Video Wayback Machine: When TV Told Us When to Laugh
Back in the days when the TV was a "box" not a "display," when "boob tube," "idiot box" and "vast wasteland" were synonyms for the most powerful medium of the 20th Century (we weren't being ironic, either) the very symbol of television shallowness was the laugh track. Few artifacts of communication history so well embody media condescension to its audience. Programmers not only gave us tepid situation comedies; they tried to convince us the shows were funny by piping in canned laughter. From the gentle twitter when Jay North as Dennis the Menace might hide melting chocolate in his overalls to shocked shrieks when Lucy Ricardo takes a header in a vat of wine grapes, there were recorded chuckles for every level of televised amusement, good or bad.
True videophiles, get your checkbook ready. At an auction gallery in California this weekend (June 25-26) two of the original and long-lived canned laughter machines will be up for auction. According to the catalog from Don Presley's auctions, the original "Laffbox" created by Charles Rolland Douglass and the "Jayo Laughter" device by Jess Oppenheimer, producer of "I Love Lucy" will be up for sale. Like many aspects of TV development, the canned laughter machine was developed concurrently by separate minds, both of whom seemed to think Americans needed prompting to laugh. Douglass got the patent, and his original LaffBox provided tracks for 20,000 episodes that are logged in a book that accompanies the gadget. Only two years ago the Laffbox along with its usage logs were found in a storage locker. The Oppenheimer machine had been retired when Douglass got the patent for the concept in 1954. Both machines are now up for bids.
Apparently Douglass was very protective of the secret to bottled guffaws. According to auctioneer Presley, the inventor kept the box padlocked when it wasn't being used. But it was used a lot. If you ever saw a situation comedy before the laugh track subsided in the 1980s, then you likely heard his box in action. The laugh machine did not just insert laughter into sitcoms that had no live audience but it "sweetened" the real laughs of audiences too. Douglass was a maestro of mirth, tuning the level and kinds of laughter for the different sorts of show. By the 1960s when Hollywood-driven sit-coms were done on sound stages, the Laffbox" was called upon to provide full simulations of audience interactions. He was a laugh monopoly.
According to Wikipedia's history of the box, CBS tried to run a test of a laugh-less sitcom in 1965 with "Hogan's Heroes," which (believe it or not) the network had hoped to pitch as a more cerebral comedy. In tests the laugh-less version failed and a Douglass'-enhanced version convinced network executives to put the show on the air.
Much of the laughter we do hear from the machine came courtesy of a single comedian, Red Skelton. According to the auction catalog, Douglass spent countless hours recording portion of that show's natural laughter into capsule of laughs he massaged into a laugh machine.Skelton. The last man on TV for decades to get an honest laugh. Maybe the last one to have deserved one.