Canned laughter is today thought of as a cheesy, old fashioned way to generate artificial mirth from the audience, and to highlight when a joke was meant to be hilarious (in-case the audience members didn’t get the memo). But the origin of this much maligned technique is an interesting story in itself, and comes from the early days of television.
Canned laughter actually goes back 500 years, to the days of William Shakespeare. Historians tell us that during some of the bard’s more comedic plays there would be audience plants present in the crowd, ready to guffaw and shriek with laughter at the right moments to encourage less jolly members to join in (as we all know laughter, like the plague, is contagious). However, the modern term for canned laughter starts with a man called Charles Douglass.
Charles Douglass served in the US navy during the second world war as a sound engineer, working on radar systems. Afterwards in the 1950s he worked for CBS, which is where he became aware of a problem television producers were facing. They were trying to recreate the sounds of a live audience for their shows, initially recording their reactions and broadcasting it as a whole. This proved problematic though when jokes didn’t get a big enough laugh, especially if the actors fluffed their lines and had to repeat them, making the joke less funny. Douglas saw this problem and decided to come up with a solution. What he came up with, was the Laff Box.
The Laff Box was a unique analogue sampler machine. Douglas recorded various audience reactions from other shows onto spools of tape, he then housed them in a typewriter like machine that was operated like a keyboard, (similar to the mellotron, that was yet to be invented and used by bands such as The Beatles) with each key playing a pre-recorded tape of audience reaction. There were belly laughs, titters, guffaws, shrieks of surprise, ahhhs, ooohs and even uh-ohs. A pedal was used to fade out laughter or increase the volume if so needed. Douglass had compiled his tapes himself, and knew his material very well. He had dozens of reactions, and he knew where to find each one. Usually, he would slightly speed up the reactions to heighten the effect. Douglass’s work was considered a craft by many in the television industry and he was seen as a slightly mysterious, legendary figure.
Initially Douglas intended the Laff Box to “sweeten” live audience reactions. If a joke didn’t get a big enough laugh, he would fade in a few more raucous peels of laughter. If the audience didn’t sound surprised enough by the appearance of a special guest, he would deploy an almighty intake of breath followed by loud applause before fading it down to a titter. There were even tapes with seat shuffling on, to recreate the sound of a large audience. Eventually producers realised the power of pre-recorded laughter, and Douglass and his miracle machine were brought in to re-create entire audiences.
Douglas was highly protective of his creation, and only close family members were ever allowed to see it work. he would wheel it into TV studios on a personalised trolley, and work in a closed off room. Then he would secure it with numerous padlocks and return it to his fortified garage. The secrecy was no doubt to protect how his invention worked, but it was also to do with the stigma that canned laughter had in the industry, with many critics frowning on it’s use, as they still do today. Eventually there were competitors in the canned laughter field, using more realistic laughs and in newly developed stereo sound, and so Douglass, finding it almost impossible to transfer all of his mono tapes to stereo, retired.
The Laff Box went off the map and seemed to have taken it’s secrets with it forever…. until 2010 when it was uncovered on the US Antiques Roadshow.
Here is some of the only known footage of the Laff Box in action.