass actually carted the box around Hollywood and was the only one to insert laugh tracks into TV shows for over a decade, from the late '50s through early '70s. Douglass would regularly change up the types of laughs to keep the laugh sounds fresh, and was considered an artist of sorts for the speed and encyclopedic nature of his knowledge of what laughs were used where, according to his 1993 obituary in the Washington Post.

Whatever happened to the laff box? According to the New York Times, as of 2003, "The machine that Charlie Douglass developed is now reduced to the size of a laptop computer and carries hundreds of human sounds, including 'giggles, guffaws, cries, moans, jeers, ohs and ahs,' [his son] Bob Douglass said. As many as 40 of the available audience sounds can be combined. He added that the system includes examples of laughter of people from other cultures, whose sounds are noticeably different from those of Americans."

Modern laughs

Charley Douglass had a monopoly on the laugh track for some time — and charged commensurate rates. When production companies that made cartoons (which had much lower budgets) started making their own laugh tracks, the whole practice went downhill, fast. Awkward laugh tracks, made cheaply, and never updated, became fodder for jokes of their own, about how terrible they sounded and how annoying they were.

So starting in the late '80s and into the present, many shows (starting with iconic ones, like "The Simpsons" and "Malcolm in the Middle," and later including "30 Rock," "Scrubs" and "The Mindy Project") don't have laugh tracks, while others have canned laughter ("How I Met Your Mother" and "iCarly"), and some are still filmed in front of live studio audiences with "sweetened" laughs ("Friends," "The Big Bang Theory," "2 Broke Girls").

Due to the success of some of the shows that reintroduced laugh tracks to modern audiences, they are becoming a bit more popular again, but many showrunners, writers and producers grew up in the time of low-quality laugh tracks and are staunchly opposed. Whatever your feelings on laugh tracks, if you take them out of shows that include them, they begin to seem downright creepy, as evidenced by this compilation.

What do you think about laugh tracks? Vile, meh, or do you like them?