Hit Makers: The “Laff Box”

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”Hit Makers.jpg

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
a typewriter.

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.



Detroit Hustle


This memoir is a quick read; Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Love, Life & Home by Amy Haimerl. She writes about her dad’s advice on contractors. Below is an excerpt from the book:

Detroit HustleDetroit Hustle.jpg

Contractors, he said, have a right to feed their families. Don’t look for cheap; seek quality work at a fair price. That is so important that Dad had this bit of philosophy inscribed on the back of his Bear Excavating business cards: “The bitterness of poor quality and workmanship remains long after the sweetness of the low bid is forgotten.” I remember reading that as a kid, and it’s always stuck with me. Be direct and decisive, he added. Know your budget and be honest about it. Pay on time. Look for someone who is a partner, who asks good questions and seems to care about the answers. Look for someone who can make suggestions and offer alternatives. Go with your gut and understand that your contractor is worth every dime because that’s the person who will make the project either a dream or a nightmare. You’re going to be more married to them, he tells me, than to Karl. Finally, make sure they are bonded and insured

How to Conduct a Business Meeting

Business meetings are often unproductive. The following outlines some tips to help ensure a productive meeting. There are three importance things to determine before scheduling a meeting: purpose, agenda, and people.


The purpose of the meeting should be clearly stated and communicated to participants. Both the agenda and materials should be sent to all members before the meeting. Let everyone know that the materials should be reviewed prior to the meeting and to come prepared to discuss the topics at hand. Discussions at meetings are important and silence may denote that you’re in agreement with the topic. Ground rules should be made clear.  These may include things such as no cellphones or laptops allowed in the meeting. Also, the meeting should start on time, so arrive 5 to 10 minutes early to network beforehand.


The agenda is used to guide the meeting. Each agenda item should have a designated amount of time noted on the agenda either written in minutes or beginning time (3:15pm). An alternative approach is to use a shot-clock which is a timer used to countdown the minutes.

You may want to assign someone to take notes for the meeting. These notes can be either formally typed up and distributed after the meeting or simply make a copy or take a picture of the handwritten notes and email them to the group.

The notes should include the agreed upon action items and assignment of those task s to a responsible party. As a group leader you will need to follow up with the individual responsible for all action items before the next meeting.


The last item, but perhaps the most important is deciding who should attend the meeting. There isn’t any magic number on the number of attendees. However, many recommend no more than 6-8 people or you can use Jeff Bezos’s two pizza rule; limit participants to the number two pizzas would feed. Involve those who have a stake in the agenda and will add value. Finally, at the end of the meeting there should be a recap of the results of the meeting, next time steps to be taken, and the responsible party for those actions.

A little extra planning can go a long way to increasing the productivity of any meeting.

Discovery-Driven Planning

Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work by Whitney Johnson is a book about personal development. We are living in an era of disruption. Are you using disruptive innovation to your competitive advantage? Below is an excerpt from the book.

Disrupt Yourself.jpgDiscovery-Driven Planning

With discovery-driven planning, you begin with the premise that little is known and much is assumed. That is not to say that you don’t have a plan: you do. lt’s just a different kind of plan. Instead of declaring, “These are the results that I expect,” you ask, “What has to prove true for my plan to work?” According to McGrath and MacMillan, this type of plan includes four steps:

  1. Create a reverse income statement. If you are launching a new product, rather than forecasting how much revenue you will generate and what your costs will be and then solving for the profit, you build the income statement in reverse. You decide on your required income, and then solve for how much revenue will deliver those profits, and how much cost can be allowed. With personal disruption, the question you ask is: To achieve my baseline level of happiness, what do I need to accomplish and what am I willing to give up in order to make this happen?
  2. Calculate the cost. With this step, you estimate what the cost will be to produce, sell, and deliver the product or service to a customer. Combined, these are the allowable costs that permit the business model to hold together. As an individual, the question is what kind of time, expertise, money, and buy-in will you need to make your plan operational? Is the personal cost of being on this curve one you can afford and want to incur?
  3. Compile an assumption checklist. This checklist allows you to flag and discuss each assumption as the venture unfolds. For example, what assumptions are you making about how much you will sell and at what price? How many sales calls will you need to make to get a single order? How many salespeople will you need to make that many calls, etc? As an individual, if you decide you want to earn $100,000 a year consulting, and last year you earned $100,000 consulting, then conventional planning works. If you’ve never consulted, then you’d want to think about the assumptions behind your ability to earn that $100,000. How many clients will you need? How many hours per day will you need to bill, and at what price point? Do you enjoy the work, and will it be emotionally satisfying?
  4. Prepare a milestone chart. This chart specifies which assumptions need to be tested and what you are going to learn by each milestone. In discovery- driven planning, learning is the essential unit of progress, so a course correction isn’t equivalent to failure, as it would be in conventional planning. Rather, it’s an opportunity to recalibrate so you can move more effectively up the curve.


