Charley Douglass, 1950s
|Born||Charles Rolland Douglass
January 2, 1910
|Died||April 8, 2003
|Other names||Charley Douglass|
Charles Rolland "Charley" Douglass (January 2, 1910 – April 8, 2003) was an American sound engineer, credited as the inventor of the laugh track.
Douglass was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1910 to an American family. His father was an engineer on assignment there, and eventually relocated the family to Nevada. Douglass graduated from the University of Nevada with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, and eventually found work as a sound engineer with CBS Radio in Los Angeles. During World War II, Douglass served in the Navy and worked in Washington with engineers developing shipboard radar systems.
The mysterious "laff box"
Before television, audiences often experienced comedy in the presence of other audience members. Television producers attempted to recreate this atmosphere in its early days by introducing the sound of laughter or other crowd reactions into the soundtrack of television programs. However, live audiences could not be relied upon to laugh at the correct moment. Douglass noticed this problem, and took it upon himself to remedy the situation. If a joke did not get the desired chuckle, Douglass inserted additional laughter. If the live audience chuckled for too long, Douglass gradually muted the laughter. This editing technique became known as "sweetening," in which pre-recorded laughter is used to augment the response of the real studio audience if they did not react as strongly as desired.
At first, Douglass's technique was used sparingly on live shows like The Jack Benny Program; as a result, its invention went by unnoticed. By the end of the 1950s, live comedy transitioned from film to videotape, which allowed for editing during post-production. However, by editing a prerecorded live show, bumps and gaps were present in the soundtrack. Douglass was again called upon to "bridge" or "fill" these gaps. Both performers and producers gradually began to realize the power behind prerecorded laughter. Comedian Milton Berle, while witnessing 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." Douglass went from enhancing a soundtrack to orchestrating audience reactions.
By the early 1960s, the recording of television sitcoms before audiences had fallen out of fashion, and Douglass was brought in to simulate the audience response for entire programs. Shows like Bewitched, The Munsters and The Beverly Hillbillies are virtually showcases of Douglass' editing work. Low-key shows, like The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch and My Three Sons, had less raucous laugh tracks, but were also entirely fabricated post-production. The practice of simulating an audience reaction was controversial from the very beginning, but it became standard practice and a commodity in the industry.
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Douglass had a virtual monopoly on the laugh-track business. In 1966, TV Guide critic Dick Hobson said the Douglass family were "the only laugh game in town." When it came time to "lay in the laughs", the producer would direct Douglass where and when to insert the type of laugh requested. Douglass would then go to work at creating the audience, out of sight from the producer or anyone else present at the studio in order to preserve secrecy around his technique. Consequently, very few in the industry ever witnessed Douglass using his invention.
The one-of-a-kind laugh-track device—known throughout the industry as the "laff box"—was tightly secured with padlocks, stood more than two feet tall, and operated like an organ. Only immediate members of the family knew what the inside actually looked like (at one time, the laff box was called "the most sought after but well-concealed box in the world"). The laff-box operator used a keyboard to select the style, gender and age of the laugh as well as a foot pedal to time the length of the reaction. Inside the machine was an endless array of recorded chuckles, giggles, and belly laughs; exactly 320 laughs on 32 tape loops, 10 to a loop. Each loop contained individual audience laughs spliced end-to-end, whirling around simultaneously, waiting to be cued up. Since the tapes were looped, laughs were played in the same order repeatedly.
Douglass also had an array of audience clapping, "oohs" and "ahhhs", as well as people moving in their seats (which many producers insisted be constantly audible). There was also a 30-second "titter" track in the loop, which consisted of individual people laughing quietly. This "titter" track was used to quiet down a laugh and was always playing in the background. When Douglass inserted a hearty laugh, he increased the volume of the titter track to smooth out the final mix. This titter track was expanded to 45 seconds in 1967 and would receive overhauls every few years (1964, 1967, 1970); Douglass also kept the recordings fresh, making minor changes every few months, as he believed that the viewing audience was gradually changing. A man's deep laugh would be switched for a new woman's laugh, or a high-pitched woman's giggle would be replaced with a man's snicker. One producer noticed a recurrent laugh of a woman whom he called "the jungle lady" because of her high-pitched shriek. After regularly complaining to Douglass, the laugh was retired from the regular lineup.
The modern equivalent of the laff box is a digital device approximately the size of a laptop computer which contains hundreds of human sounds.
Later years and death
Douglass was married for 62 years to Dorothy Dunn Douglass. They had two sons, one of whom (Bob) currently operates Northridge Electronics, the company established by Charley in August 1960.
- Kitman, Marvin. "Don't Make Me Laugh," Channels of Communication, August/September 1981
- Levin, Eric. "Who does all that laughing?" TV Guide, 8 April 1978
- Iverson, Paul: "The Advent of the Laugh Track" Hofstra University archives; February 1994.
- "The Talk of the Town: Laughs," The New Yorker 10 September 1984.
- Washington Post Thursday, April 24, 2003; Page B06: "Charles Douglass, 93; Gave TV Its Laugh Track"
- Hobson, Dick (July 2, 1966). "The Hollywood Sphinx and his Laff Box". TV Guide.
- "Canned Laughter: A History Reconstructed. Interview with Ben Glenn II, Television Historian" at andheresthekicker.com
- Antique's Roadshow: 1953 Charlie Douglass "Laff Box" (FLASH). Boston, USA: WGBH Boston. 2010-06-12. Retrieved 2011-02-09.
- Demonstration of 'laff box'