Laugh Tracks

By Joshua Swainston


Laugh track laughter was recorded in 1950 from middle-aged Hollywood audiences. That means that I have been listening to the dead laugh at jokes they never heard for my entire life.

When I was twenty-two, I lived in Seattle. The hundred-year-old, first-floor apartment was sparsely furnished with a long beige couch, three bookshelves, a standard-size bed on a wheeled frame, and a pressboard computer desk. In the hallway between the bedroom and living room hung three framed Marx Brothers movie posters. I was a merchant sailor then. I didn’t own anything. I didn’t need to. I was on a boat for nine months out of the year. Why own stuff I wasn’t ever going to be around?

I locked the door and sliding the chain to my Phinney Ridge one-bedroom. I drew the blinds. I turned out the lights. Anthony called. I know because my cell phone lit up and beeped intermittently, but it would fall silent again, leaving me alone. My collection of dog-eared fiction and a beat-up Dell laptop for streaming television served as entertainment. The stack of books on my desk included Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Spaulding Gray’s Impossible Vacation, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I lived across the street from Woodland Park Zoo. I could hear the elephants at dusk. For the next three days, the Pagliacci’s pizza delivery guy become my only confidant, the only ally allowed over the threshold. We didn’t talk. The routine was scripted and we both knew our roles. My order was a large double pepperoni. I tipped ten dollars each time. Sailors don’t have a lot of opportunity to spend money. I’m sure the delivery guy could use it more than me.

Eight years earlier, when I was fourteen, I refused to take my pills. They made life feel unnatural, like I was watching myself perform in golden-age television sitcoms: laugh tracks and exaggerated gestures. Funny, I can’t recall the doctor’s name, or the name of the prescriptions he gave me, but I remember what I was reading: Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. The doctor was in his fifties, wore muted earth-tone sweaters and had dark hair. I hated him. He never really listened. Maybe I wasn’t saying anything interesting: adolescent whining from a suburban white kid. He asked me how I liked my book. I said it was okay but I didn’t understand all of it. He asked me if I was taking my medication. I lied. His office was on the fourth floor of a newly built medical facility in Gig Harbor, Washington. He played golf, or at least liked golf enough to have pictures of golf courses as office decoration. Every time I visited, the doctor would remind me that he got his degree at Oregon State and that because he was originally from the Midwest he had written “Oregon” phonetically on his college application letter: OR-e-gun. At the end of the session, he would write me another prescription.

Charles Douglass invented the laugh track in 1950. The idea was to create continuity when filming single-camera sitcoms. Since television shows back then were shot using just one camera over a series of desired camera angles, there would be jumps and variations in the audience’s reaction depending on editing. To simplify this process Douglass, a CBS sound engineer, created a machine that would allow the illusion of real-time reaction. The Douglass Laff Box held thirty-two pre-recorded laughs for every sitcom situation. The same recorded laugher was used in every recorded television show, every cartoon, every made-for-TV movie for fifty years. Then digital audio came along and Foley artists re-recorded their own stock audio on computers.

When it got too late to read in that darkened Phinney Ridge apartment, I sat alone watching reruns of M*A*S*H on my laptop. The same crescendos of enjoyment I heard played in the exact same way they had for half a century. Each laugh track, timed precisely as long as it needed to be, manipulated by an engineer to garner the appropriate cue, allowed the viewers at home to know that what they were seeing on television was, indeed, funny. The laugh tracks are as hollow as depression.

I didn’t take my medication at fourteen, or at twenty-two. I’m not taking it now either. At the end of The Subterraneans, the main character, Leo Percepied, is left questioning what he did wrong to be alone and if he missed his one chance to be happy. Anthony would call again in the morning and I’d ignore it. We were friends, I think? A year later he moved to Spokane and the calls stopped. I stopped calling Pagliacci’s when I met my wife and moved to Tacoma. They don’t deliver to the South Sound. I never knew the delivery guy’s name. Woodland Park Zoo gifted their elephants in 2015 to a zoo in Oklahoma. Yesterday, my eight-year-old son found the 1970s Scooby-Doo on Netflix. The laugh track continues for another generation.

There is no true joy in a laugh track because it’s not an honest reaction. Or, at least, not an honest reaction to what I am experiencing when we hear it. That audience, the one I hear when I watch my favorite shows, never heard Alan Alda crack a joke as Captain Hawkeye Pierce. They are not going home after the show to talk to their children about how funny it all was. They are not laughing in real time because they are dead. All they have now is the end of the track and a rewind button.