Welcome to Decoder Ring! Decoder Ring is a monthly podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every episode we’ll take on a cultural object, idea, or habit and speak with experts, historians and obsessives to try to figure out where it comes from, what it means and why it matters. Why do we get so invested in fictional romances? What does it mean to wear a baseball hat backwards? Why do we clap? What do people think about all day? Decoder Ring explores questions and topics you didn't know you were curious about.

In our first episode, we ask: What happened to the laugh track? For nearly five decades, it was ubiquitous, but beginning in the early 2000s, it fell out of sitcom fashion. What happened? How did we get from Beverly Hillbillies to 30 Rock? We meet the man who created the laugh track, which originated as a homemade piece of technology, and trace that technology’s fall and the rise of a more modern idea about humor. With the help of historians, laugh track obsessives, the showrunners of One Day at a Time and the director of Sports Night, we wonder if the laugh track was about something bigger than laughter.
United States


00:00:04When paul iris that was eight years old he would come home from school turn on the tv watch the pink panther show it was nineteen eighty two and paul was watching the show in syndication on w g in chicago some channels aired versions of the laugh track and
00:00:19somewhere versions without always watch the ones that had the laughter because it was i guess is a child is communal to make they said that there's people watching with me and they sound like adults they don't sound like children he loved the show so much that he would
00:00:37take it but he didn't have a vcr so he would use a tape recorder one that only captured the sound even though the pink panther show has very little dialogue well you've been listening to that's mostly what the pink panther sounds like what i was doing was allowing
00:00:51myself to hear the laughs rather watch the show visually like watching show with your eyes closed and i basically started studying us of who are these people laughing why they left in the same waters that last time paul's early encounters with the pink panther fostered a lifelong interest
00:01:08in laugh tracks paul lives in l a and works as an account manager at an insurance company but he's a passionate laugh track hobbyist paul talk himself everything about laugh tracks how they're made who made them the difference between them even how to make them for himself the
00:01:22monkeys is a great show to think of because they killed the laugh track halfway through the second season One of my goals in life is to react the laugh track and not just like that to try to add it as it was during that season using those same
00:01:34laughs It's really a very strange obsession because there's so few people you can tell it to butt i love recreating them I love isolating these clips and putting them on anything i possibly can One of the shows that paul tinkered around with is the abc sitcom modern family
00:01:49It doesn't have a laugh track so paul gave it one I've just never to teach her not like me before she's a gym teacher she has to teaching what dr seuss's to medicine i think she didn't like you modern family premiered in two thousand nine but if it
00:02:07had arrived just five years earlier it would have sounded something like that from the nineteen fifties to the early two thousand's sitcoms had laugh tracks period and then when laugh track free shows like arrested development and the american version of the office made it's a network tv they
00:02:22mostly disappeared most it comes today don't have won except for a few big hits like the big bang theory and reboots like roseanne We talk about laugh tracks now it's mostly to make jokes about them but when paul was going up and every show had a laugh track
00:02:35people didn't talk about them very much they were kind of a secret so few people knew about it were discussed it everybody hears that everybody is aware of it why won't anybody talk about it today we're going to talk about it well enough i never thought much about
00:02:55the laugh track one way or another they were just always there but as a tv critic i watched laugh tracks become contentious and deeply un cool it's always fascinated me that something we barely noticed for so long suddenly going maybe even kind of light could become so annoying
00:03:09to so many people so quickly what changed why did they exist in the first place do we just realize they were really laying and if so what took us so long from slate magazine this is dakota in a show about cracking cultural mysteries i'm slates tv critic will
00:03:27a paskin and everybody i'll take a cultural object idea or have it and try to figure out where it comes from what it means and why it matters today what happened to the laugh track i imagine it's the nineteen fifties you've just gotten your very first television set
00:03:59it weighs a time and it's the size of a bureau with wood paneling and a couple of dial's on the side you set it up in the living room and you call him the whole family and you turn it on theo theo jack benny program originally a hit
