The scene: A sitcom family gathers in a semicircle around a telephone, as the youngest child of the family worries that his calls to a pornographic chat line will become known to his father.
The action: The mother cries out in horror as she listens to the voice on the other end of the phone. The boy, in an aside, says: "Mom was a teeeeny bit upset."
The sound: sustained waves of laughter.
The laughter, as rehearsed as the action, is some of the longest-running material on TV and is usually the product of a machine. The laugh track has outlasted acerbic critics, more than 50 seasons of sitcoms and seems as much a part of TV as "sweeps"--the ratings period underway through the rest of this month.
Its origins can be traced to the days before ratings, when early network officials needed to convince sponsors that comic programs were genuinely funny. Radio shows had live audiences, whose laughter was sometimes prompted not just by the dialogue but also by off-air pratfalls of performers that were not evident to listeners at home.
In the earliest days of television, however, cumbersome cameras, lights and cables filled studios; no space was left to seat an audience. So producers turned to sound effects to create audience response.
In September 1950, NBC aired the premiere of "The Hank McCune Show," introducing viewers to the life of an amiable bumbler who can't hold a job--and to a laugh track. Taped laughter accompanied each of the characters' slapstick gags, painful puns and broad mugging. But it's clear, from seeing film of the show, that neither the director nor the actors took the canned laughter into account. The actors do not wait for laughter to subside--or even to occur--before speaking their lines.
The show was quickly canceled.
But the laugh track endured. It soon adorned far more accomplished comic forces, such as "The Burns and Allen Show" and "Ozzie and Harriet." Lucille Ball was very critical of the laugh track in published interviews during the long run of "I Love Lucy." Yet "I Love Lucy" also relied on canned laughter, according to Robert R. Provine, author of "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation." The best-loved descendants of those shows--"All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "MASH," "Seinfeld" and "Friends"--all relied on the laugh track.
Nobody Likes to Laugh Alone
It isn't humor that triggers most laughter in everyday life, says Provine, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A joke alone would not prompt hearty laughter; an exchange has to be backed by a relationship between the teller and listener. A social connection is key to the true belly laugh. As a result, Provine says, network officials correctly assume that well-designed laugh tracks can help people watching alone feel they are participating in a communal event.
One of the first laugh track machines was invented in 1952 by a CBS audio editor, Chuck Douglass, who left the network to establish his own company. He developed a machine with eight keys, like a modestly sized piano, each of which, when pressed, played a recording of a different type of laughter. The laughter had been taped during a radio show performed before an audience. His first show: ABC's "Pride of the Family," broadcast from 1953 to 1955.
Today, his son Bobby Douglass uses an 11th-generation, computer software-based box. There is a console with 32 buttons, four rows of eight buttons each. Press buttons on the right of the console, the laughs last longer. Move higher, toward the top row, and the laughter grows more boisterous. Operators press as many as 20 keys at once to devise an optimal blend of yuks, guffaws and snorts.
Some actors claim to have heard the same woman's lingering cackle over decades of sitcom soundtracks. But different computer programs can be downloaded for the machine's use, allowing producers to draw upon the recorded reactions of thousands of different people.
No directors, no writers and indeed no networks brag about laugh tracks, which are part of a large range of synthetic emotions added to create the aural fabric of the program. Similar sound effects are used for the broadcast of live musical concerts, awards ceremonies and beauty pageants.
During a live event, Douglass says, it would not be possible to string up enough microphones to capture audience applause without creating a thicket of wires that would jar viewers at home. So taped applause is blended into the audio feed during the broadcast.
It's the laugh track, however, that draws the most derision in the television industry. "A common expression in the writing room, at least at one time, was, 'Well, the machine will love that [joke],' " recalls Alan Alda, the star of CBS' "MASH." "We know laughter is contagious. But we don't know that mechanical laughter will help a show that isn't funny."
Giving a Lift to Live Laughter