The Laff Machine

“Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”

Charles Rolland Douglass was born on January 2, 1910, in Guadalajara, Mexico to American parents. His father was an engineer on assignment and they eventually would move to Nevada.

He would graduate from the University of Nevada with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He found work as a sound engineer at CBS Radio in Los Angeles. He served in the Navy during World War II and worked in developing shipboard radar systems. He would soon fill a need for the television industry, creating a laugh box (laff box) or laugh-track machine. Most situation comedies in the 1950s, like the Jack Benny Show, had live studio audiences, but they could not be depended on to laugh on cue.

Charley was brought in to add the proper laughter or crowd reaction into the soundtrack of the programs. He could add or even mute laughter if it went too long. This editing technique became known as “sweetening”

The Laff box was built in 1953 and combined a typewriter mixed with the tape mechanism of The Chamberlain (an electro-mechanical keyboard instrument that was a precursor to the Mellotron, where a depressed key engages tape head and roller.)

Charles Pratt was working as a re-recording mixer at MGM in the early 1950s when he was approached by Charles Rolland Douglass, who invented the Laff Box, which was basically a series of audiotape loops. Douglass asked Pratt to work for him when business got too big to handle himself.

The laughter, applause, giggles, etc. were recorded on tape loops that would play as keys were depressed. Comedian Milton Berle, at a post-production editing session, once said, “as long as we are here, this joke didn’t get all that we wanted.” After Douglass inserted a guffaw after a failed joke, Berle reportedly commented, “See? I told you it was funny.”

A team of Charley Douglass trained audio technicians (Laff-Boys) soon would be in post-production all the time sweetening the laughter on shows like Bewitched, The Munsters, Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch, and My Three Sons.

Other shows that used a live studio audience but need “Sweetening” were I Love Lucy (the first show to do this), Leave it to Beaver, All in the Family, Cheers, Fawlty Towers, The Jeffersons, Seinfeld, Friends, Full House, Mary Tyler Moore, and Laverne & Shirley.

Douglass formed Northridge Electronics in August 1960 and had a monopoly on laugh tracks and “Sweetening”. He was said to have “the only laugh game in town” by TV Guide critic Dick Hobson in 1966. The box was always concealed and was rarely seen by anyone. Inside the machine were exactly 320 laughs, including chuckles, giggles, and boisterous “belly laughs,” on 32 tape loops. Each loop contained 10 individual audience laughs, spliced end to end, whirling simultaneously. I believe shows benefit from the laugh track, for example,

“Munsters Go Home” movie does not use it, and while a great film severely suffers from the absence. Some of the big cartoons like the Flinstones, Top Cat, The Banana Splits, The Archies, Scooby-Doo Where Are You!, Josie and the Pussycats, and The Jetsons opted for a laugh track.

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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