Photo by Ben White- Young Boy Laughing – https://www.goodfreephotos.com
As far back as the “I Love Lucy” days, spurts of canned laughter or “Laugh Tracks” have been used to “sweeten” audience reaction to comic presentations. While every viewer who ever watched a sit com and every artist who ever created one all say they hate canned laughter, the addition of laugh tracks in all forms of comedy, when done well, usually enhances the funniness of any script or performance. Laughter is, after all, contagious.
Back in 1953, in television’s infancy, an American sound engineer named Charles Douglass invented a type-writer-like machine called the Laff Box. Apparently, few in the industry ever caught a glimpse of this invention as Douglass kept his Laff Box under lock and key, only revealing its secrets to close family members. When directors or producers decided their productions needed “sweetening” with canned laughter, they would call “Charley” Douglass, who would, while secreted behind closed doors, insert laughs of appropriate volumes and duration into the final cut of the programs. (1)
Douglass maintained his monopoly on canned laughter in Hollywood for more than a decade, according to Mother Nature Network:
“Douglass actually carted the box around Hollywood and was the only one to insert laugh tracks into TV shows for over a decade, from the late ’50s through early ’70s. Douglass would regularly change up the types of laughs to keep the laugh sounds fresh…” (2)
By the early 1980s, cartoons and some sit combs started producing their own laugh tracks, due in part to the exorbitant rates Charles Douglass was able to command for his unique artistic services. These cheap imitations lacked to quality, precision and artistry that Douglass’ machine and expertise had provided, thus giving the modern laugh track a bad name. Now, however with advancements in digital editing, something akin to the artistry and precision of Douglass’ system is once again achievable.
My task, in postproduction editing for my Studio Production Class final project– WCSN GITMO Worst Case Senario News (3) will be to add laugh tracks, boos and applause to a pre-shot, one-take video of the skit. I will not be using the Douglass Laff Box but a variety of digital laugh tracks and audience reactions that I purchased. When I performed this comedy skit, I did try to pause for the insertion of the laugh tracks but I am sure I did not always leave enough space. Therefore, I have to find ways of splitting the take where the laughs should occur and using either cutaway shots of the “band,” the audience, or of me swilling rum to run along with the laugh tracks. Fading the tracks in fast and out slowly in the transitions should help make it all look and sound more organic.
Charley Douglass was an artist, one who guarded his domain with Doberman-like dedication. He was the go-to guy for analogue laughs across an entire industry in the early days television comedy. Now, hopefully, any fool can add laughs to her final project via the non-linear editing programs available today.
Next week, I begin my incursion into video editing, via Windows Movie Maker. For a great instructional video using Windows Movie Maker, check out:
How to Edit Videos Step by Step: Windows Movie Maker Full Tutorial with Naturalvita. YouTube.com https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=5brlIUTRuL8
- Wikipedia: Laugh Track: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laugh_track#Charley_Douglass_and_the_mysterious_.22laff_box.22
- Vartan, Starre; The Long Strange History of the Laugh Track: Mother Nature Network: 4/13/17: http ://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/blogs/the-long-strange-history-of-the-laugh-track
- WCSN GITMO, Worst Case Scenario News: https://maddaniels.wordpress.com/2017/04/05/the-strange-saga-of-wcsn-gitmo-worst-case-scenario-news-360/