00:04:15radio show the serie start benny a one time vaudeville performer and comedian as a version of himself a radio star and now that show from the radio it's on your television and even though you've heard before you've never seen anything like it before when you watch a performance
00:04:31it was in public with an audience and now it's happening in your house think about how strange how knew that must have been and then listen you hear it something recognizable something reassuring something that tells you what you're watching laster it was my fault sir who didn't have
00:04:48the that's how most early tv comedies were recorded in front of a live audience oftentimes in studios in new york by the early fifties as the tv industry moved away from new york and into hollywood executives wanted to move away from this traditional approach of broadcasting what amounted
00:05:08to a live stage shows they wanted to shoot comedies on film comedies that weren't live but there's still sounded live the solution to this problem the laugh track and the person who came up with a solution charles douglas charlie douglas was a mechanical engineer who had worked on
00:05:26radar for the navy in world war two so he knew his way around audio and electronics in nineteen fifty hank mccuen show a mostly for gotten serious from nbc had used a rudimentary laugh track but by nineteen fifty three douglas had developed a better way to insert a
00:05:42laugh into a show If you've ever watched an old sitcom you've almost certainly heard his work now we lift up the dryers and see how their hair turned out I asked ron simon curator of television and radio at the paley center formerly the museum of television radio what
00:06:04he knew Charlie douglas took the concept that just adding laughter probably from it transcription disc to create a machine that could do it and he created this little box using laughter from more cell marceau and from red skills from the silent sequences and created tape loops that could
00:06:24then be injected into film comedy to make it alive experience douglas then poured over these laughs at his kitchen table night after night he spiced them into analog tape rials that could be played on a patented device douglas had built himself out of household appliances organ parts and
00:06:42vacuum tubes The device was about three feet tall the shape of a filing cabinet very heavy and had slots for thirty two reals which could hold ten last each It was officially named the audience response duplicate er but it became known as the last box and that's laugh
00:06:56spelled it the goofy fifty style l a the last practice it's weird machine that's closer to will say steve pump that it is too modern elektronik technology as i can adding machine we just press these dials and laughter would happen eventually would evolve into more of a typewriter
00:07:16thing where you punch keys the last box could chuckle it could laugh with side relief it even had a riel controlled by the foot pedal that was just hitters tiny little one person laughs at its most sophisticated the box had three hundred twenty laughs it could play one
00:07:39laugh at a time by pressing one qi we'll write pressing multiple keys together it could play a bunch of laughs at once so if he thought something was remotely funny it's there let's have this guy left right here and he just had that going and maybe he come
00:07:53back and watch and see you know that could that wasn't quite as funny as the producer is going to want it so maybe he would add a second sound like this and then he would add it all together and mix it together so you hear the full product
00:08:06three separate clips overlapped what would happen was the producer or the director would come back and see his work and say you know what that could use a much flatter left can you give it allowed a good fall and he say all right shorts eso you throw something
00:08:23just like that because last boxes were patented and handmade by douglas it wasn't like just anyone can make or use one there are only a handful of working models at a time and he basically had a monopoly on the process By the nineteen sixties almost all sitcoms were
00:08:41single camera shows filmed without an audience and tricked out with a raucous charlie douglas laugh track the box is supply laughter for tens of thousands of episodes of television tens of thousands maybe even more everything from the monster's bewitch the beverly hillbillies gilligan's island to mary tyler moore
00:08:57and cheers for decades their sound was ubiquitous but douglas didn't want to talk about his device douglas whenever he went to a show would covered over and no one would actually see him at work There is something you know embarrassing it was certainly part of history but you
00:09:15know not many opportunities you want to talk about and really actually talk about you know how the last sausage was actually made douglas hardly ever gave interviews or spoke about his work A nineteen sixty six piece from tv guide titled the hollywood sphinx and his laugh box in
