The "Laff Box"
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.”