Canned laughter kills good comedy. Fittingly, for many years it came from beyond the grave. By Helen Razer.

Laugh tracks from beyond the grave

Nineties’ classic sitcom The Larry Sanders Show
Nineties’ classic sitcom The Larry Sanders Show

In the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey voices the frustration of late, lawless comedian Andy Kaufman when he yells at a showrunner, “Those are dead people laughing. Don’t you know those people are dead?” Kaufman – who had appeared on the 1970s hit Taxi before dissolving into a series of celebrated comic ruses – liked to fool people, but not through the use of canned laughter. It is almost certain that Kaufman, who died in 1984, simply disliked a mechanical response to his spontaneous capers. But is it possible he’d also become privy to the secrets of the laughing dead?

If he had, he was one of a few in his lifetime. The mysteries of the laugh track, which has lately returned to network television after an absence led by the artful comedies of the 1990s such as The Larry Sanders Show and The Royle Family, remain vaulted. I am unable to discover the identity of the person to blame for the persistent pre-recorded titters on local programs Australia’s Funniest Home Videos and Ready Steady Cook. Perhaps they fear revenge. Or perhaps they are simply maintaining a tradition of secrecy set in place by the original architect of canned laughter.

A sound engineer who’d cut his teeth in pre-war radio comedy, Charley Douglass was one of the first to use the enhanced laughter technique that would come to be known as “sweetening”. On early comedies shot before live audiences, such as I Love Lucy or The Jack Benny Program, Douglass would “sweeten” what laughs he could in programming that was then shot on film. When the video medium gave TV production new editing opportunities in the late 1950s, Douglass recorded and edited hundreds of laughs and put them all into a machine.

The “laff box”, which contained looped tape cartridges, stood nearly a metre high and looked like a nuclear-era hybrid of a typewriter and a Wurlitzer organ. It was hidden and padlocked after use and its existence was rarely spoken of by its creator or his collaborators. At the touch of a key, Douglass, and later his sons, were able to select laughs of different moods, force and gender profiles. One of the mild canned responses was said to belong to Lucille Ball’s mother, DeDe, who attended every taping of the show. The “Uh-oh! Hoo-hoo-hoo” sound, emitted by a woman born in the 19th century, was replayed until the 1990s by the Douglass family of engineers. According to some reports, it was last heard on the laugh track of Frasier.

In his 1988 book of essays, Angry Candy, Harlan Ellison writes of the hush-hush nature of the big sounds he first heard as a sitcom writer in the ’70s. For years, writes Ellison, Douglass had the laugh industry all to himself. Carrying with him from studio to studio the big box of stolen, phantom mirth, the original laugh man kept his counsel. Douglass was a quiet joke troubleshooter “working extended overtime in a specialised craft where he was a secret weapon with a never-spoken codename”.

With the success of the sitcom, and the confidence producers held that canned laughter was the sound of network fortune, Douglass was unable to keep up with demand. Companies such as Glen Glenn Sound and Vidtronics supplied covert sweetness and by the ’80s some of them had captured new, more relaxed group laughs from the larynges of the living. And they were no longer played, as they had been by Douglass’s original machine, in an order fixed by the limits of a tape loop. In hit shows The Love Boat and Eight Is Enough, you can hear a laugh track distinct for its “randomness” and inclusion of separate chuckles. This is the soundtrack to Reaganomics: a joyful, fully automated individualism.

Now, an analogy between supply-side economics and laughter may seem a bit of a stretch, but intellectual critique of canned laughter – and there is more of it than one might reasonably suppose – tends to address the phenomenon as it might address the question of capital. Think of the laugh track, as Marxist thinker Slavoj Žižek might, as a kind of trickle-down mirth. The laugh track tells us that we have an obligation to participate in an economy of laughter whether we care to or not. The value of jokes in network sitcoms is not determined by their intrinsic quality but by the mechanical demands of a box that plays “Female Giggle Number 3” at timed intervals.

