The Taser's Edge

The History of Canned Laughter

Learn all about the heinous invention here at the Paris Review blog in an interview of film historian, Ben Glenn II, by Mike Sacks’ (author of And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft).  An excerpt:

How did canned laughter come about?

The concept actually goes back at least five hundred years. History tells us that there were audience “plants” in the crowds at Shakespearean performances in the 16th century. They spurred on audience reactions, including laughter and cheering—as well as jeers[…]

Where did the laughs on the Laff Box [the original canned laughter machine] originate?

Reportedly, the earliest reactions came from a Marcel Marceau performance in Los Angeles in 1955 or 1956, during his world premiere North American tour. This would make sense, because Marceau was, of course, a mime, and therefore, the only sound in the theater was the audience’s reaction.

Laughter at a mime show!  It must have been the 50s.  Although…

For me, some genuinely funny shows become unwatchable simply due to the laugh track (help me, BBC!!!).  Due to the more recent trend not to add the track in American shows, on the other hand, sometimes the absence can make a not-that-great show seem deceptively decent.

The most beautiful fact from the interview has to be that canned laughter was sometimes used to reduce studio laughter (the television equivalent of breast reduction surgery and just as uncommon in Hollywood) for shows such as I Love Lucy. In this clip, the action is stopped dead by the record 65 seconds (!) of laughter from a live audience as Lucy dances the tango with Ricky after planting three dozen eggs in her blouse (and with Lucy, it is a blouse).  Here it is, Lucy giving situation comedy its name:

all due respect for the tip toward the interview goes to The Second Pass