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Laugh track is serious business

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Love it or loathe it - or just go with it - the television laugh track remains a staple after five decades of viewer-assisted frivolity.

For that triumph or disgrace, one person can be thanked or blamed.

Charlie Douglass, who died in April at age 93, was a technical director of TV shows in the 1950s. He noticed that studio audiences didn't laugh as much when jokes were repeated after the first take.

So the mechanical and electrical engineer, who helped develop a shipboard radar for the Navy in World War II, created a "laff box" that would supply recorded audience reaction.

The original machine's diverse sounds - including titters, belly laughs, roars, moans, cries, jeers and "oohs" and "ahhs"- were captured at pantomime performances by Marcel Marceau and Red Skelton. That way, Douglass figured, no dialogue could mar the crowd response.

"He had this knack - he knew how to invent things," said Bob Douglass, the son who continues to run his family's "audience reaction company," Northridge Electronics in Los Angeles.

The first TV situation comedy to use the "laff box" was Life With Father in 1953, Bob Douglass said. Since then most every sitcom, from I Love Lucy to Everybody Loves Raymond, has relied on a laugh track to "sweeten" or replace the laughter and applause of live spectators.

No one was more surprised by canned laughter's immense success than Charlie Douglass, who was presented with a special engineering Emmy Award in 1992.

"My father thought he could make a good living with it," said Bob Douglass, himself a nine-time Emmy-winning sound mixer. "But he never expected it to snowball and be this big icon in the industry. It's pretty amazing. I think he did it with dignity and humor and personality. Everyone liked him, and they respected him."

Considering the faux audience responses also added to game shows, variety shows and other programs - even Super Bowl halftime shows - there's no denying that Charlie Douglass changed television for good. But did he change it for the better?

It's fair to say he tried.

"It's not only just inventing the equipment, but knowing when to put a laugh in and when not to put it in," Douglass said. "It was a compromise, of course. Some producers would tell him exactly where they wanted it. And other producers would just let him have free rein and do it the way he felt it, because he'd been in the business so long."

But even the inventor's son acknowledges that canned laughter has been poorly used.

"On some of the shows it was abused," Douglass said. "They wanted to keep adding more and more laughs, and it would go way overboard. They thought it was going to be funnier, and it wasn't."

"A lot of producers would have the laughter almost louder than the dialogue, and that ruins it," Douglass said.

Yet with skill, and a little luck, a well-executed laugh track can be a work of art contributing to a larger work of art.

"It's a tool," Douglass said. "Like music is, like sound effects, like dialogue. It's everything combined together to make a show flow along and have a nice pace to it. It's all timing.

In the universe of TV comedy there are two styles of sitcoms - the "three-camera" show performed before a live audience (such as The Dick Van Dyke Show or Seinfeld) and the "one-camera" show that is shot and edited like a mini-movie with no audience (The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch).

But even "real" studio audience guffaws for a three-camera show ring false to Linwood Boomer, creator and executive producer of Malcolm in the Middle.

Boomer used to write for conventional laugh-track sitcoms such as 3rd Rock From the Sun and Night Court. However, Malcolm, like other contemporary one-camera sitcoms - including Bernie Mac and Curb Your Enthusiasm - eschews a laugh track.

"What most people think of as a laugh track is an actual audience's laughter," he said. "Whether it's piped up or over-amped, it's usually laughter from a hundred people that are told, 'We really need you to laugh loud and everything else.' And they're trying to be helpful. So I don't know that it's a completely genuine experience even then."

Laugh-track shows also force writers into too tight a creative corner, Boomer said.

"As a [laugh-track show] writer, you find yourself needing to write something that will provoke a good, loud laugh every few seconds," he said. "As opposed to writing something that may be right for the scene or something that might be more emotionally satisfying."

Going into Malcolm in the Middle, Boomer knew that some decision-makers at the network would want his show to have a laugh track, because "things with big laugh tracks focus-test better," he said. "It doesn't mean that people will watch it any more. It doesn't mean that it'll be more successful. But that's the name of the game for a lot of executives.

"So we made a conscious effort at the very beginning to find a way to substitute for that sort of easy energy that laughter provides. We ended up doing an awful lot of quick cutting. We did a lot of music stings, a lot of sound effects and things that added energy to it.

"For the kind of humor we do on Malcolm, it has to be a single-camera show, because of the storytelling style," Boomer said. "But I don't think you could say that a single-camera show is automatically better. I don't think we're better than Mary Tyler Moore, which had an audience and a laugh track. I don't think we're better than Taxi, which had an audience and a laugh track. I don't think we're better than Raymond, which has an audience and a laugh track.

"If you throw up all the great comedies, there are very few that don't have a laugh track."

And that's a problem for Karal Ann Marling, professor of American studies and art history at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

"Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium," Marling said. "Because it treats the audience as though they were sheep who need to be told when something is funny - even if, in fact, it's not very funny.

"It's probably changed comedy, particularly situation comedy. I mean, anything can be passed off as hilariously funny, at least for the first two or three go-rounds, if you've got people laughing like maniacs in the background.

"It's as though during a drama show, suddenly a voice in the background goes, 'Ooohh, this is scary!' or 'Oh, he looks guilty!' It seems like the next logical step if you're going to have laugh tracks."

For proof of the intelligent power of a non-laugh-track show, look no further than The Simpsons, Marling said.

"It's wonderfully written. They work for their laughs. And audiences sit there and wet their pants. That's a great example of why not to have a laugh track. Let me be the laugh track."

Marling is mostly concerned about canned laughter as a symptom of a larger social willingness to accept things uncritically. That would include political messages as well as commercial messages.

"It's a kind of decline in American feistiness and an ability to think for yourself," she said. "It certainly is embedded, but that doesn't make it a good thing. There are a lot of things that we do every day of the week that aren't good things. And this is one of them."

But that just doesn't track with laugh-track guru Douglass.

"We've been around a long time, and it fills a need in the industry," he said. "We don't expect to be the main ingredient in a show. It's just part of the puzzle that puts together the shows that make for great television."

What Charlie Douglass began 50 years ago - offering the sound of laughter to encourage laughter - won't go away, his son said. But the technology will evolve.

Potentially, Douglass said, the Internet could provide a linkup for viewers at home to be part of the real-time audience response to a sitcom.

"It might be more interactive," he said. "They could log on and be part of the audience [laughter] on TV."

Don't laugh. It could happen.

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