Secret history of classic TV's laugh tracks


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/05/14/secret-history-of-classic-tv.html


#2

#3

Laugh tracks were so ubiquitous that I always assumed that the machinery to add it was a simple standardized piece of equipment, rather than a custom box that was the creation of one man.


#4

This reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s story “Laugh Track” from his book Angry Candy.


#5

Would this qualify as an early analog synthesizer?


#6

I’m just fascinated that you like the laugh tracks. I always assumed everyone hated them, like me. They put them in for any semblance of a joke, and always seemed especially appreciative on jokes that bombed. But I guess I can see how some stuff might benefit from the punctuation. Still hate the forced feeling of them.


#7

Seems to me that they could have just bought a Mellotron and recorded laughs onto the tapes.

But Hollywood has their own way of doing things.


#8

That’s pretty much what I always assumed laugh tracks were - recordings of particular laughing audiences that just got played back (and maybe layered). Of course, now that I think about it, they were always more nuanced than that. I blame Monty Python for that misunderstanding, for their own use of repeated clips.

Yeah, I would have expected either a standard process or every production company having their own approach. Plus, this is so much more complicated than I would have imagined, not that I ever gave it any thought. It makes sense that it would be a fairly complex piece of equipment, given the varied outputs required, but it’s weird that it was this custom bit of kit controlled by one person.


#9

It began to be generally known in the late 70s (if not a bit earlier) that the TV laugh tracks of that time had been harvested from old radio show audiences, and therefore – due to the ‘vintage’ nature of those tracks – brought many to believe (and likely right in many cases) that the ‘canned’ laughs they were subjected to were those of people dead and long gone. So, in tribute:

Are they live or are they dead?
If dead, then what are we to do.
Should we come forward and be bled
(For poisonous humors may accrue)?


#10

So, does the operator have a script in front of them, marked up in various ways to indicate the expected ‘crowd’ reaction?

Imagine being the person who runs this machine, and you’ve had a really shitty week, the kind where you can’t even crack a smile.

The power.


#11

Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.

–Chuck Palahniuk


#12

#13

I feel like for decades old shows it’s part of the nostalgia, but you’re right, in more modern shows it feels forced. I loved ‘The West Wing,’ so I decided to try out Aaron Sorkin’s earlier show ‘Sports Night.’ I didn’t even get through the first episode because the dialog sounded like West Wing, but it had a laugh track. It just felt awful.


#14

It’s more of a tape loop machine than a synthesizer – like a Mellotron [see below]. So in my book, I would not classify it as a synth – more of an early sampler than a synth.

The Mellotron was built in 1963, and the Jack Benny Program (TV) had been using a laugh track for the decade prior, although one wonders if its inventors had ever crossed paths with the inventor of the laugh machine.

Here’s a quick tour of the Mellotron:


#15

I won’t watch a television show with a laugh track. MASH broke me.


#16

Sir Paul demonstrates probably the most well-known mellotron sequence.


#17

THey also used them because laughter is contagious.


#18

Oliver Stone spoofed the laugh track in the opening scene of Natural Born Killers. It’s a bit tough watching so no YT link provided. It’s shocking seeing Rodney Dangerfield gutter mouthing… :open_mouth:


#19

Think how much the Brady Bunch could have been improved if they simply hired Rick Wakeman!


#20

Read this to myself in the voice of Roman Mars.