If you watch an American comedy you are probably listening to the dead


The thought of this weird posthumous phenomenon might make you miss the funny side when watching your favorite show.

A 1956 audience of a live outdoor television performance

We all know of the laughing American sitcoms – Friends, Big Bang Theory, and Will & Grace to name a few.

These contagious laughs have a few aliases, known as laugh tracks, sweet laughs, or even canned laughs.

Its origin dates back to when Bing Crosby realized that by using sound engineering he could pre-record shows while appearing to be entertaining a live audience.

When the television required multiple shots from different camera angles and each take was accompanied by laughter from the audience, this became a problem.

The turning point in the industry came when sound engineer Charles Douglass created the “Laff Box” in 1950.

Each key on the typewriter was connected to the sound of laughter that had been recorded, totaling 320 different laugh options.

Bing Crosby harnessed the power of sound engineering

Much of that laughter was recorded from the early 1950s comedy, The Red Skelton Show, as it often featured mime skits without dialogue. This means that in many American shows and sitcoms, the laughs often come from recordings from the 1950s, so most of those laughs are likely from people who are now deceased.

Author Chuck Palahniuk discussed this odd posthumous phenomenon in his 2002 novel Lullaby, writing: “Most of the laughter tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. Nowadays most people that you hear laughter are dead.

If that weren’t strange enough, the chuckles of now mostly deceased members of the public continued to be used across America for decades because Douglass had a monopoly on this trademark technology.

Its popularity only increased over the years, as TV executives believed it would make sitcoms look funnier.

This monopoly, while still widespread, began to show signs of breaking up from the 1970s as other sound engineers began to learn to play audiences as well, creating their own reels.

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In recent years, laughter has become more subtle in nature than the sounds recorded by Douglass, and it has become more common for TV shows to be filmed in front of a live studio audience.

Over time, laughing tracks gradually seem to be a thing of the past. Just think of the comedic success of the US and UK versions of The Office, New Girl, and Brooklyn 99 – all missing from a pre-recorded laugh reel.

Now, YouTube videos showing clips from popular shows like Big Bang Theory without the use of canned laughs often go viral, mainly due to the ‘awkwardness’ of the scene as well as the realization that some of the jokes just aren’t that funny, whereas laughter tracks would traditionally lead us to believe they’re funnier than they actually are.

The cast of ‘Friends’ in 1999


Getty Images)

One example is a YouTube video with a staggering 11 million views, simply titled “Friends”: Ross Geller with no laugh track = psychopath ”. The video details exactly that, a number of gags from the character, Ross, that seem almost inappropriate and a little weird without the laughter injected.

If, however, you find yourself watching an older American sitcom with sugary laughs, see for yourself if the thought that most of the people you hear laughing are dead spoils the joke for you.

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