It is nearly something out of a Greek myth or medieval fable: a magical box, with one recalcitrant keeper, who plies it’s magics in secret, spinning ordinary straw into gold.
But The Laff Box,
the machine behind the much-maligned laugh-track, and the inventor, Charles Douglass, is distinctly modern–
But The Laff Box, that machine of the much-maligned laugh-track, and it’s inventor, Charles Douglass, are distinctly modern–
- and American.
The ‘encouraged’ laugh is not a strict invention of America;
there has been stories for centuries of ‘plants’ being used at The Globe Theater, for example.
But it took a window in the American media landscape to allow a device like the Laff Box to arrive, fully formed, like Athena, from Zeus’ head.
But it took a window in the American media landscape
to allow a device like the Laff Box to arrive, fully formed,
like Athena, from Zeus’ head.
The shift from theater to broadcasted medium was an awkward one.
We are, after all, a rather suggestable species.
We thrive, and at times, suffer, at the urging of our brethren.
Most early radio shows had live audiences.
The soundtrack of others enjoying what we should be enjoying, and in the same way, gave our enjoyment context, meaning, and purpose.
It follows that most early television shows were live at the beginning – the training wheels of the live studio audience laugh track were essential for accepting dislocated entertainment.
But damn if sometimes that old vaudeville sentiment collided with our new ad-driven age.
March 1957: An episode of I Love Lucy
contains a joke which causes studio laughter to pass the 60 second mark.
The producers begin to sweat the ad buy.
The engineer at the time, Charlie Douglass,
is asked to fade the sound of the audience’s laughter out. He does it well.
The producers are thrilled.
And Douglass goes home with an idea.
In developing what would eventually be known as the Laff Box, he would take advantage of his position as an engineer at CBS to bring home reels and reels of CBS shows, poring over them for hours in his living room to find and snip off the perfect isolated laughs, murmurs and hollers.
(Rumor has it that pantomimed Marcel Marceau and Red Skelton sketches, where there was no intruding music or lines, provided a great deal of the early material.)
The Laff Box itself was a kind of an odd combination of
concertina, organ, and juke box, where each looped sound had its own reel, and a pedal at the base that would control the volume and intensity.
Douglass plied his tradecraft in secret, rolling his padlocked box into the editing booth, shutting the door to
all but the most essential of participants.
He was supposedly nearly artistic about the needed laugh,
never one to go overboard, a delicate collagist of chuckles and guffaws.
As the 1960s became the 1970s, the laugh track became a punchline in it’s own right, evidence that even the creators didn’t believe in the value of a creation.
Douglass died in 2002, never understanding why his invention wasn’t appreciated to his satisfaction.
Some things, you just can’t tame.