We’re all familiar with American sitcoms that are packed full of laughter – Friends, Big Bang Theory and Will & Grace to name a few.
These infectious laughs have a few aliases, known as laughing tracks, sweetened laughter or even canned laughter.
Its origin can be traced back to when Bing Crosby realised that by utilising sound engineering, he could pre-record shows and still sound as though he was entertaining live audiences.
When TV required multiple takes from differing camera angles and each take was accompanied by the sound of audience laughter, this became a problem.
The turning point for the industry came when sound engineer, Charles Douglass, created the ‘Laff Box’ in 1950.
Each key of the typewriter-esque machine was connected to the sound of laughter that had been taped, totalling 320 different laughter options.
Bing Crosby utilised the power of sound engineering
Much of this laughter was taped from early 1950s comedy, The Red Skelton Show, as it often featured dialogue-free mime sketches. This means that in many American shows and sitcoms, the laughter is often from 1950s recordings, so most of those laughs are likely to belong to people who are now dead.
Author Chuck Palahniuk discussed this strange posthumous phenomenon in his 2002 novel, Lullaby, writing: “Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.”
If that wasn’t eerie enough, the chortling of now mostly deceased audience members continued to be used across America for decades because Douglass had a monopoly with this trademark technology.
Its popularity only grew during the years because TV executives believed that it would make sitcoms appear to be funnier.
This monopoly, although still prevalent, began to show signs of breaking down from the 1970s as other sound engineers began to learn how to play the audience too, creating their own reels.
In later years, the laughter became more subtle in nature than Douglass’ recorded sounds and it became more common for TV shows to be filmed in front of a live studio audience.
As time has passed, laughing tracks appear to be gradually becoming a thing of the past. Just think of the comedic success of both the US and UK version of The Office, New Girl and Brooklyn 99 – all absent of a pre-recorded reel of laughter.
Now, YouTube videos showing clips from popular shows like Big Bang Theory without the use of canned laughter often go viral, mostly due to the ‘awkwardness’ of the scene as well as the realisation that some of the jokes just aren’t that funny, when laughter tracks would traditionally lead us to believe that they are funnier than they really are.
One example is a YouTube video with an impressive 11 million views, simply titled ‘”Friends”: Ross Geller without laugh track = psychopath’. The video details exactly that, a number of gags from the character, Ross, that appear to be almost inappropriate and a little bit strange without the injected laughter.
If however, you do find yourself watching an older American sitcom complete with sweetened laughter, see for yourself if the thought that most of the people you hear laughing are dead, ruins the joke for you.