"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 June 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Canned Heat




American audiences, as Mike

Barnicle, Milli Vanilli, and

Pamela Anderson have all

learned, want above all else for

the media to keep it real. Or so

we've been led to believe. This

received truth was hauled out

recently when a number of

infotainment rags held up the

aggressively unfunny Sports

Night as one of the high spots

of the recently expired TV

season. Sports Night, a "dramedy"

praised for its punchless

patter, is the latest in a long

line of noncartoon shows to

champion its heady freedom from

TV convention by presenting

itself stark sonically nude,

without even the meager cue of a

laugh track to let us know

what's funny. This decision is

credited by those in the know as

being the reason the show barely

got through its rookie year.

"Shows without laugh tracks

don't survive," a focus group

audience particle told Newsday's

Marvin Kitman. Just compare

Sports Night's fragile health

with the robust performance of star

Robert Guillaume's previous

vehicle, Benson, which powered

its way through seven

years of prerecorded

hilarity in the 1980s.


The longevity of such

guffaw-fests, compared with the

quick deaths of acclaimed

dramedies like Hooperman and

The Days and Nights of Molly

Dodd, has long been seen as

something sinister. Leading

counterculture relic Paul

Krassner wrote in the Los

Angeles Times a few years ago

that "Canned laughter is pure

fascism." Likewise are the

sentiments of Utne Reader

readers who rejoice deep inside

each time they see the Kill Your

Television bumper sticker on

their Volvos, and who extemporize

on the Oz-like manipulativeness of

corporate bosses feeding bread

and circuses to the hoi polloi.



The history of canned laughter,

however, reveals not a Pavlovian

bell rung by contemptuous

producers but a democratic

effort grounded in the social

idealism of a better day. That

the mechanized and tittering

swells of an automated laugh

track survive to this day should

be considered one of the few

remaining signs that producers

of TV shows still give a crap about

their audiences. Humming engines

of self-congratulation like Ally

McBeal and The Practice fill the

small screen with incredibly

narrow visions of urban hotshots

bitching about their sex lives.

Sitting at home with their

unruly, half-literate,

gun-polishing children and

Hummel figurines, the "C and D

counties" are excluded from the

demographic paradise of most TV

shows, and the artificial sound

of laughter is one of the

last things linking these

middle-American morlocks to

their demographic betters

in the highly stratified

audience class system.


Canned laughter was developed to

assuage the deep sense of

loneliness people felt sitting

at home alone listening to

noises come out of furniture.

Sharp-eared radio producers

hired claques of audience plants

to laugh and applaud lustily,

the better to comfort the

anxious soul listening in his

sterile rented room, decaying

homestead, or dust-caked

farmhouse. Society was actively

bound together by that unanimous

chorus of chortles and giggles.

The rise of TV in the '50s, set

against the background of Cold

War anxiety, created an even

more pressing need for a

reliable laugh engine.


The display of TV shows in '50s

parlors was a weird, uncanny

experience for Americans, who

tried their best to domesticate

the hypnotic medium with lamps,

frozen dinners, and closed

cabinets to shield the sleeping

machine from the prying eyes of

guests. Not hearing anybody

laugh at what were clearly jokes

seemed like a desperate,

pathetic spectacle. So a sound

engineer at CBS named Charley

Douglass invented the Laff Box,

as it is called in the industry,

in 1952. When live TV fizzled in

the mid-'50s, it was Douglass

who saw to it that the grade-Z

Hollywood productions, as bad as

they were, at least were

perfumed with an attractive

audio musk. During the '60s, as

sure hands like Sherwood

Schwartz and Sidney Sheldon

steered the sitcom into a state

of comfortable imbecility, the

Laff Box performed yeoman

service, making countless

viewers of Bewitched and Petticoat

Junction feel a little less suicidal.



Even then, the Vast Wasteland's

Chicken Littles insisted that

canned laughter was somehow

dehumanizing. The recorded laugh

track was satirized on an

episode of Star Trek (which

preferred to prompt its

impressionable audience with

maniacal music cues), and by the

early '70s, shows like All in

the Family and The Odd Couple

could react against the Laff Box

by boasting of being "filmed

before a live studio audience."

The obvious, though

unacknowledged, conclusion here

is that audiences were hip to

canned laughter; they knew they

were being duped but preferred

prefabbed camaraderie to the

sound of silence. Comedy works

when somebody tells a joke and

somebody else gets the joke.

Performed comedy works when a

bunch of people get a joke and

feed off of one another's laughter.

Gratifying as it is to see Hogan

and the boys once again put one

over on Colonel Klink, why not

share the joy with a robotic

gang of Fellow Americans?



With the '70s' fetish for

authenticity, canned laughter

fell into public disfavor, but

like a wise TV dad, the Laff Box

didn't so much disappear as move

into a benevolent

behind-the-scenes role. Audience

reactions were edited, spliced,

and sweetened by a new

generation of laffmasters.

Carroll Pratt, a disciple of

Douglass' (Pratt tellingly

described his teacher's style of

boffo belly laughs as being

"like when your boss tells a

joke"), developed a laugh-track

style that was less

authoritarian and more

sensitive, as the decade

demanded. He manufactured

appreciative whistles when foxes

entered rooms and ethnic hoots

and "whoo-ees" for ghetto

superstars like Freddie Prinz

and Jimmie Walker. Once in a

rare while, M.A.S.H. or One Day at a

Time might present a "very special

episode" whose earnestness would

be underlined by the pregnant

silences between lines.


Thankfully, these occasions were

few, and by the late '70s,

canned laughter was back with a

vengeance, celebrated with

full Lettermanesque transparency.

A short-lived talk show,

The Lorenzo and Henrietta

Music Show, even featured

Carroll Pratt working his Laff

console on camera, a sop to the

postmodern malaise and a boffo

joke in and of itself. And to

help generate the raw material

for the Laff Box, producers of

unfunny sitcoms adopted the

practice of hiring stand-up

comedians to address audiences

before the show, readying them

for their "laughter" and

"applause" cues with a few

choice witticisms. Not a

few of these funny-fluffers,

such as the late Ray Combs, went

on to distinguished TV careers

themselves, completing the

charmed circle.


The current decade has only

continued the trend. Jerry

Seinfeld's franchise on "dj'ever

notice?" humor is a tale for

some future pathologist to dope

out; but can there be any doubt

that, without his show's

trademark punctuation of jazzy

burbles and aggressive laugh

tracking, the Master of His

Domain would have been

banished to TV Treblinka?


To say, at this late date, that

canning canned laughter makes

you special — well, it just

isn't true. What it makes you is

un-American, hostile to a

tradition that a half-century of

audiences have voted for with

both real and manufactured

applause. Which is why the

recent spate of comedies for

thinking yuppies — shows

that offer only silence where

laughter is expected — seems

less like an evolutionary

step forward than a cyclical

setup for the Laff Box's

triumphant return. Whether or

not the next rev will offer

digital enhancements or

customization elements befitting

the era of personalized

television, canned laughter will

be back and chuckling harder

than ever. After all, there's

nothing funny about the sound

of nobody laughing.

courtesy of Hans Moleman

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