itcom laughter was once ubiquitous, something funny happened onscreen, and viewers were barraged with laughter, presumably from a studio audience. We’re so used to that type of laughter we don’t think much about it anymore — but maybe we should. Laughter wasn’t always a part of television and radio programs. Charley Douglass, an electrical engineer by training, invented the Laff Box over sixty years ago to add texture and dimension to comedy shows. He worked as a sound engineer for CBS in the 1940s and 1950s, adding laughs here and there.
His invention really picked up steam in the 1960s, when studios engaged him in order to ‘sweeten’ their programs with precisely crafted laugh tracks. Shows like Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Munsters all ‘sweetened’ their episodes with canned audience laughter.
The mysterious inner workings of the Laff Box
During his life, Douglass guarded his invention with padlocks, only allowing his immediate family members to peek under the lid of the box. The Laff Box was so mysterious that it was dubbed the “most sought after but well-concealed box in the world.”
The box contained 320 different laughs, from childish chuckles to loud guffaws. Douglass spent years sifting through recorded live audience laughter, separating laughs onto individual tape loops, and adding them to his machine. He could mix custom laugh tracks by keying in specific laughs with a typewriter-like keyboard and controlling the length of the laughs with a foot pedal. The result? Unique, expressive, and informative collages of laughter that could communicate everything from shock (we’ve all heard that ‘Oooooh!’ type of laugh) to childish silliness.
It wasn’t until 2010, seven years after Douglass’ death, that the padlock was finally lifted and the inner workings of the Laff Box were revealed.
The decline and fall of the Laff Box
Nowadays, you don’t hear much canned laughter on sitcoms anymore. Beginning at the turn of the century, laugh tracks started falling by the wayside as the nature of humor shifted from slapstick gags to something more subtle.
Furthermore, advances in sound technology made the completely analog Laff Box a quaint but obsolete relic. With laptops and the Internet, hundreds of thousands of laughs are now available at our fingertips.
The Laff legacy lives on
The company Douglass founded, called Northridge Electronics, survived until 2012. With his son Robert at the helm, Northridge sweetened everything from the shows that still used canned laughter to live awards show broadcasts.
Even though Northridge is no longer in operation, the legacy of the Laff Box lives on, through old sitcom reruns, episode backlogs on Netflix, and in every instance of ‘sweetening’, whether with laughter or applause, that still occurs.
Personally, I find the Laff Box both extremely fascinating and undeniably creepy (I even wrote a short story inspired by Douglass’ invention). That being said, I miss the belly laughs, sly chuckles, and shocked guffaws of older sitcoms. Having an audience (even a fake one) to laugh along with feels more convivial, as though you can be a part of that ‘live studio audience’ from the comfort of your own couch.
Who knows — history tends to be cyclical. Maybe we’ll see a resurgence of the laugh track soon. I, for one, would welcome that.
Viggy Parr Hampton, MPH is a health care content strategist, writer, and horror novelist.