One Guy Did The Laugh Track On All Of Your Favorite Shows
'The Bob Newhart Show; was one of many that used the Laff Box. Pictured in 1975: Marcia Wallace as Carol Kester, Bob Newhart as Bob Hartley, Peter Bonerz as dentist Jerry Robinson, Suzanne Pleshette as Emily Hartley. Photo by CBS via Getty Images
You have one man to thank, or curse, for the laugh track you hear on old TV sitcoms: Charles "Charley" Douglass, a CBS sound engineer and keeper of the "Laff Box." For decades, Douglass had a monopoly on laugh tracks, it was as if he had the secret recipe for creating the perfect kind of laughter for each show. Classic programs like Hogan’s Heroes, The Munsters, and I Dream of Jeannie were echoing with sounds from his mysterious Laff Box. It’s safe to say that many of these laughs are embedded in your brain from years of sitting criss cross applesauce in front of the TV.
Why use canned laughter?
The most common train of thought is that sitcoms need laugh sweetening or to have a laugh track in order to provide a rubric for where the home audience should laugh in a TV show, and while that’s one reason to use them it’s not the only one. In many cases in the ‘50s and ‘60s the studio audience for a show would either give the “wrong” kind of laugh, or they simply wouldn’t laugh because they saw the same joke over the course of multiple takes.
In the instance of an episode of I Love Lucy from March 1957, Lucy Does the Tango,” the laughs were so heavy when Lucy shoved raw eggs into her shirt that they covered the lines that followed. In that instance the laughs actually had to be cut down.
Douglass went from show to show to sweeten laughs
After Douglass introduced his laugh sweetening technology in the form of his mysterious “Laff Box,” he left CBS and started going from show to show to add laughs or simply sweeten the tracks that were already there. This mysterious rainmaker would show up with his Laff Box, unload the gizmo from its dolly, and get to work. In order to get the right kind of laughs out of his machine, Douglass worked the laughs from a tape machine, but rather than running them from a tape machine as you would in a recording studio, he played the box like a keyboard, using foot pedals to control the length, volume, and speed of the laughs.
No one knows where his laughs came from
When Douglass brought his idea to the television studios he was prepared with a series of taped laughter that was ready to go, and while there are theories about where the audio came from he and his family have never spoken on the record about where they come from. His wife Dorothy claims that Douglass was obsessive about the laughter he used. Supposedly he pored over tapes of TV shows, searching for just the right laughter, before ripping the perfect moments. Television historians believe that the earliest laughter came from a Marcel Marceau performance from 1955 or 1956, the perfect thing for grabbing laughs. Because Merceau was a mime there was no audio coming from the stage to interrupt the sounds that Douglass was looking for.
Hanna-Barbera was the first production company to break away from Douglass
In the late ‘60s, Hanna-Barbera, the producers of shows like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, and Josie and the Pussycats, decided that they didn’t need to work with Douglass anymore and they created their own laugh tracks by re-recording some of the tracks that Douglass provided for their previous shows. The laughs weren’t under copyright, but Hanna-Barbera still made basic changes to the sounds to differentiate them from the originals. The sounds were routed through a tape machine that could hold five tape loops, which were used consistently over the next decade. The tracks were so obnoxious that in 1994 sound engineer and laugh track historian Paul Iverson said:
The Hanna-Barbera laugh track did more to give laugh tracks a bad name than Douglass's work could ever have done. Using the same five or so laughs repeatedly for a decade does not go by unnoticed, no matter how young the viewer is. All it takes is watching an episode of Josie and the Pussycats alongside of Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space and it is painfully obvious. It is a shame that a company as powerful as Hanna-Barbera — who, at its peak, practically owned Saturday mornings — thought so little of their audience by dubbing such an inferior laugh track for so long a period.
The Douglass family is still producing laugh tracks
Even though Hanna-Barbera broke away from the Douglass Laff Box system he continued to thrive in the industry. The company is now known as Northridge Electronics and its run by Charley’s son Robert Douglass, who’s equally as secretive about his methods as his father was. The only thing that people really know about Northridge Electronics is that they stopped using Laff Box in lieu of modern digital technology. The Douglass family doesn’t have a stranglehold on the laugh track industry and today there are multiple companies who cater to various countries, and types of programs, but none of them are as inventive as Charley Douglass and his mysterious Laff Box.
The Laff Box showed up on "Antique Roadshow"
In 2011 the original Laff Box showed up on Antiques Roadshow after a guy bought it from a storage auction. The machine still worked, which is absolutely wild, and the tape machine also came with a journal that listed which shows that Douglass worked on as well as some of the recordings that he had. One recording was marked “Merv screams,” and another was marked “Beatles,” which means that Douglass was either on hand for one of the performances of from The Beatles in the 1960s, or he managed to pilfer the audio. Either way, the Laff Box was appraised at about $10,000.
Tags: Sitcoms | TV From The 1980s | TV In The 1950s | TV In The 1960s | TV In The 1970s
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