To listen to this episode of Decoder Ring, use the player below:
Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every month host Willa Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, will take on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speak with experts, historians, and obsessives to figure out where it comes from, what it means, and why it matters. Who gets to decide if Sherlock Holmes is gay? What does it mean to wear a baseball hat backward? Why do we clap? What do people think about all day?
In the first episode, Decoder Ring asks: What happened to the laugh track? For nearly five decades, the laugh track was ubiquitous, but beginning in the early 2000s, it fell out of sitcom fashion. What happened? How did we get from The Beverly Hillbillies to 30 Rock? In this episode, we meet the man who created the laugh track, which originated as a homemade piece of technology, and trace that technology’s fall and the rise of a more modern idea about humor. With the help of historians, laugh track obsessives, the showrunners of One Day at a Time, and the director of Sports Night, this episode asks if the laugh track was about something bigger than laughter.
Links and further reading on some of the things we discussed on the show:
- Interview with Ben Glenn II on the history of the laugh track in McSweeney’s
- See a Charlie Douglass Laff Box on Antiques Roadshow
- More of Paul Iverson’s work restoring laugh tracks and inserting them into new shows on YouTube
- The sitcom One Day at a Time, on Netflix
- Friends without a laugh track, by Sboss on YouTube
- The Okeh Laughing Record on YouTube
- Tommy Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night
Decoder Ring is produced and edited by Benjamin Frisch.