Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson is a quick read. The book is full of stories, and facts on how things become popular. Below is an excerpt:
The “Laff Box”
In the 1960s, the biggest star in American television wasn’t Mary Tyler Moore or Andy Griffith. By pure screen time alone, the TV talent most present in American living rooms wasn’t an actor at all. It was an electrical engineer who never appeared in front of the camera, but whose work behind the scenes was influential enough that you could hear him almost every minute on about forty shows a week. At one point, he was so powerful, and his work so private, that he was called the “Hollywood Sphinx.” His name was Charles Douglass, and he invented the laugh track.
Douglass was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1910 and his family moved to Nevada when he was a child to escape political unrest. He wanted to study electrical engineering like his father, an electrician with a Nevada mining company. But when he found himself in Los Angeles after World War II, the hot new media industry for a technophile like Douglass was television. He took a job as a sound technician with CBS.
Situational comedies in the 1950s tended to be shot in simple set in front of live audiences. Entertainment often shoehorns past habits into new formats, and indeed 1950s television was basically live radio or theater in front of a camera. But when actors forgot a line or messed up their blocking, the second or third takes of the same jokes wouldn’t elicit many laughs. Weak chortling made a show seem stolid when it was broadcast to audiences sitting at home. This led to the practice of “sweetening” laughs by extending or amplifying the sound of merriment in postproduction.
Douglass was interested in a bigger solution to the problem: He wanted to invent a machine to simulate laughter. This way, shows would never be fully defeated by awful writers, worse actors, dead audiences, or the vagaries of a live recording. For several months in the early 1950s, he listened to audio of laughs, gasps, and applause from several theatrical performances and television.” He recorded his favorite sounds of mirth on analog tape, which he could play with keys he took right off
The “Laff Box,” as his invention came to be known, looked like a gangly bastardized typewriter, but Douglass played it like an organ. The laugh keys could be pressed together like chords to create more than a hundred variations of audience amusement. In his private studio, Douglass knew how to layer laughter for the right moment during postproduction. As a sitcom gag worked its way toward a ridiculous climax, Douglass would play early chuckles, crescendo to hearty guffaws, and finally leave the invisible audience screaming with delight. layering in the laughs was an art, and Douglass had the only game in town
Douglass’s technology faced considerable antagonism in its early days (and high-minded doubters throughout its existence), but eventually networks realized that canned laughter had several advantages. First, it allowed directors to shoot first and add the audience later. Showrunners began to film television more like movies — inside and outside, with several takes and multiple camera angles. By 1954 Douglass had so many clients that he quit his job at CBS to work full-time with his Laff Box. He owned a monopoly on mechical mirth, but he was a benevolent monopolist, scoring a single episode for just about $100.
The second reason why laugh tracks eventually caught on requires a deeper understanding of why people laugh in the first place — of what makes something funny.
Plato proposed that laughter was an expression of “superiority” over a person or character in a story. Superiority is clearly at work in physical humor and Borscht Belt jokes. “My doctor said I was in terrible shape. I told him I needed a second opinion. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘You’re also quite ugly.'”
But the theory of superiority fails to explain puns, which are funny, at least in theory. “Two atoms are walking down the street. One of them turns to the other and says, ‘Hold up, I think I lost an electron.’ The first atom replies, ‘Are you sure?’ The second atom shouts, ‘Yes, I’m positive!'” This joke has nothing to do with power. The last word of the story arrives as a small yet meaningful surprise. But to explain what makes it funny, a broader theory is needed.
In 2010, two researchers proposed what might be the closest thing that sociology has to a universal theory of humor. It’s called “Benign Violation Theory.” Peter McGraw, now the director of the Humor He- search Lab, and Caleb Warren, now an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona, proposed that nearly all jokes are violations of norms or expectations that don’t threaten violence or emotional distress.
- “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar, and they each order a seltzer”: That isn’t a joke, because there’s no violation of expectation.
- “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar. They sit down to order a beer. Then they nearly kill each other over irresolvable religious differences”: That’s too dangerously violent for most people to laugh.
- “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘What is this, a joke?”’: Whether or not you personally find this funny, it’s clearly a joke, subverting expectations in a way that isn’t purposefully cruel or violent.
“If you look at the most universal forms of laughter shared across species, when rats laugh or when dogs laugh, it’s often in response to aggressive forms of play, like chasing or tickling,” Warren told me (and, yes, rats can laugh). “Chasing and tickling are both the threat of an attack, but without an actual attack.” By this theory, a good comedian chases with impropriety and tickles with wordplay, but does not deeply wound the audience’s social mores.
Any mainstream system — social behavior, manner of speaking, identities, even logic — can be threatened or violated. But people laugh mostly when they sense that the violation is benign or safe. And what makes something seem benign or safe? When lots of other people are laughing with you. That was the magic of Douglass’s box: It was effective tool of safe public conformity. Hearing people laugh gave audiences license to chuckle, too.