HBR: Treat Employees Like Business Owners

Are you teaching your employees what it means to run a lumberyard? And are your employees committed to reducing your cost of goods sold (COGS). Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by John Case.

Treat Employees Like Business Owners

Employee loyalty and engagement are hot topics, and for good reason. Companies want to attract and retain talented people who really dig into their work. But most employers ignore two of the most powerful tools for making that happen.

Tool #1 is enabling employees to build real ownership in the business.

Of course, many public corporations offer stock-purchase plans or the like as part of their retirement benefit. And everyone knows about the options collected by a select few in Silicon Valley and other tech centers. But meaningful ownership — sizable grants of stock to rank-and-file employees year after year, to help them acquire a significant stake in the company — is all too rare.

It doesn’t have to be. Many large corporations manage to find big bundles of shares (and huge amounts of cash) for executive compensation, even though there’s little relationship between senior-management pay and financial results. A portion of those assets can be redirected to regular stock grants for employees. And companies — except for the very smallest — can implement an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), often funded through borrowing. So long as it’s sufficiently generous, either approach gives employees the kind of stake that makes them feel like true owners.

Just look at the supermarket industry to see such ownership in action. H-E-B, the big Texas-based chain, recently announced that it would give up to 15% of company shares over time to 55,000 of its employees, distributed according to a formula based on salary and seniority. That’s a chunk of stock estimated at more than $1 billion. Publix, a large chain headquartered in Florida, is majority owned by its employees and regularly makes the annual “best companies to work for” lists. And there’s WinCo, a grocery retailer based in Boise, Idaho, with 14,000 employees and 86 stores spread across eight western states. Every WinCo employee is an owner. Cathy Burch, who has worked there for 20-some years as an hourly employee, now has close to $1 million in her retirement account.

You don’t think that kind of generosity builds commitment and passion? “We work our tails off,” an employee with 28 years at WinCo told Forbes. “We’re more of a team than just working for a typical company. There’s a carrot out there you’re working for, for the rest of your life.”

Tool #2 goes by different names: open-book management, economic transparency, ownership culture. Whatever you call it, it means encouraging employees to think and act like businesspeople rather than like hired hands.

If you work for a conventional organization, your job is to show up at the appointed time and perform certain tasks. At open-book companies, it’s part of everyone’s job to contribute to the success of the business. Managers help employees understand, track, and forecast key numbers. They welcome ideas for improvement. They reinforce the ownership mindset by sharing profit increases with everyone, usually through bonuses funded by the increase itself. Many of these businesses also have a stock plan in place.

The approach is easiest to understand in a small company. The Paris Creperie, a Boston-area restaurant that’s about the size of a McDonald’s outlet, recently adopted open-book management. Creperie employees learned the basics of the restaurant business, including determinants of profit such as cost of goods sold (COGS). Then, last summer, they launched an initiative to reduce COGS, cutting food waste, reconfiguring some dishes, and coming up with ways to operate more efficiently. COGS dropped from roughly 30% of revenue to 26.5% over a four-week period, and continued to hold in the mid-20s. Operating profit rose by more than 10 percentage points in just four months and has stayed in the 18% to 20% range, compared with a restaurant-industry average of less than 4%.

This year, employees there are on track to get bonuses averaging $6,000. “Any other restaurant, I would just be scraping by,” shift supervisor Amanda Norton told the Boston Globe. “Seeing those bonuses really helps me breathe easier, knowing that it’s not the end of the world when I have to pay bills.”

You can imagine what all this does for employee loyalty and commitment. “Actually,” says Harvard Business School professor Leonard A. Schlesinger, “when employees know more about the business and have an economic stake in the outcome, there’s a high probability that turnover rates would go down exponentially.”

These tools also address two fundamental challenges of today’s free-enterprise system. An ownership nest egg helps mitigate inequality by putting more money in the hands of rank-and-file employees. And open-book management teaches people the basics of business, so they can thrive when they have to change jobs, as most inevitably will in our fast-changing economy. “People are learning what it means to run a business,” says Joe Grafton, a consultant who works with the Creperie. “That’s something they can take with them as they move forward with their careers.”

Both measures give people a stake in the system and the wherewithal to live a more secure life. A company that puts these tools to work helps its community while helping itself.


Book Reveiw: The Fish That Ate the Whale

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen is about building a business empire. His empire includes banana cowboys, mercenary soldiers, Honduran peasants, CIA agents, and American statesmen. Below is an excerpt from the book.


United Fruit CompanyFish that ate the whale.jpg

Zemurray employed hundreds of workers on the north coast. In the first weeks, they lived in tents, then moved into cabins, barrack, and bungalows. They worked from four a.m. till noon, after which It was too hot to linger outdoors. They wore sandals when they worked, shirts opened to the belly, straw hats, and pants with a machete hooked to the waist. The most popular machete, made in Connecticut, was a six-inch crescent-shaped blade embossed near the wood handle with the name of the maker: COLLINS. Now and then, when two or more workers got into a fight someone would flash a machete and say, “I’ll stick you all the way to the Collins.” Over time, this phrase “to the Collins” came stand for every kind of death that awaited a man in the Torrid Zone.

Three weeks after sowing, the shoots would break through the soil. A few days later, the fields were covered with banana plants. The machete men went through the rows, cutting away the weeds that were forever returning. On a banana plantation, clearing weeds are breathing. Without it, the plantation dies.

Once the plants had reached the height of small children-fourth graders, say, green and promising-the engineers would go back to work, mapping out the train tracks that would wander through the rows, so the fruit, when harvested, could be carried to the warehouse, selected, counted, and stacked into boxcars. The railroads were simple, with grass growing between the ties. (“From the day I was born I had heard it said, over and over again, that the rail lines and camps of the United Fruit Company had been built at night because during the day the sun made the tools too hot to pick up,” Garda Marquez wrote in Living to Tell the Tale.) The tracks were indeed laid in the cool before dawn. It took a few weeks, no more. The rails were torn up and reused if a particular field went feral or fallow. You can still see the remnants of many such lines in Honduras: an overgrown field in the Sula Valley, a storybook jungle of snakes and macaws, a glint of iron beneath the tall grass.

Zemurray worked in the fields beside his engineers, planters, and machete men. He was deep in the muck, sweat covered, swinging a blade. He helped map the plantations, plant the rhizomes, clear the weeds, lay the track. He was a proficient snake killer. Taller than most of his workers, as strong and thin as a railroad spike, he shouted orders in dog Spanish. He believed in the transcendent power of physical labor-that a man can free his soul only by exhausting his body. A life in an office, deskbound, was for the feeble and weak who cut themselves off from the actual. He ate outside-shark’s fin soup, plantains, crab gumbo, sour wine. His years in the jungle gave him experience rare in the trade. Unlike most of his competitors, he understood every part of the business, from the executive suite where the stock was manipulated to the ripening room where the green fruit turned yellow. He was contemptuous of banana men who spent their lives in the North, far from the plantations. Those schmucks, what do they know? They’re there, we’re here!

Give and Take

I’ve read good book called Give and Take by Adam Grant. The book’s website has this to say: “Give and Take changes drivers of success: passion, hard work, talent, and luck. But in today’s dramatically reconfigured our fundamental ideas about how to succeed—at work and in life. For generations, we have focused on the individual world, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. Give and Take illuminates what effective networking, collaboration, influence, negotiation, and leadership skills have in common.” Below is an excerpt from the book which you might find useful:


If you’re interested in applying the principles in this book to your work or your life, I’ve compiled a set of practical actions that you can take. Many of these actions are based on the strategies and habits of successful givers, and in each case, I’ve provided resources and tools for evaluating, organizing, or expanding giving. Some of the steps focus on incorporating more giving into your daily behaviors; others emphasize ways that you can fine-tune your giving, locate fellow givers, or engage others in giving.

  1. Test Your Giver Quotient
  2. Run a Reciprocity Ring
  3. Help Other People Craft Their Jobs-or Craft Yours to Incorporate More Giving
  4. Start a Love Machine.
  5. Embrace the Five-Minute Favor.
  6. Practice Powerless Communication
  7. Join a Community of Givers
  8. Launch a Personal Generosity Experiment
  9. Help Fund a Project
  10. Seek Help More Often