Canning, Papering, and Laughing

Posted on 27 August 2012

How many of you have watched an old 60s sitcom? Did you notice the laughter? If you have watched more than one old sitcom, you might have noticed that they frequently had distinctive laughs that you can recognise as the same from one show and/or series to the next. That’s because they were using “canned laughter”.

Canned laughter

Canned laughter was created in the late 1940s by CBS sound engineer Charley Douglass. Producers would “sweeten” their shows by having live audiences. The audience presence was filmed and used to demonstrate to home viewers how popular a show was and what lines were meant as jokes. The only problem was audiences did not always respond in an optimal manner: laughing at some jokes, not at others, laughing at inappropriate moments, laughing too hard or too long.

Douglass’s box of laughter tape loops made it possible to create the perfect audience response at every moment in a show. To the audiences of the 1950s when it was first introduced, the effect may have felt seamless. Even if they were aware that the laughter was an illusion, it may have only registered as the audio equivalent of a rimshot.

You can read more about Douglass’s box at Neatorama.

Problems occurred when it was used aggressively across all comedies on all television channels for years. As with advertising, people eventually felt resentful of the manipulation. They did not want to be told how to feel and when to feel it. People also felt resentful when jokes were given laughs that clearly didn’t deserve them.

No Canned Laughter

In the 70s I remember watching the sitcom Sanford and Son, a show loosely based on the BBC’s Steptoe and Son. Each show began with an announcement that it was filmed in front of a live studio audience. This seemed to be a guarantee that the laughter in this was authentic, and that the show had enough faith in itself and respect for its audience to let them decide what was funny. A few other shows bothered to make similar announcements.

Real laughter has become a point of pride with sitcom writers. Graham Linehan has discussed this more than once on his blog. His shows are always in front of a live studio audience. When Leo Benedictus in the Guardian wrote, “Mitchell and Webb’s self-doubting Nazis were much improved by the subtraction of canned laughter” Linehan gave him an ear-full (or perhaps blog page full) about modern sitcom practise.


Now before completely judging canned laughter, we should think a little bit about the theatrical practise of “papering an audience”.

On certain nights of a theatrical season, complimentary tickets (the paper) are given gratis to a number of audience members in order to “dress the house”. These people are in fact a sort of set dressing. They are there for several reasons. On the first few nights they help to make a show look popular, so that people are less critical and more likely to enjoy. This applies particularly to reviewers. Those who received the free tickets, if they had a genuinely pleasant experience, become sources for good word of mouth. Finally, a big audience may be used to impress someone of significance, whether it’s a monied producer who can take the show further or The Queen of England.

The motives aren’t entirely bad, because we could all use a boost upon occasion. Getting people to sample your show to build up your audience is perfectly legitimate. However, if you are trying to impress someone, you may wish to exercise some care.

If you use your friends as set dressing, don’t coach them on when and how to laugh. If the responses sound forced, a reviewer will pick up on that. Be careful about giving papering tickets to just anyone. Comedians build up a very specific audience who like their material. If you play blue, and your papering tickets went to a nearby church, you may not get many laughs. This won’t help your confidence, your word of mouth, nor impress anyone.


Laughter is a social act. Dacher Keltner states in in his book Born to Be Good, “Estimates indicate that laughter is thirty times more likely to occur around others than in isolation.” He further says, “Recent neuroscience evidence suggests that when we hear others laugh, mirror neurons represent that expressive behaviour and quickly activate action…laughter spreads to others in milliseconds.” So we need that room of people to make a show the most enjoyable experience possible. We just need to exercise the integrity to make it the most authentic experience possible as well, and that may be a balancing act.

Peace and kindness,


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