Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The "Laff Box"

This past April 8 was the first year anniversary of the death of a man named Charles Douglass, who died at the ripe age of 93. Not many took notice of his passing nor remembered it a year later, despite the fact that Douglass touched the lives of millions of people and will most likely continue to do so. Douglass was a television engineer who in 1950 invented a device that solved a problem for cranky producers, but also created a curious metaphor for the postmodern world and the powerful aggressions of the contemporary marketing imagination. He invented the laughing machine, which started off simple enough but then became more complex and subtle as television took on a more ubiquitous role in modern life.

Early on, television and radio producers had a problem with the “silence” after a joke had been told when shooting in a dank, cavernous studio. It was difficult to gauge the hilarity of a line, especially since the cast and stagehands heard the jokes a dozen times in rehearsals. So the laughing machine came in and helped the viewers by telling them exactly what was funny and how long and loud one should laugh. And even when live audiences were brought to the studios, the laugh machines stayed put because apparently the stupid audiences couldn’t appreciate most of the gag lines of certain situations. And when they did, smiles were difficult to broadcast and giggles barely audible. So different types and depths of laugher were evoked, manufactured, and recorded—laughs that ranged from cute snickers to chortles and outright guffaws. The laughs were dubbed and then presented to viewers.

When Douglass died and was remembered, I listened to clips of shows with and without the benefit of the “Laff Box.” The difference was embarrassing: something apparently funny was either marginally funny or not funny at all. Tapping into the proclivities of humankind, the machine creates a virtual community with its peer pressures and hydroplaning culture. Most of the time, we laugh because others laughed, though it was completely unearned, totally Saccharine. It was unexamined emotion, almost political, thus introducing a system of reactions that is largely guaged by what others think and say.

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt made this pointed observation: “Every telephone answering machine with an automated voice has Charles Douglass to thank, if they could think to thank. One can't be certain about the extent of his influence, of course, but not long after Mr. Douglass' machine, came such life improvements as the automatic coffeemaker that also implied the presence of an absent person, the automatic lawn sprinkler, and the VCR that turned itself on and off without human attendance, not to mention the entire universe of virtual activity in the land of computers. Did our brave new world begin with the virtual laugh? Will it end with it? In the 1950s, about the time that Mr. Douglass was present at his absent creation, Ray Bradbury was publishing a science fiction story called 'There Will Come Soft Rains,' about a California house where there are machines that tell the family what bills need paying, what birthdays and anniversaries need celebrating. At night, there is a machine that recites Sara Teasdale's poem, 'There Will Come Soft Rains,' about the end of the world; which is what Bradbury's story is about since the machines continue talking long after the family, indeed the whole world, has been obliterated.”

3 Comments:

Blogger sume said...

So it all started with a laugh. I learned something new today. Thanks!

Wonder if the machines really will have the last laugh.

4/19/2005 9:53 PM  
Blogger Papahbear said...

As an animator I noticed some of the same sounds in film and tv over the years. Once I entered the industry I saw first hand how sound tracks were created for shows both in film and television. I'm hard to watch a movie with needless to say. It was my job for so many years to make things perfect... according to the producer...certainly not my idea of perfect. Once I knew how things were done it took a lot of fun out of tv for me. Once you know the man behind the curtain its hard to feel the same terror at Oz so to speak.
That said, I'd been counting the same laughs I hear through shows of the 50s and 60s. Disabled, I have a lot of time on my hands to watch old sitcoms and there is one laugh in particular that drives me nuts. The others are like old friends. The first of the Lucy shows had live audiences and I recognize some of those laughs in shows today. Like old friends I get a warm feeling and a sense of ownership. Those are MY laughs. I heard them first... sad I know. The same thing happened when I got Red Skeleton on DVD. I recognize where a lot of laughs originated. They must have. He always used a live audience.
So tonight out of curiosity I tried to find some of those tracks online and found your article and it saddened me to the core to learn the man responsible for those cues had died. 93. what a great age to live to. He must have drawn a great deal of pleasure hearing his work over and over again. I suppose it all depends on how he was rewarded for his work. Some of my work is replayed on tv and I have to leave the room. Bad clients. Evil directors. Mostly selfish and greedy people behind them. thankfully they are very few.
Thank you for this wonderful article. I feel my world expanded because of it.

Papabear, the out to pasture animation director.

6/16/2008 1:34 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Thanks, Papahbear, for your comment and sharing your experience. Believe or not, I do remember noticing similar laughs on different shows and different episodes of the same show. I'm talking about the old reruns, like "The Andy Griffith Show," "Dick Van Dyke Show," etc. Interesting industry.

6/17/2008 1:14 AM  

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