Why aren’t there any more recorded laughs on sitcoms?

Brilliant and devilish invention born in the 1950s in the United States, the famous recorded laughter used in an industrial quantity of Sitcom experienced a golden age for several decades. Before dying out slowly, but surely.

Why aren't there any more recorded laughs on sitcoms?
Warner Bros. Television

It has irrigated and fed an industrial quantity of American soap and sitcoms, and not only. All over the world too. Composed of more than a hundred people but never visible, yet so audible and characteristic, it accompanied the history of television in the very long term, making the joy of American households since the fifties, and knew its hour of glory for decades. Before passing away peacefully, gradually. Until almost disappearing from circulation in a general and polite indifference. And especially at low noise. So much so that hardly anyone noticed it.

Who is “he”? The famous recorded laugh, otherwise known as Canned Laugh across the Atlantic; laughter in a box. Those famous sound recordings of laughter that are added to the soundtrack of a television production to reproduce those that would have been audible if it had been shot in front of an audience, or to trigger or amplify the laughter of the audience in the shows that have actually filmed in public, like most American sitcoms.

The stated goal? Simple, almost rude: to indicate the presence of a comic effect and to make the viewer laugh. A process that was also sometimes generously used by productions to catch up with bad series and supposedly comical springs that actually fell completely flat …

An invention … of genius?

Recorded laughter is an invention we owe to an American sound engineer named Charley Douglass (1910-2003). Hired at CBS radio in Los Angeles, he noticed that the audience’s laughter during the program tapes was either absent over some joke, or late, or too long. He then invented a technique allowing to insert or shorten the laughter in fade to obtain an atmosphere which pleases the producers. This technique will be called the Sweetening.

Below, an example of a laugh box developed by Charley Douglass, obviously much more sophisticated than when it started. This model will be used until the 80s. Each button activates a sound track of laughs, more or less pronounced, for a total of 320 laughs:

Many laughs were recorded, at the very beginning, during the Red Skelton Show; a famous staple American variety show for decades, from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, hosted by Red Skelton, a radio star who also appeared in several films.

Douglass had much to be happy about. Not only did his laughterbox delight radio bosses, TV channels, producers and even advertisers, but he also had a monopoly on his invention: almost all the shows and sitcoms produced in America in the 60s and 70s. bear his mark. He was also jealously protective of his creation. In order not to have his idea siphoned off, the laughterbox was locked with a padlock, and Douglass preferred to repair his invention out of sight in a quiet place … like his bathroom.

A monopoly that is shattered

Despite these precautions, its secret was uncovered by competing engineers in the 1970s, as they refined the original creation with a more subtle dose of laughter, and the Shows were increasingly filmed and recorded live.

In the video below, the sound engineer Carroll Pratt, who was working on the 1983 sitcom Webster and had met Charley Douglass while working as a sound engineer at MGM, shows how his own version of the now electronics-clad laughter box works.

At the end of the 70s and during the 80s, his production company, baptized Sound One, alone will provide nearly 80% of the laughs recorded from all Sitcoms produced in the United States. The technology used may take giant leaps, the fundamental principle remains absolutely the same: it is always a person who decides where and when to place the famous laughs.

It is difficult to precisely date the end of boxed laughter. The comedy The Big Bang Theory, which aired on CBS between 2007 and 2019, may well be the very last to make systematic use of it. the Wall Street Journal In vain wrote, last August, that recorded laughter was back in fashion, in the wake of WandaVision, its use remains very different, because it is here thought and used as a parody of TV shows from the 50s and 60s. .

In the years 1990 – 2000, the big audience successes won by comedy series, without having recourse to recorded laughter, such as The Simpsons, Malcolm, Arrested Development, Scrubs or The Office, bet on the intelligence of spectators, able to determine for themselves what was funny and what was not. To the great relief of the producers and owners of channels, gradually becoming less anxious about the quality of their programs.

The success of The Office in the United States as in Great Britain is revealing in this respect. After his first triumph at Primetime Emmy Awards in 2006 in the category “Best comic television series”, no more comedy show using recorded laughter will win in this category.

A laugh under the influence

If it can be largely annoying and tense, even downright unbearable, the recorded laughter has nonetheless had a considerable impact on certain series that have become cult. A series like Seinfeld without its recorded laughs would become almost sinister. And what about Friends?

We let you enjoy (or not …) this sequence of the series without his famous laughs. The comedy being also the sense of timing, the actors mark pauses, where the laughter in question will be inserted. Redacted from that, viewing becomes logically disturbing.

The recorded laughs have therefore been used for decades. But do they really influence viewers? The answer is yes. In a study unveiled in July 2019, the’University College of London has shown that laughter makes us more sensitive to jokes. To prove it, the researchers played 40 willfully bad lines to several groups.

And the difference is clear: those who listen to the joke without a deep laugh laugh less than those who listen to it with a controlled recorded laugh, which rings false. And they themselves laugh less than those who listen to it with spontaneous recorded laughter.

“What this study shows is that adding laughter to a joke increases the value of humor, no matter how funny or how funny the joke is.” commented Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience, who was leading this study. “It also suggests that we respond much better to spontaneous and genuine laughter, rather than to poised or boxed laughter showing the inherent human joy and the value of a natural response.”

Not sure that the disappearance of the recorded laughter, as it was used for so long, causes a wave of indignation. It’s in order of things. At most, a few fond memories, for certain series that have marked our Serialphilic memory. In the meantime, will you take back a little bit of laughter?

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