During its first years, American Television was live from New York—or at least from a studio located on the East Coast. The first famous golden age was about live drama anthologies, but they disappeared quickly when Hollywood took over and everything was put on film. There were exceptions, of course, I Love Lucy and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, for example, comedies with laughs to make you laugh. The shows were filmed before a Live Studio audience or filmed and projected to a laughing audience that was then recorded.
“Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”
The problem with filming before a live audience is to keep the public laughing after the first take. Famously, Jackie Gleason didn’t like to rehearse before taping The Honeymooners in order to keep the jokes fresh for everyone. The way this show was produced, like a live show (the mistakes were even kept), was not the same as I Love Lucy which created the standard for filming a multi-camera sitcom. A standard that’s still in use today, with some minor alterations.
Lucy was fun. People laughed hard watching her as she was doing her bits. The first time at least, probably the second, the third, and the fourth time. But with each take laughs lost their freshness. They needed some “sweetening.”
Who created the canned laughter for television?
What we often call “canned laughter” is the laugh track, the separate soundtrack for a recorded comedy show containing the sound of audience laughter. We tend to have a hard time differentiating authentic laughs from artificial ones, so everything is “canned.” Mostly because the fake laughter was so much in use at one point that it was the only thing we heard.
When it’s done right, it’s not easy to know what is a real laugh and what is not.
But let’s go back to 1950 when CBS was having a problem with the weak laughs of tired audience members. A man named Charles Douglass worked as a technical director at the network and created a simple laugh machine as a way to fix the problem. The design was basic, but the effect changed television comedy.
In fact, its creation was so popular, Douglass left CBS to work as a freelancer, and there were a lot of potential clients ready to employ him—especially to add laughs to single-camera comedies. The first scripted TV show to use his creation was the short-lived and mostly forgotten sitcom The Hank McCune Show. At that time, this type of comedy didn’t feature a laugh track.
Multi-camera sitcoms quickly adopted the laugh machine too to boost their comedy effects. And with live television being replaced by filmed production, using the device became easier. Rapidly, every type of comedy shows, not just sitcoms, started adding laughs in post-production, even Milton Berle who immediately saw a way to get the laughs he wanted for its jokes. Douglass called this editing technique the “sweetening.”
The Standardization of Canned Laughter
During the 1960s, multi-camera sitcoms were replaced with single-camera comedies. With this change came a dilemma, to use or not to use a laugh track?
It was a choice TV producers had to make, and the networks needed hits. CBS wanted to know what was working best. In 1965, a decision had to be made for the new single-camera sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. If you don’t know, it’s about U.S. Army Air Forces Colonel Robert Hogan and his team who are prisoners of war in 1942 in the fictional Stalag 13. They used a secret network of tunnels that operated under the ineptitude of commandant Colonel Klink and his sergeant-at-arms, Sergeant Schultz, in order to conduct Allied espionage and sabotage and to help escape Allied POWs from other prison camps. It was funny, but was it funnier with a laugh track?
CBS had to know and it was decided to test audiences with two versions: one with the laugh track, the other without. The version with laughter succeeded. From that point on, CBS utilized a laugh track for all its comedies.
This decision was not accepted by all. Larry Gelbart didn’t want canned laughs for M*A*S*H. A compromise was found, and the laugh was used, but in a non-invasive way—no laughter allowed during the operating room scenes! As the show moved from sitcoms to dramedy, the laugh track was more regularly omitted. But M*A*S*H was the exception.
A New Kind of Canned Laughter
Charles Douglass had a monopoly. He controlled the laughs of nearly every prime-time show in the U.S. for a long time, and he didn’t want to share the recipe for its success. The problem was that the laughs he provided started to sound too familiar. Douglass needed to renew his library, a problem that led the animation studios Hanna-Barbera and Rankin-Bass to stop using Douglass’s machine starting in 1971 and to compile their own laugh tracks.
The 1970s with CBS’s rural purge and the resurgence of live audiences with the success of All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, laugh tracks lost a part of their appeal—Norman Lear really didn’t want to sweeten his sitcoms for a long time. But there was still a lot of work, not all producers followed Lear. Also, there were a lot of game shows that needed some sweetening.
But as the 1970s ended, there finally was some competition. Carroll Pratt and his brother John had been working under Douglass since the early 1960s. The Pratts wanted to build their own laugh machine, and they did that with the help of the head engineer at Glenn Glen Sound who knew exactly how to do it. Together they formed their own company, Sound One. It was 1977.
Immediately, Studio One took its share of the business by offering something that was lacking in Charles Douglass’s machine: stereo recordings. The Pratts also had a large variety of laughs, and they had a good understanding of the sophisticated humor of that time. A new generation took over. Carroll Pratt retired in 1989 and turned over the studio to the hands of his younger proteges.
Charles Douglass had already retired in 1980. In 1992, The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored him with an Emmy for lifetime technical achievement.