Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sitcoms, laugh tracks and the Audience Response Duplicator

We've all seen sit-coms on TV – situation comedies – with laugh tracks.

When ITV first started in Britain and we got the Lucy Show someone came to our house, who didn't have ITV, and asked who those people were who were laughing and I said it was the audience. Of course I was wrong; I Love Lucy was shot on film with a 3 camera set up and they used a laugh track – or to be more precise – an Audience Response Duplicator.

They were machines that looked like an open pin ball machine full of rods and balls; to be honest I don't think they were invented till the 60's and Lucy was on in the 50s so I don't know what they used; maybe it was, in fact, an audience.

Or someone will write in and tell me it was a machine invented by Dougglas!!

The big shock to a lot of actors like me was when we went to do a sit-com we found that they did, in fact, have an audience. Each time I did one – and I didn't do too many – there was an audience of around 300 people; sitting there with smiling faces ready to laugh.

They would be warmed up by a comedian and the last time I saw a warm up man that I got to know he was warming up audiences in Nottingham on a quiz show that shot 3 episodes a day. I can't remember the name of the show but over here it was hosted by Bob Barker who, incidentally, lives almost next door, and had the phrase 'come on down.'

The machine I mention above came to light on the American version of the Antiques Road Show this week and was valued at many thousands of dollars; have a look on You Tube; an Audience Response Duplicator.

There was a show in the UK which was a mock documentary called 'People Like Us' which was a comedy show with no studio audience. I think the guy who played the lead and devised it got into some kind of trouble with the law and it was dropped but it was very funny.

Anyway it started the fad of not using studio audiences and maybe that's where The Office got the idea. All new comedy shows over here – well most of them – do without the laugh track (live or otherwise) now and the ones that still use it have failed; Kelsey Grammar to name one, but there are others.

The number one sit-com here at the moment is The Modern Family and that goes without canned laughter.

The trouble with having a studio audience is that they would not laugh at the same joke twice so if you needed to do a re-take the sound editor would cut and paste a laugh from somewhere else in the show. They would do this when a gag didn't go too well too.

Then something happened here in the 90s. A show called The Nanny became a hit and for that show they used professional laughers, for want of a better word.

Here's how that came about; in 1985 the star of The Nanny was, unfortunately, raped by two men who broke into her home with guns and raped her and her friend.

When The Nanny started to become popular the star, started to be stalked. The two men who broke in and raped her, by the way, were in prison, so there must have been some other kind of weird psyche that led other nutters to bother her.

So she asked if there was some way that the audience could be vetted as she felt vulnerable playing in front of an audience that were so close.

They got rid of the audience altogether and went to Central Casting.

Central Casting is a very famous agency for extras and they asked for about 35 people from there for the audience. Then the idea hit them that if they were going to hire the audience they might as well ask for good laughers.

The casting director made the calls to the artistes and asked them to laugh over the phone; some of these people were in the supermarket or the laundry or even in the hairdressers and went straight into their laugh as soon as they were asked; they had to explain themselves to some of the people they were with that they were doing an audition of course.

They became very good at their job on The Nanny and knew what kind of laugh the producers needed and suddenly they were being treated differently.

Usually extras don't get spoken to by the actors; it's a kind of class system – the leading actors stick together, then the featured ones, the day players and then the extras; a terrible pecking order.

The laughers were getting invited to the Christmas Parties and soon other shows heard about the laughers and hired them in other sit-coms and talk shows and soon they were doing 3 shows a week.

In those days they were being paid $75 a day and any of them on therapy suddenly didn't need a therapist as laughter is a cure all – if you ever feel down just try it; force yourself to laugh; it's amazing.

Of course all good things come to an end; at the end of the 90s reality shows became popular and they didn't need audiences any more; then the sit-coms dropped them, as I have said before, so now the laughers are looking for a laugh.

I am due to take a show to Edinburgh this year, again, this time a play, and I could do with a laugher or two. A friend of mine, and he knows who he is, is the best laugher I have ever known. If ever he comes to my show I know I'm half way there as laughter is infectious; $75 a day in Edinburgh? Who knows?

By the way - it's Hogarth above.


  1. Hi Chris, firstly I think the guy you was thinking about [Come on Down] was Barrymore and he also presented "My Kind of People". The idea of paying $75 dollars a day to a Scot is appealing, but don't expect any response to any humour. Funny bunch...the blokes wear skirts and the Glaswegians go around giving people kisses!

  2. No (Come on Down) The Price is Right which originated over here hence the neighbour here who used to present it, is what I was talking about but not the presenter - the warm up comedian who didn't appear on TV for a long time as he was making too much money as a warm up man..
    People Like Us was presented by Chris Langham and you know what happened to him - his People Like Us was on from about 1998 to 2005 and, in my opinion, led the way for The Office.
    I didn't want to mention him in the main post as it attracts the wrong kind of traffic which is also why I didn't mention the lead actress in The Nanny.

  3. Sorry Chris, wrongend of the stick......I'm using the thick[er] end to beat myself up with

  4. That's all right my old mate - glad you're still reading it.