00:09:30which the sphinx is douglas describes the mystery surrounding the man and his device the author wrote if the last box should start acting strangely the laugh boys well it into the men's room locking the door behind them so no one can peek i mentioned the name charlie douglas
00:09:45and it's like cosa nostra everybody starts whispering it's the most taboo topic in tv i want to say here that every knock on the laugh track that you've ever heard that it's fake that it's corny that it's cheating that it's not funny that it thinks audiences are dumb
00:10:09people been saying since the beginning and that's part of the reason for douglas is silence but listening to douglas's laughs hearing paul try to recreate them it changed how i thought about them i've always prided myself on being open minded about the laugh track a funny show is
00:10:23a funny show with or without one but even so i always thought of them as automated mechanical but they aren't really that all their aircraft charlie douglas played his last box like it was an instrument literally a lot of people think it was just a bunch of laughs
00:10:38thrown into a tape machine someone's pushing the button it was an art me he took it very seriously here's one of charlie's laughs it was used in the late sixties and seventies including in the pilot for mash you hear the laughter telling off the end i love that
00:10:58it tells the story in a single laugh there's a joke but one guy in the audience he doesn't get it right away he's a split second late and then he laughed a little bit longer here listen to it again charlie douglas wasn't just a sound engineer He was
00:11:17a psychologist Theo rap on the laugh track is that it's Fake laughter from a fake audience but that's not quite right The last cock doesn't just represent a bogus audience It represent an audience of one of charlie douglas He definitely goose laughs producers instructions To a large extent
00:11:37he and the people who work for him followed their guts It's incredible that one man's taste and sense of humor were so important in pacing an entire type of television comedy But it's true So how did the laugh track driven era of tv come to an end How
00:12:01did the laugh track go from being a tittering companion to an annoyance to enter that i think we need to think about the laugh track is not just a habit or an object but an idea an idea about why we laugh I'm going to get to another idea
00:12:13about laughter later on but this first one i think it makes the laugh track of the fifties and sixties make a lot more sense here I want you to listen to something something that people once thought was really funny that menacing sequences from the okay laughing record okay
00:12:39okay h is the name of the record label that released it in nineteen twenty two it was recorded a few years earlier in germany and is the sound of a cornett being interrupted by hysterically laughing woman who was joined by a hysterically laughing man that's it it goes
00:12:54on for two and a half minutes two and a half creepy creepy minutes but in nineteen twenty two people thought it was hilarious the okay laughing record was a huge novelty hit their speculation it sold over a million copies it spawned an entire mini genre of novelty laughing
00:13:12records the laugh track it's a version of the okay laughing record it's trying to make you laugh just by listening to other people laugh what's funny must be the laughter because it's not the joke there is no joke but this particular approach to humor it's not that popular
00:13:27right now to find someone to defend it i had to talk to one of paul's friends ben glenn he's in our historian by training but he's also a devoted laugh track enthusiast he and paul are in the same charlie douglas facebook group if you think about show like
00:13:41that but that relies heavily on the laugh track like bewitched for the munsters if you didn't have it it just wouldn't be funny well might what does that mean that shows just actually bad and it was using like this crutch this well the pope yes yes partly but
00:14:00somebody getting a pie in the face and then there's silence is not money right Somebody getting the pie in the face with a huge laugh that's when i found this that does a tree falling in the forest make a sounds and cohen of sitcom laughter genuinely perplexing is
00:14:18a pie in the face funny if no one laughs is an episode of friends funny of no one laughs that's what i wondered after coming across this video posted on youtube by the user espadas of friends without a laugh track is the waitress i'm starving it's a bluff
00:14:35a man is when i went on my money back you can hear what the rhythm of the show is supposed to be how the pacing depends upon there being laughter without it friend sounds weird and unnatural if there's no audience laughter it's suddenly stark how odd it is
00:14:51that the characters on trying to make each other laugh friends needs its laughs to be funny even if some of them are fake uh anyone seen rich he's upstairs not doing the dishes not tell you something you know i'm not doing them this time i don't care if
