The Birth of the Canned Laughter Machine

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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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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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