When Mexican-American CBS sound engineer Charles “Charley” Douglass first invented the laugh track, Hollywood was turned on its head. It was the 1950’s, videotaping was overtaking film, and live studio audience comedy shows like The Jack Benny Program were becoming a thing of the not-so-distant past. Producers found that audiences sometimes didn’t react quite the way they wanted them to, so Douglass sought to fix that problem by creating the enigmatic Laff Box–an ultra secretive organ-like contraption that he could use to tweak actual audience reactions, and eventually, simulate entire crowd reactions altogether. The device was created with laughs recorded from the silent variety acts on the “Red Skelton Show”, and it was a hit. While live audiences were still used for many shows, this kind of post-production editing brought the art form into a new era.
By the mid 1960’s, Douglass’ laugh tracks were eminent; shows like The Brady Bunch and My Three Sons are practically showcases of his work. But even at the time, the use of laugh tracks was derided by some creatives. Bob Unger told Billboard Magazine in 1955 that laugh tracks were a “necessary evil”, as at-home audiences still expected live studio audiences for their favorite shows. But as the years have gone by and comedy has continued to evolve, most of us now see canned laughter as an oft-grating relic of the past, representing a bygone era of comedy. So why do some shows still use it?
The original purpose of laugh tracks was to make at-home audiences feel as if they’re laughing with someone. In an era where entertainment was often done live, I see the use of canned laughter as a (somewhat ironic) attempt at creating community. Of course, as the 2000’s rolled around and brought us innovative shows such as Scrubs and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, audiences no longer needed that connection. Awkward cuts, pauses, and other revolutionary forms of editing essentially transformed popular humor, and the hate for canned laughter most likely peaked around then (at least, from my memory).
Yet, the marriage between traditional sitcoms and laugh tracks persisted. How I Met Your Mother in particular came under fire for its use of laugh tracks, but the show still retained cultural relevance. Same goes for The Big Bang Theory and other beloved (yet widely criticized) sitcoms. How I Met Your Father–which only premiered in 2022–follows in its predecessor’s footsteps, as it still uses the infamous invention Douglass created 70 years ago. Sure, it’s annoying to watch at times, but I can’t help but smile at the charm of a good ol’ fashioned round of prerecorded hollers and guffaws. It hearkens back to an earlier time, and in essence pays homage to the sitcoms and comedy shows of one of Hollywood’s golden eras. And for that reason, it isn’t gone just yet.