00:15:04it was just just just set the sink until they're all covered with you i'll do money at home transition away from the laugh track started slowly in the seventies with norman lear sitcoms like all in the family comedy started to be taped in front of a live studio
00:15:23audience again the audience is laughs would be smoothed out edited or boosted this is a process called sweetening which douglas had done a lot of and still happens all the time but the aim already within the last should sound more realistic in the eighties and nineties some shows
00:15:39like the wonder years the larry sanders show and the days and nights of molly dodd started to experiment with dropping the laugh track but tv's biggest hits shows like cheers seinfeld and friends still had them by the late nineties with the rise of cable and on laugh track
00:15:52animated series like the simpsons even the network started contemplating making different kinds of comedies setting up a collision between the old idea about comedy and the typical way of doing things and a new idea about comedy and a new way of shooting a tv show caught in that
00:16:07collision aaron sorkin sports night you're watching sports night on csc so come on back we're out two and a half minutes back in nineteen ninety seven sir consoled sports night his first tv show to abc it was a comedy set behind the scenes of an espn style sports
00:16:23network circuit in the director tommy schlamme e wanted to shoot it like a single camera show the set had four walls the camera moved and they wanted to shoot it without a laugh track abc not so much they wanted to do something different but not that different here
00:16:38shani the economics of television and certainly half hour television was so massive for shows that had had traditional left tracks that they were really very nervous about giving that up completely What did you feel like The laugh track meant about your show here's what it is that the
00:16:57sort of base tone of ah situational comedy is the laugh track i think we're familiar with it I think it sort of resonates in a certain way but i think it is kind of establishing a conceptual idea about a show that is saying it's not riel this is
00:17:14a theatrical presentation i'm there with this group of people were all laughing it's fun That was not the idea of the way i think aaron wrote or what i think sports night was about here's a clip of the laugh track from the sports night pilot Yeah but the
00:17:28point i'm making is that i can't is this jeremy goodwin You here for the associate producer job And let me just say it was one of the first shows where as a viewer i could really feel that the laugh track was holding the show back sportsman is fast
00:17:43it doesn't want to pause to wait for the audience is laughter so the last have to be shoehorned into the rare breaks in sorkin stents dialogue where they sound even faker than usual dispatches from a whole other sensibility well you can hear starting to happen with sports night
00:17:57is a laugh track changing from background noise into an impediment it's actively keeping sports night from being it's funny and fast for being as good as it could be after its first few episodes sports night stopped being taped in front of an audience at all and the laughter
00:18:11got even fainter here's a clip from an episode at the end of season one yes yes you're breaking up now hello you're breaking up now you're not there at all there's nobody there at all yet i'm still talking all right for a second season abc let the show
00:18:28dropped the laugh track entirely but it was canceled at the end of that season anyway in two thousand just ever so slightly ahead of its time the laugh track free british version of the office premiered in two thousand one in two thousand three arrested development started eric on
00:18:44fox in two thousand five the american adaptation of the office started airing on nbc the first huge hit without a laugh track that same year everybody loves raymond won the emmy for best comedy that's the last time a sitcom with a laugh track has done so the end
00:18:59of the laugh track era so what changed I want to talk about another theory about laughter that's different from the pie in the face theory i mentioned earlier in this theory laughter isn't a fundamentally social activity something that we do just because everyone else is doing it it's
00:19:18something deeply wonderfully individual and idiosyncratic a reaction to the quality of the joke itself representing this point of view is a tv writer and isa kanda and he's now a writer on the current abc sitcom the goldbergs which doesn't have a laugh track but his first show the
00:19:33two thousand four u p n sitcom love incorporated about modern day matchmakers did but that's not fair i have a dream too what's your dream to have ten thousand more dollars i'm talking about ten thousand dollars to help improve the human condition well ten thousand dollars will help
