Will You Laugh for Me, Please

[An article with the same title appeared in In These Times on July 18th, 2003]

On April 8, Charles R. Douglass, the inventor of canned laughter—the artificial jollity that accompanies comical moments on TV shows—died at 93 in Templeton, California. In the early ’50s, he developed the idea to enhance or substitute live audience reaction on television. This idea was realized in the guise of a keyboard machine; by pressing on different keys, it was possible to produce different kinds of laughter. First used for episodes of The Jack Benny Showand I Love Lucy, today its modernized version is present everywhere.

The overwhelming presence of canned laughter makes us blind to its core paradox, even as it undermines our natural presuppositions about the state of our innermost emotions. Canned laughter marks a true “return of the repressed,” an attitude we usually attribute to “primitives.” Recall, in traditional societies, the weird phenomenon of “weepers,” women hired to cry at funerals. A rich man can hire them to cry and mourn on his behalf while he attends to a more lucrative business (like negotiating for the fortune of the deceased). This role can be played not only by another human being, but by a machine, as in the case of Tibetan prayer wheels: I put a written prayer into a wheel and mechanically turn it (or, even better, link the wheel to a mill that turns it). It prays for me—or, more precisely, I “objectively” pray through it, while my mind can be occupied with the dirtiest of sexual thoughts.

Douglass’ invention proved that the same “primitive” mechanism works also in highly developed societies. When I come home in the evening too exhausted to engage in meaningful activity, I just tune in to a TV sitcom; even if I do not laugh, but simply stare at the screen, tired after a hard day’s work, I nonetheless feel relieved after the show. It is as if the TV were literally laughing in my place, instead of me.

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on July 18th, 2003. (full text).]