Originally Published in The Skeleton News
Phantom Utility, Post Humanism, & The Immortal Capitalist
In 1950 NBC debuted a show called 'The Hank McCune Show' which wasn't anything exceptionally funny by standards. However it had something that hadn't been done in television before; a laugh track. Variety noted of the innovation: "There are chuckles and yocks dubbed in. Whether this induces a jovial mood in home viewers is still to be determined, but the practice may have unlimited possibilities if it's spread to include canned peals of hilarity, thunderous ovations and gasps of sympathy." Laugh tracks had already been used in radio shows of the 40's but incorporating the idea into television had a different context. Listening to the radio one might not think to question whether people were actually at the event but on television, a relatively new medium at the time, the visual context could detract from the spectacle and bring into question whether or not an audience was allowed to attend the filming. As it would become customary for many shows to invite audiences to the taping of the shows, many participants had their responses recorded and were often coaxed into how they should react to certain parts of the show. From deep hardy laughs and mild snickers to "ooohs" and "aahhhhs" all were recorded to be used again during the editing of a show or for other programs. This process is called "sweetening".
Invented by television engineer Charles Douglass in the early 50's, the 'Laff Box' became one of the most important tools for sitcom producers. Throughout the fifties the use of 'canned laughter' would become more prevalent as studios eventually didn't even have room for real audiences to attend tapings on the sound stages. And besides this, many sitcoms of the sixties began to rely on "fantasy effects" for gags. Shows such as Bewitched where people would disappear or turn into other things or shows such as The Addams Family where a hand (Thing) would pop up from different areas to shock visitors and get a laugh in doing so couldn't achieve the same effect if they would have to stop all action to film their special effects by simply moving someone from a scene. Sitcoms began to borrow movie magic and to do so the audience couldn't be there.
The company Glen Glen Sound refined the process of laugh tracks and dominated the industry across the board. Many of the same laughs can be heard on sitcoms of the time despite network or production studio because of this. Most of the recordings Glen Glen used were culled from studio audiences attending The Lucy Show for its sight gags and The Red Skelton Show because of Red's weekly pantomime skits that had no dialogue at all. Engineers listened for all sorts of distinctive reactions from audience members that were recorded very cleanly. Things such as whistling and heavy laughing were golden. Afterward, these collected laughs were put into a laugh machine.
The laugh machine was a sort of organ like device that stood around 28 inches and had ten horizontal and four vertical keys. At the base was a foot pedal that would sustain laughter for as long as it needed to go. The engineer of the laugh machine orchestrates the tracks in accordance with the kind of laughing and reaction they want. They would choose from type, sex, and age while using the foot pedal to determine the length of the laughing. Over time new kinds of laughs would be installed, some taken away forever, and many left out only to be used again in years to come. Many tracks were never retired at all and can still be heard on more contemporary sitcoms such as Seinfeld, Fraiser, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Most of these tracks are kept in tape vaults at Todd-AO in Hollywood.
By the later '70s, many stidos opted to bring back the element of the studio audience. Shows such as All In The Family and Happy Days had live audience members whose laughs can be heard but were "peppered" with "looser" relaxed group laughs that were also used on shows without audiences such as The Love Boat and Eight Is Enough. Not many "laugh men" have come forward to discuss how they decided on laughs or how the process was done for television. Just as Charles Douglass himself, it seems that it's an industry secret among an elite group of people.
The addition of hearing others have a response to laughter or other emotions increases the chances that the execution receives the intended response from viewers at home. This is arguably either because of "conformity pressure" or as Robert Provine, a Professor of Psychology at The University of Maryland claims, we have a "laugh detector" built into our brains. That hearing laughter from another will automatically cause a similar response. Studies have shown that subjects who were told a series of jokes found them more funny when followed by a laugh track.