00:19:48improve this humans condition very much before working on love incorporated and he had been a writer for conan and a teacher and performer at the improv comedy powerhouse upright citizens brigade i was a alternative comedy snob and coming out of the new york scene already was like every
00:20:06show with a laugh track other than seinfeld is you know pass a dinosaur but and he didn't have the clout to keep love incorporated from having a laugh track the show was performed in front of a studio audience and they had some real laughs but then a sound
00:20:22editor came in to sweeten it boosting and manipulating all of them so the real laughs were replaced by a laugh track but any don't want to use that laugh track in the typical way so i guess my take wass well since we're doing this anyway why don't we
00:20:36just decide what's to me i was like if well it's going to be this creation this false thing well i go have way just make the whole thing of fiction i wantto train the audience that's watching at home it was not really paying that much attention anyway in
00:20:55my head in other words and he wanted to rig the laugh track to reflect what was really funny he understood how the laugh track is supposed to work that is supposed to make people laugh of what other people are laughing at but he wanted to retrofit it to
00:21:06account for the second theory of laughter to tell audiences hey some jokes or just funnier than others and you should laugh at those and id in succeed his boss wouldn't have it but even so you can see he may be skeptical of the laughter of the crowd but
00:21:20he believes in the objective quality of the joke you may be able to get a big laugh out of an audience and b not that great a comic i mean a lot of comments would argue well if you get a lead to get the laugh then you are
00:21:34a great comic it's a great cause i'm a snob and he may be a snob but his perspective has become widespread this is how lots of people think about comedy now me included some jokes just are better than others and you can't tell simply based on what got
00:21:48the biggest laugh especially when that laugh comes from a laugh track For decades tv was ruled by this idea that laughter is socially contingent and then that idea was surpassed by this other idea that laughter is idiosyncratic and individual But this was a big transition for some viewers
00:22:07The laugh track didn't just stop encouraging laughter It started inhibiting it laugh track broke today shows that laugh tracks have been almost entirely cut out of the critical conversation but they still have their modern day defenders and uses especially in the revivals of beloved shows that had laugh
00:22:25tracks like will and grace Netflix is two thousand seventeen reboot of norman lear is one day at a time a show about a divorce to cuban american veteran with ptsd raising her son and teenage daughter while living with her mother is great it's smart it's charming it's queer
00:22:41and it has a laugh Track two she has to have a king says how else will we know the day that our little girl becomes a woman You missed it I was twelve i was in gym and ironically happened in first period so just so you know so
00:22:57this is this is a podcast we're doing about the laugh track it's i'm wanting to talk to you guys because you do a great show that has laugh track it's a lot like actually i knew you're going to say that but we're going to talk about all that
00:23:12does gloria called on kelly and mike royce the show runners of one day at a time they're right there show is filmed in front of a live audience as was the original miking gloria say their sound editor cuts down on the cause and the more excessive woops rita
00:23:25marino and even trim sounds and laughs but they say there's no sweetening in their show when i said it was a laugh track like why does that bother you so much Some people just don't like to hear other people laughing because it feels like they're being told what
00:23:38to do but part of that comes from i think feeling like the laughter is somehow bakley added on mike is right that is how some people feel about the last track that it's a false advertisement trying to sell you a bad joke as though it's a good one
00:23:53and sometimes that is what the laugh track is so i asked why it was worth risking that kind of reaction for me is about a shared experience so i feel like it's an opportunity to experience a play in the comfort of your home but you're experiencing it as
00:24:07though you are a part of a community we want them to experience the emotions audibly you know like it's there there is something about that crying too by the way for gloria and mike the laugh track is a reminder that other people are there watching with you even
00:24:23when you're all alone just like it has been from the very beginning e i want to go back to that scene from earlier when you turn on the tv for the first time and saw the jack benny program and it was so new and strange when you heard
