The Birth of the Canned Laughter Machine


So, question: on which show did canned laughter first appear?

TV historian Ben Glenn II answers that question, and many more in a delightful interview with the Paris Review's Mike Sacks. (Answer: The Hank McCune Show, a short-lived NBC situation comedy.) The trivia most apropos to our topic here, though, is that the canned laughter machine actually has a name and a creation story.

"Actually, its official name is the Laff Box, and it was invented by a man named Charles Rolland Douglass," Sacks said. He goes on to describe the reasons for its creation, which aren't quite what you think maybe, its prototyping, and Douglass' legendary secrecy regarding his work.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the Laff Box to our modern eyes is that it is actually a machine with honest-to-god buttons. Check out the video of it working above. You can even think of it as a type of instrument, an unholy combination of a typewriter, piano, and your extended families' larynxes. Apparently, Douglass was even treated as a very specific kind of maestro. Producers would call Douglass in to "laugh" a show, custom creating the score of joy associated with a bunch of bad jokes.

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