The popular television show M*A*S*H caused debate between the CBS executives and the shows creator, Larry Gelbart, when Gelbart refused to use a laugh track. He said that he wanted to do the entire show without a laugh track, "...just like the actual Korean War." CBS came to agree on the terms that they wouldn't use laugh tracks in operating room scenes. Some syndicated versions of the show omitted the laugh track entirely and now the DVD releases have an option for the viewer to watch the series with or without the laugh track. Previous to this in 1961, producer Ross Bagdasarian created a show called 'The Alvin Show' and had also refused to use a laugh track. Bagdasarian claimed that if the show was funny then the audience didn't have any reason to be prompted to laugh. After only one season the show was cancelled. The Alvin Show may have genuinely not been funny enough to gain viewers attention but is it merely a coincidence that the show didn't survive without a laugh track?
Whether or not it's a biological impulse or a socially constructed obligation, is difficult to say. But what of the people who were recorded and used unknowingly for years? Continuously laughing at jokes they will have never heard, feeling compassion for characters they've never been introduced to, and never having any say in the matter. It's the old debate about the ghost in the machine. This is especially relevant considering the age of the internet and communications and how much involvement people have on an individual basis with these things. People of the technologically advanced west can virtually exist as a screen name, author of a blog post, character in Second Life, or random seller on eBay.com. Nonetheless, ours is still a culture obsessed with authorship. So, were these people's essence being taken from them to be enslaved in recordings for years to come without their knowledge?
Fiction writer Harlan Ellison wrote a short story entitled, 'Laugh Track' that dealt with this idea. The story is about a television writer who believes to hear his dead Aunt Babe in a laugh track due to her distinctive laugh he'd heard growing up. Eventually he realizes that her voice had degenerated and left an electronic imprint on the tape. As the story drifts into more of a fantasy, the writer discovers his aunt to be trapped in sort of a limbo between worlds forced to laugh at terrible sitcoms. So he sets out to discover the "Phantom Sweetener" in an attempt to free Aunt Babe. Though this example may seem a little extreme, the fact is that Charles Douglass was very secretive about his methods in designing the original 'Laff Box' and took many secrets about it with him to his grave, and in effect, was somewhat of a phantom sweetener himself. But this of course is not to say that people don't want to be trapped forever. That is, to create some sense of 'legacy'.
Humans seem to have a distinct desire to live beyond death and implement all sorts of measures to do so. Whether it's carving one's name into a tree, writing a book, signing a painting, or maybe even being recorded, people have historically had an impulse to maintain their memory postmortem. Why else would anyone spend thousands of dollars on a funeral and a tombstone with the deceased's name engraved on it? Ancestors, ancients, and grandparents; they're all remembered and held dear to the living as teachers, and often achieving a larger than life status. This is arguably a bi-product of a hyper capitalist society that places so much emphasis on the individual where for many survival is expected and not the main objective of daily life. Even many of the poorest people of America could be considered better off than most people alive today. This isn't to diminish the fact that America has it's fair share of problems, nor is it to say other cultures don't have elaborate last rites at a loved one's passing but that maybe America has a unique take on it.
Examples of 'legacy' are all around us in everyday life. Often it's the product of modernism attempting to co-opt the deceased and market the idea of the person. Jack Kerouac has been used to sell khakis for The Gap, Einstein is he very embodiment of genius, and Elvis is everything from collectors plates and t-shirts, to teddy bears and Christmas tree ornaments. The only difference between what's become of these iconic characters and those recorded for laugh tracks is the stamp of authorship. So does that dilute their essence? It's not very likely that anyone recorded for those tracks was aware of how they would be used for so many years to come. And if they did, they probably didn't give thought to the idea of forever laughing at what they wouldn't know.
Kate Soper writes, "...humanism is viewed not as progressive but reactionary, on account of the manner in which it appeals (positively) to the notion of a core humanity or common essential feature in terms of which human beings can be defined and understood." Therefore it's no surprise that people put so much effort into designing alternate personalities for themselves via the internet through means of role playing games and chat rooms. The success of these new forms of media are the addictive qualities they have. It's fairly common for people who frequently play online games or simulations to neglect their real world lives. In a society that caters to the ideas of certain expectations of success and body image, escapism comes as no surprise.