Before television, audiences often experienced comedy in the presence of other audience members. Television producers attempted to recreate this atmosphere in its early days by introducing the sound of laughter or other crowd reactions into the soundtrack of television programs. However, live audiences could not be relied upon to laugh at the correct moment. Douglass noticed this problem, and took it upon himself to remedy the situation. If a joke did not get the desired chuckle, Douglass inserted additional laughter. If the live audience chuckled for too long, Douglass gradually muted the laughter. This editing technique became known as “sweetening,” in which pre-recorded laughter is used to augment the response of the real studio audience if they did not react as strongly as desired.
At first, Douglass’s technique was used sparingly on live shows like The Jack Benny Program; as a result, its invention went by unnoticed. By the end of the 1950s, live comedy transitioned from film to videotape, which allowed for editing during post-production. However, by editing a prerecorded live show, bumps and gaps were present in the soundtrack. Douglass was again called upon to “bridge” or “fill” these gaps. Both performers and producers gradually began to realize the power behind prerecorded laughter. Comedian Milton Berle, while witnessing a post-production editing session, once said, “as long as we are here, this joke didn’t get all that we wanted.” After Douglass inserted a guffaw after a failed joke, Berle reportedly commented, “See? I told you it was funny.” Douglass went from enhancing a soundtrack to literally reorchestrating audience reactions.
By the early 1960s, live television sitcoms became cost prohibitive, and Douglass was brought in to simulate an entire audience. Shows like Bewitched, The Munsters and The Beverly Hillbillies are virtually showcases of Douglass’ editing skill; the more outlandish the show, the more invasive Douglass made the audience reaction. Conversely, low-key shows, like The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch and My Three Sons, allowed Douglass to keep the audience responses at a minimum, and resulted in quicker and simpler editing jobs.
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Douglass had a monopoly on the expensive and painstaking “laff” business. When it came time to “lay in the laughs”, the producer would direct Douglass where and when to insert the type of laugh requested. Inevitably, arguments arose between Douglass and the producer, but in the end, the producer generally won. After taking his directive, Douglass would then go to work at creating the audience, out of sight from the producer or anyone else present at the studio. TV Guide critic Dick Hobson was quoted in July 1966 of saying the Douglass family were “the only laugh game in town.” Very few in the industry ever witnessed Douglass using his invention, as he was notoriously secretive about his work, and was one of the most talked about men in the television industry. The Douglass family operated out of their padlocked garage in the San Fernando Valley. When their services were needed, they would wheel the device into the editing room, plug it in, and go to work. Production studios became accustomed to seeing Douglass shuttling from studio to studio to mix in his manufactured laughs during post-production. The practice of simulating an audience reaction was controversial from the very beginning. Douglass was well aware that a laugh track was maligned by critics and writers, but also knew using it became standard practice and a commodity in the industry.
The one-of-a-kind device—affectionately known throughout the industry as the “laff box”—was tightly secured with padlocks, stood more than two feet tall, and operated like an organ. Only immediate members of the family knew what the inside actually looked like (at one time, the “laff box” was called “the most sought after but well-concealed box in the world”). Since more than one member of the Douglass family was involved in the editing process, it was natural for one member to react to a joke differently from another. Charley himself was the most conservative of all, so producers would put in bids for other family members who were more liberal in their choice of laughs.
The “laff box”, minus the padlocks that had successfully concealed the inside during its prime. The one-of-a-kind device was appraised at $10,000 in June 2010 on a U.S. episode of Antiques Roadshow
Douglass used a keyboard to select the style, gender and age of the laugh as well as a foot pedal to time the length of the reaction. Inside the machine was an endless array of recorded chuckles, yocks, and belly laughs; exactly 320 laughs on 32 tape loops, 10 to a loop. Each loop contained 10 individual audience laughs spliced end-to-end, whirling around simultaneously waiting to be cued up. Since the tapes were looped, laughs were played in the same order repeatedly. Sound engineers would watch sitcoms and knew exactly which recurrent guffaws were next, even if they were viewing an episode for the first time. Frequently, Douglass would combine different laughs, either long or short in length. Attentive viewers could spot when he decided to mix chuckles together to give the effect of a more diverse audience.
Douglass also had an array of audience clapping, “oohs” and “ahhhs”, as well as people moving in their seats (which many producers insisted be constantly audible). There was also a 30-second “titter” track in the loop, which consisted of individual people laughing quietly. This “titter” track was used to quiet down a laugh and was always playing in the background. When Douglass inserted a hearty laugh, he increased the volume of the titter track to smooth out the final mix. This titter track was expanded to 45 seconds in 1967 and would receive overhauls every few years (1964, 1967, 1970); Douglass also kept the recordings fresh, making minor changes every few months, as he believed that the viewing audience was gradually changing. A man’s deep laugh would be switched for a new woman’s laugh, or a high-pitched woman’s giggle would be replaced with a man’s snicker. One producer noticed a recurrent laugh of a woman whom he called “the jungle lady” because of her high-pitched shriek. After regularly complaining to Douglass, the laugh was retired from the regular lineup.
Douglass knew his material very well, as he had compiled it himself. He had dozens of reactions, and he knew where to find each one. On most occasions, he would slightly speed up the reactions to heighten the effect. Douglass’s work was crisp and clean, and was considered a craft by many in the television industry. He not only had an ear for inserting laughs, but he also possessed a terrific memory. Over the years, Douglass would add new recordings as well as revive old ones that had been retired and then retire the newer tracks. Laughter heard in sitcoms of the early 1960s resurfaced years later in the late 1970s.