00:24:43the audience laughing It was a cue that you should laugh too Yes but also it was a sign a sign that you weren't watching alone The laugh track was trying to bridge the bizarre new distance between the audience and the performers between the audience and other members of
00:24:57the audience The thing you have to remember and this is so different than now that the laugh track was trying to overcome a defect of television which is that unlike vaudeville in the movies you watched it all by yourself now that defect that you don't have to go
00:25:10anywhere or interact with anyone while you watch it that's one of tv's biggest selling points and the laugh track it helped us to get to that point For a long time the laugh track seemed permanent but it was really more like training wheels something that taught us this
00:25:26new scale of watching and laughing in solitude might have stuck around way too long but it did his job really well by the late nineties and early aughts when the numbers of shows on cable started to skyrocket and the tv audience began to fragment we were totally ready
00:25:44to move from one three of laughter to another to embrace the idea of ourselves as individuals with idiosyncratic comedic taste who did not need or even want the laugh tracks lame total of approval to know what was funny these days it's the laugh track that seems weird and
00:25:59vestigial a sound from another time unless we're specifically after the theatrical communal throwback experience of a show like one day at a time the laugh track has always been a tool and nearly seventy years after it was invented there's nothing to fix watching tv alone isn't the weird
00:26:14activity watching together is as multi camera comedies with laugh tracks have faded out Single camera comedies without laughs have only gotten more and more adventurous leading to a whole upheaval in what constitutes a comedy full stop Many of the buzziest most well regarded comedies like atlanta and girls
00:26:33and transparent on more funny adjacent them laugh out loud funny they are after that big big laugh making people laugh is really really hard One shortcut from decades ago was to fake that laughter a more modern fixes not to worry about whether audiences air laughing at all my
00:26:49little list banking probably need my i b s and my media magnet should be that i truly don't have my grandmother like you don't love her at all So what was your biggest baggage bay virgin even if they're not laughing Audiences are finding makeshift ways to watch communally
00:27:12if you're looking for the present day technological equivalent of the laugh track look at social media sitting on your couch reading twitter while you watch atlanta or a football game or the bachelor Those tweets are a signal about what's good and what's interesting sometimes they're just the show's
00:27:26best jokes tweeted verbatim often those treats will make you laugh they'll definitely keep you from feeling like you're watching all alone learning history of the laugh track thinking about it as a way to foster a feeling of togetherness it really made me wonder is so low binging with
00:27:43headphones on while the person in the very same room as you watch is something else really better than gathering around one of three channels politely putting up with canned laughter and one of these experiences you definitely get to decide what's funny for yourself but you really are doing
00:27:57it all alone I think this is part of what drives laugh track aficionados like paul iverson when he tinkers with laugh tracks and add them back into old episodes of the pink panther or the monkeys he's recapturing the spirit of a different time a different way of watching
00:28:12television when laughter wasn't a judgment but a companion When i asked paul what his favorite charlie douglas laugh was he had won of course he got right to the heart of it It was basically on deep man's laugh that was used sparingly and then it started to get
00:28:26used more regularly And it sounds like this weii heard that when my sister would say there is your friend i will paskin this is dakota ring thanks for listening If you like the show please go raid it and subscribe on her own feet on apple podcasts so you
00:28:48don't miss an episode and even better go tell your friends if you have any cultural mysteries you'd love a city code you could email us at dakota ring at slate dot com you can find out more about the show at slate dot com slash dakota ring You can
00:29:02follow me on twitter at willow paskin We have a ton of people we want to thank for this episode A very special thanks to slate's editor julia turner Inflate podcasts Executive producer steve left eye without whom the show would not exist Also Thank you Any chelsea derek thompson
00:29:17jacob smith peters on take joe italian june thomas dan coy's laura bennett able about flores wickman tj raffaele chris berube jacob rogan andrew parsons caitlin roper leon A fact katie mingle the new york city radio club and everyone else who give us feedback and help along the way
00:29:35This podcast is produced and edited by benjamin fresh We'll see you next month

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