I was agreeing with a friend that the canned laughter that is heard on TV comedies is an abomination The worst ones are the really canned ones, laughs that are pre-recorded and then played at the times when the writers think the audience should laugh. These annoying laughs become even worse if you yourself are not watching the program because the phoniness becomes more obvious. If people are watching a program while I am in the next room, the canned laughter becomes so annoying that I have to move to a distant room just to get out of earshot.
I looked into this issue of laughter in TV comedies and came across this article about how to get laughter. Originally, the laughs were provided by people who happened to be in the studio.
In the 1950s, talk show host Steve Allen purposely substituted nonsense words for his punch lines during rehearsals, so his band would be sure to laugh when they heard the real ones during tapings. Around that same time, a CBS sound engineer named Charley Douglass developed the “laff box,” a machine that played prerecorded laughs, itemized by laugher style, gender and age, during episodes of The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy to fix inconsistencies in audience guffaws. It was the dawn of the laugh track.
Programs then started taping in front of larger audiences than a studio band and crew and this led to live studio audiences. Live studio audiences are better than laugh machines but then you have the problem of the audience laughing at the wrong points or not laughing as much when the actors have to repeat the scene and they have heard the joke before. To help overcome this problem, the audiences are ‘seeded’ with professional laughers, people who have explosive and infectious laughs. Studios can hire such people from Central Casting for about $75 per day, which is what an extra gets paid. (I had not known that Central Casting was not just a concept that was used to identify stereotypical characters (“As a villain, he was straight out of central casting), it is the name of an actual company that has been in existence since 1926 and is the go-to firm if you are looking for extras and stand-ins.)
The occupation of professional laughers started because of a tragic occurrence. The actor Fran Drescher and a friend were brutally assaulted in her home during an armed robbery. After that she was apprehensive about being around strangers and asked for pre-screened people in the audience and this spawned a new career track for people who had the right kind of laugh. This made Lisette St. Claire realize that there was a market for the right kind of laugher.
She started auditioning people, looking for dominating, infectious laughs that were explosive and unique. If folks made the cut, she put them into one of three tiers: top-level Group A, second-string Group B or “when hell freezes over” Group C.
She aimed for a 50-50 mix of men and women, and she discovered those in their 40s and 50s tended to be the best. She doesn’t know why; maybe it takes more life experiences, more joy and sorrow, to find things to really laugh about.