There are those who would argue that the laugh track, now back at maximum gain in top-rated shows such as How I Met Your Mother after its silence in hits such as Malcolm in the Middle, is a natural feature of entertainment. And it is absolutely true that the laugh track has a history that predates mass communications. Before the culture industry, we had plays at which a “claque” was employed to provide laughter and tears in all the right places.

But this primitive viral marketing, which sought to spread the infection of sadness or mirth, changes its character in the age of mechanical reproduction. We are not simply catching a bug when we join in with canned laughter. It is not so much that the laughter is immediately infectious – psychological studies indicate that a laugh track or an enhanced “live” track, such as that used to augment sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience, does not prompt viewers to laugh. Even the heir to the laff-box fortune, Bob Douglass, said of the producers who urged him to overuse the technique, “They thought it was going to be funnier, and it wasn’t.” It is more that the happiness of others becomes our duty.

Žižek, who is certainly funnier than Two and a Half Men (forcefully laugh-tracked to enhance the guffaws of its live audience), says “television is laughing instead of us”. This laugh track function, he says, is the opposite of a Greek chorus. The chorus would fill the audience in on subtext. The laugh track just hopes it’s turned up loud enough so that we will miss the fact there is no subtext.

The value of a joke, then, is determined by the inhuman mechanism of a laugh market and our laughter, heretofore a spontaneous physical reaction, becomes labour. Comedy becomes less a matter of jokes than it is of biopolitics. Just as a prisoner is required to undertake certain physical actions at certain times of the day, any poor sod doomed by habit to watch the immensely unfunny The Big Bang Theory is led by the culture’s wardens to chuckle at nothing.

It is not as though there were not early laugh-track critics within the industry. In his first sitcom outing of the late ’60s, Bill Cosby refused to entertain the idea of fake entertainment, and Larry Gelbart, series developer of M*A*S*H, begged CBS to let his early dramedy set in the battlefields of the Korean War unfold without the sound of DeDe Ball. He didn’t win and later told a US reporter he felt the decision “cheapened the show”. In negotiations with the network, however, he did manage to keep the field surgery scenes free from “Uh-oh! Hoo-hoo-hoo”.

Early rebels such as Cosby, who later returned fully sweetened, and British satirical puppet show Spitting Image, maintained their distance from the laff box. But it was not until specialty subscription services such as HBO wooed a new, self-consciously savvy audience that the dramedy form was permitted to flourish. HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show remains entirely binge-watchable despite its age, and Hank, played by Jeffrey Tambor – still a dramedy great as a middle-aged transgender woman in the new Transparent – rivals even George Costanza as an excruciating portrait of grasping pathos. Hank made his last appearance in May 1998, just as Seinfeld’s George did. It may be heresy to suggest that of the two programs, Larry Sanders endures best. Truly great comedy such as Seinfeld is only weakened by the sound of the can and this consensus among comedy nuts has driven dozens of YouTube users to edit the laughter from some of Jerry’s best-loved moments and upload them. They’re really much better.

Moral ambivalence is a good part of what made Seinfeld so funny and we never knew whether it was right to laugh at characters who disgusted us at the same time as we empathised with them. Being reminded of one’s duty to laugh by enhanced and pre-recorded chuckles was to be artificially relieved of the right to identify with these marvellous idiots. We should be very glad that there has been an era, fast disappearing, of comedy to which there is no obligation.

Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock, Utopia, The Thick of It and Veep are among the most outstanding and funniest shows of the era and all of them refused the stricture of the rim-shot. This nation’s most artful comedy in years is Josh Thomas’s heartbreaking Please Like Me, whose sad-funny season finale this week was made possible by a production team that would not even pitch the show as comedy let alone remind audiences of the constraints of the genre by the use of enhanced or artificial laughter.

Canned laughs diminish good comedy, as we can see in the new Fox-produced sitcom Mulaney – one of several new programs returning to the echo of the dead. But they make bad comedy far more saleable. From Douglass’s vaulted laff box, the dead are laughing at a re-emerging folly.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 18, 2014 as "Make ’em laugh".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription