Charles Douglass: The Last Laugh

July 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: What does the world owe Charles Douglass, who died recently at the age of 93 and who invented the laugh track? There was nothing philosophical about his invention, certainly nothing intentionally ominous. (Laughter) (applause)

The idea of a laughing machine occurred to Mr. Douglass when he was working as a technical director in television’s early days. One day he realized that he could embellish an audience’s live response with the added sounds of laughs, hoots, jeers, moans, gasps when there was no audience present.

Mr. Douglass lived a very long life and, I hope, a happy one, full of the sounds of real people really enjoying themselves. But when I read of his passing, I couldn’t help thinking, “what hath Charles Douglass wrought?” (Laughter)

I mean, apart from the dreary, formulaic sitcoms that have depended on his laugh track to make them to seem funny when they were not? Here’s the standard scene: A character quickly enters a room and makes a remark as a kind of punch line. It happens in every sitcom. And when it does, Mr. Douglass’ invention is put to work. Here is the scene without Charles Douglass.

JERRY: Nice duds.

GEORGE: Huh, you’re telling me, huh?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: And here is the world he wrought.

JERRY: Nice duds.

GEORGE: Huh, you’re telling me, huh? ( Laughter )

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The laugh track not only manufactures laughter; it strongly suggests that one ought to laugh. It has a will of its own which works on our will. This, then, is what Charles Douglass and his laugh box have done. The principle behind his creation was that people were not required to effect their own presence. The consequences of this idea have been numerous.

VOICE: Hello, and thank you for calling.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Every time one hears a mechanical voice on a business phone offering a choice of selections.

VOICE: No one is available to take your call.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Every telephone answering machine with an automated voice has Charles Douglass to thank, if they could think to thank. One can’t be certain about the extent of his influence, of course, but not long after Mr. Douglass’ machine came such life improvements as the automatic coffeemaker that also implied the presence of an absent person, the automatic lawn sprinkler, and the VCR that turned itself on and off without human attendance, not to mention the entire universe of virtual activity in the land of computers.

Did our brave new world begin with the virtual laugh? Will it end with it? In the 1950s, about the time that Mr. Douglass was present at his absent creation, Ray Bradbury was publishing a science fiction story called “There Will Come Soft Rains,” about a California house where there are machines that tell the family what bills need paying, what birthdays and anniversaries need celebrating. At night, there is a machine that recites Sara Teasdale’s poem, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” about the end of the world; which is what Bradbury’s story is about since the machines continue talking long after the family, indeed the whole world, has been obliterated by a nuclear war.

( Explosion )

( automated voice ):

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.