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Joseph Scarbrough launched what he called "The Scarblog" as a way of cataloging his work over the years, as well as going into greater detail of things on his mind (known as "Unfinished Thoughts").

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Laughing Matter

I feel compelled to write this article, maybe because of the sudden little burst of interest and support, but either way, I hope to enlighten you on something you probably either haven't given a lot of thought to, or have come to misconceptions about. Back in the day, before television came into focus, people often would watch comedies in public places, where there would undoubtedly be an audience full of people, so naturally, when watching something funny, the sounds of laughter would fill the air at whatever was happening on stage, or on the silver screen, or wherever.

Jumping ahead, when television came along, there were a number of shows that actually were filmed before live audiences, so very early sitcoms also had the sounds of laughter, but some shows couldn't afford to accommodate audiences at all, which would leave a comedy program rather ghastly and awkward; because of this, a solution was created to help recreate the atmosphere of watching a comedy with a group of people.

In the 1950s, a technical director at CBS named Charles Rolland "Charley" Douglass came to invent what was eventually dubbed "The Laff Box", a machine that had loops of tape that contained audience reactions, mostly the sounds of laughter, but also a few "Ooohs" and "Ahhs", shrieks, and applause; these were originally meant to compensate for poor editing, which resulted in sudden cuts in audience reactions, but soon grew into something far more spectacular than that. Soon, the Laff Box proved to be a valuable asset in television production, because now, producers had a way of creating an audience to its project without the need of an actual audience, and soon enough, the Laff Box began to see far more, and very vast use.

By the 60s, Douglass' services soon spread, as more and more production companies would hire him to add the sounds of laughter to their sitcoms that weren't filmed before live audiences; this is not to say that it wasn't thoroughly tested first. There are two examples of this:
1. At one point in the early days of television, a network tested two different sitcom pilots to audiences to see how they responded to them. One pilot had a laugh track (which the network felt was their poorer show), while the other had no laughs at all (which the network felt was their better show), but as it turned out, the poorer pilot with the laugh track tested better than the better pilot with no laugh track.
2. Before the classic sitcom Hogan's Heroes went on the air, the network tested two prints of the pilot episode with audiences: one with a laugh track, the other without. Needless to say, the audience that viewed the silent version really didn't know what it was they were watching, but the audience that viewed the version with the laugh track responded better.
From this moment on, no sitcom went on the air without the aid of Charley Douglass.

Originally working exclusively for CBS, when word of his services spread, Douglass parted ways with CBS, and formed his own company, Northridge Electronics, and soon traveled from studio, to studio, to studio, adding his laughs onto programs... this will explain why you hear the exact same laughs despite the different shows being from different companies, aired on different networks.

There's a lot of misconceptions about the laugh track, the most common one is that the laugh track is seen as an insult to viewers' intelligence, because it "tells you" that the show is funny, or it "tells you" when you're supposed to laugh, or it "tells you" where the jokes are, etc. This is actually not the case; again, the laugh track was a means of recreating the atmosphere of watching a comedy with a group of people, as opposed to by yourself... and I will admit, I myself usually laugh more at something funny if it's with other people, rather than by myself.

Television Historian, and laugh track expert, Ben Glenn II, once said that he feels that shows, particularly the more fanciful ones like Mister Ed and Bewitched, would be nowhere nears as fun as they are if they didn't have a laugh track, and I happen to agree with his sentiments... even with M*A*S*H, which I know the producers didn't want to be treated as "just another sitcom" falls into that category; even though it's one of the smartest, and well-written series of all time, the show just feels awkward without the sounds of laughter. Cartoons have it the worst, in a number of cases, a lot of classic animated series of yesteryears have suffered from having their laughter eliminated altogether, whether for home video/DVD releases, or in some syndicated reruns, even though it's not always the case. For example, currently, the syndication package of classic Pink Panther shorts is really mismatched, and in a number of cases, you can see shorts that still retain their original laugh track, and shorts that have had them removed, in the same half hour. (Presently, YouTuber daffylatke has been collecting Pink Panther shorts that have their original laugh tracks, as well as replacing laughter onto silent shorts as well: http://www.youtube.com/daffylatke).

I personally appreciate the laugh track for what it really is, I feel that, when done properly, a laugh track really can make for a good program, especially where puppets are concerned. Case in point: when Sid & Marty Krofft began production of H.R. Pufnstuf in 1969, they hired veteran producer Si Rose to help them, as they struggled to get through production. At one point, Rose suggested to the Krofft brothers that the show could use a laugh track, which they weren't entirely sure about, considering this was a Saturday Morning show, as opposed to a primetime sitcom, but Rose was persistent, feeling that a funny show with no laugh track was a handicap, and eventually, the Kroffts agreed; later both Sid and Marty expressed their thoughts, feeling that the laugh track worked for them because, in some cases, people don't really know how to react to puppets and foam-rubber costumed characters. Even Muppet Master Jim Henson later revealed that he tried out a couple of Muppet specials with no laughter, but after all was said and done, added a laugh track to both of them (for personal viewing), and felt that they did actually work better with laughter.

As many of you know by now, I too use laugh tracks on a number of my projects, and thanks to digital technology, I was able to record a number of classic Charley Douglass reactions to further emphasize the "classic" nature of my work; so far, I have received nothing but compliments and praise for utilizing laugh tracks on my work, and I have no plans of not using them in the future (unless I were to try my hand at something more serious, in which case, I would probably at least tone way back, and only use it when absolutely necessary).

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