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In ancient Greece, early influencers were professionals who were paid to manipulate audiences’ emotions by earnestly applauding performers and performances. In French theaters and opera houses, the pros were called claquers. By the 1830s, theater impresarios would order groups of claques led by chefs de claque who decided and coordinated when and how the applause would occur. Monkey see, monkey do theatergoers would follow the claquers’ lead and take up the applause. Even today, some people wait until they see others go first.

The idea of hiring paid professional audience members to lead audiences to desired reactions was a good one and there was money to be made. New pay-to-emote groups include pleureurs (women who would pretend to cry at the sad parts), rieurs, (those who laughed loudly at jokes), and bisseurs (those who called for encores by crying Bis! Bis!).

Radio days

Back in the days before television, radio was how more than 50 million Americans got their live news and entertainment. Without pictures to watch, listeners used their own imaginations to visualize the actors, singers and musicians. Being hidden from listeners’ sight allowed such roles as Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon to be played by a short, fat, bald man.*

In its early years, broadcast radio was live, not pre-recorded

Orchestras played live and in person in studios and actors played comedies and dramas live on stages. All the words and sounds were broadcast exactly as they happened. Live audiences in the studios watched and listened to the announcers, actors, and musicians and reacted to the things they heard and saw with laughs, gasps, moans, groans, and guffaws.

Soap operas drew huge audiences of housewives in the 1930s

Companies with things to sell to at-home housewives ran ads for household cleaning products, particularly soaps. The first sponsors included Procter & Gamble, Lever Brothers, and Colgate-Palmolive. Some say the first soap opera was Painted Dreams, broadcast on WGN in Chicago. Others say the first was Clara, Lu, and Em, a Northwestern University sorority sketch.

Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats were delivered in a relaxed and informal style that had radio listeners feeling their president was sharing his thoughts with them

Families would gather around the radio to listen. Look how attentive they are, hanging on his every word.

The first radio comedies appeared in the USA in 1928

Stars of the time included Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Red Skelton. The most popular was Amos and Andy.

Rain delay

When Red Sox baseball games were rained out, one radio station filled the time with announcers Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. Bob and Ray were quick-witted, irreverent, and able to make audiences laugh with a steady stream of improvised comedy skits. Click here to listen to a 3-minute clip of their classic “Slow Talker,” performed before a live studio audience. You can also go here to find 434 of their radio shows.

Canned laughter

For centuries before radio was invented, all performances were live and in person. The audience’s reaction in a theater was an audible part of the performance.

As the often-told story goes, the laugh track first appeared on Bing Crosby’s radio show. A comedian named Bob Burns was warming up the studio audience before Bing went on the air. His off-color jokes were not fit to be broadcast, but the laughs they got were so riotous that the script writer asked the sound engineers to save them. A few weeks later, another comedian’s performance wasn’t getting many laughs from the studio audience, so executives instructed the engineers to add the tape-recorded laughs from Burns’ appearance. First broadcast in 1931, the Bing Crosby radio show ran for 30 years.

Another creation story says studio engineers recorded Marcel Marceau’s live performances

The only sounds were made by the audience, of course.

Hogan’s Heroes

This was the show that convinced television executives to use pre-recorded laugh tracks. Test audiences who watched (and heard) the version with the laugh track thought the show was funnier than those who saw the one without it.Test audiences who watched (and heard) the version with the laugh track thought the show was funnier than those who saw the one without it. A Gestapo comedy seems a conflict of terms.

The added benefit of using recorded laughter was there was no longer a need to have a studio audience

Studio executives were used to controlling actors, crews and technicians, and were unhappy that live audiences could not be depended upon the laugh at the right time, the right volume, and for the right length of time. Replacing live studio audiences with canned laughter was not only simpler, but cheaper, too – and made the studios more money.

What’s your take?

  • Supporters say laugh tracks make television viewing more of a communal experience. The original idea was that adding a laugh track would give radio listeners the same feeling as if they were watching a live production.
  • Critics say laugh tracks are coercive, deceptive and treat the audiences as if they were too dumb to know humor when they hear it. In 1955, actor David Niven said laugh tracks were “the single greatest affront to public intelligence I know.”

Early on, all canned laughter came from a single source

The dialog and storylines of network hits like Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mr Ed, My Favorite Martian, F Troop, McHale’s Navy, The Munsters, and The Flintstones may have been different, but the laugh tracks were all exactly the same.

The Laff Box

A man named Charley Douglass invented what he called the laff box. Inside this machine were dozens of different audience sounds. The operator would “play” the laff box like an organ, with keys that activated different laughs and foot pedals that were used to control the length and volume of the laughter. Douglass kept the inner workings a secret for a long time, and so made lots of money adding laugh tracks to every television program in town.

Storytellers say he recorded his catalogue of laughs with separate microphones in studio audiences for the Red Skelton and I Love Lucy shows

The Verge says the laff box had 320 laughs inside, including male and female belly laughs, chuckles, snickers, giggles and guffaws. The same laughs would play in the same order every time, so if you watched sitcoms of the Sixties, you heard the same laugh tracks hundreds of times. Over time, the laughs evolved as some old ones were taken out and some new ones added. People who are interested in such things tell us laugh tracks can easily be dated by the laughter patterns.

Time magazine called the laugh track one of the hundred worst ideas of the twentieth century

Other ideas that made the list include leisure suits, t-shirts with messages, psychic hotlines, aerosol cheese, and Smell-o-Vision. 

Smell-o-Vision 

Theaters installed devices under the seats that released one or more of 30 different odors when triggered by the film’s soundtrack. One unintended consequence was that odors lingered after the scene was gone. Another was that the many odors released into the air would mix, creating odd and unpleasant combinations of scents.  

Next time you are watching a television show and hear a laugh track, you will either find it more funny or less funny to realize that those laughs were recorded in the 1950s and are coming from people long since dead.

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*William Conrad was the radio Matt Dillon. You might remember Cannon, the TV series with the short, fat bald detective.

 

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