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The Coelacanth And The Mysteries Of The Deep

At first glance, the coelacanth (pronounced SEE-le-kanth) kind of just looks like any other fish in the sea. It’s got a fishy head, fishy eyes, fishy fins. Many people might look at one and assume it’s unremarkable. Why should anyone care about this particular denizen of the deep when there are great white sharks and electric eels out there? 2,200-pound sunfish and lightning fast marlins? Well, behind its unassuming appearance, the coelacanth is maybe the most remarkable fish in the entire ocean.

Distant Cousins

Let’s start with the basics. Coelacanths are deep-water fish that live in the ocean’s “twilight zone,” about 500 to 800 feet down. They reside in underwater caves formed by volcanic islands, feeding on any small fish unlucky enough to swim too close. Modern coelacanths grow to be around six feet long, can weigh over 200 pounds, and are covered in huge, armored scales. They are also of next to no commercial value to humans—their meat tastes awful and can even make humans ill, and no one in their right mind would go out of their way to catch one.

OK, I’ll admit, that doesn’t exactly paint the picture of the most remarkable fish in the entire ocean—but what if I told you that the coelacanth is actually more closely related to you and me than it is to 99% of fish in the sea? Would that be a start?

To explain that little bombshell, let’s back up for a second and talk about fish as a whole. There are two broad categories of fish in the sea. The “cartilaginous fish,” like sharks and rays, have skeletons made entirely of cartilage, the same stuff that your nose is made of. While the cartilaginous fish feature some of the most impressive fish in the sea (think whale sharks, manta rays and great whites), they’re seriously outnumbered by the “bony fish,” which have, you guessed it, skeletons made of bone.

To make things just a bit more complicated, the bony fish themselves are then split once again into two categories. First, there are the ray-finned fishes, which constitute the vast, vast majority of all fish in the sea. If I told you to picture a fish, there’s a 99.99% chance you’re picturing a ray-finned fish. There are, after all, nearly 30,000 kinds of them. Goldfish, sunfish, clownfish, catfish. Salmon, trout, tuna, carp, cod. Moray eels, seahorses, great groupers. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. They’re all ray-finned.

But there’s another group of bony fish: the lobe-finned fishes, the group that the coelacanth belongs to. While you could fill a textbook with ray-fins, you can count all the living lobe-fin species on your fingers. But while this extremely ancient lineage of fish may not have the advantage of numbers, they are still extremely important in the history of life. After all, we wouldn’t be here without them.

The untrained eye might struggle to notice the difference between a ray-finned fish and a lobe-finned fish like the coelacanth (I’ll admit I couldn’t really tell for years), so I’ll do my best to explain it to you. While the former’s fins are attached directly to the fish’s side, the latter’s fins are attached to strange, fleshy lobes that extend from its body. If you still struggle to tell the difference, don’t worry, you’re not going to come across too many lobe-finned fish in your life, but there’s one very important thing to know about those lobes: They are supported by bones. That makes them, in effect, arms and legs, something that no other fish have—and it was upon those proto-arms and legs that, hundreds of millions of years ago, lobe-finned fish first hauled themselves onto land.

That’s why the coelacanth is more closely related to every dinosaur, every elephant, and every human being than it is to the goldfish in your aquarium. Its fleshy fins that sway through the water in a conspicuous “walking-like” motion are a living clue to how life managed to colonize the lands of the Earth. Those early lobe-finned pioneers eventually evolved into amphibians, which in turn diversified into reptiles, birds, and mammals like you and me.

Now, for a phylogeny nerd like me, that’s pretty darn remarkable—but don’t worry, the coelacanth’s odd, stumpy fins aren’t the only reason that this particular fish is worth your time. That’s not why one scientist said “a bomb seemed to burst in [his] brain” when he received a crude sketch of what looked like a coelacanth in the mail. His reaction happened because when one lucky woman discovered a dead coelacanth in South Africa, it was the equivalent of finding a T-Rex hiding in the jungle: it was supposed to have been dead for almost 70 million years.

Back From the Dead

Science has known about coelacanths for over a century, but we initially only knew about them from fossils. They first appeared nearly 400 million years ago, but they disappeared from the fossil record completely about 70 million years ago—around the time that the dinosaurs went extinct.

So in 1938 when Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a natural history museum curator, sent a drawing of a strange fish carcass to chemistry professor J.L.B. Smith, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The instant he received Courtenay-Latimer’s letter, he sent back an urgent telegram: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS [OF] FISH DESCRIBED.” Could it really be a fossil come to life?

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer

In their subsequent correspondence, Smith could not contain his anxious excitement. He wrote to her, saying:

“Your fish is occasioning me much worry and sleepless nights. It is most aggravating being so far away. I cannot help but mourn that the soft parts of the fish were not preserved even had they been almost putrid. I am sorry to say that I think their loss represents one of the greatest tragedies of zoology, since I am more than ever convinced on reflection that your fish is a more primitive form than has yet been discovered.”

Finally, after many days of anticipation, Smith was able to see the preserved fish for himself, and his suspicions were confirmed—this was a coelacanth, dredged back from the brink of existence. He could barely contain his excitement. After all, it’s not every day that you discover a Lazarus taxon, a species (like the Bible’s Lazarus) seemingly back from the dead. It truly was as if Courtenay-Latimer had discovered a dinosaur or a wooly mammoth in the flesh.

So how was the supposedly prehistoric coelacanth—a link between us and the ocean-dwellers we came from—able to rise again? Why did they completely disappear from the fossil record, while some populations were clearly still alive and well? As with so many mysteries, the answer lies at the bottom of the ocean.

The Mysterious Abyss

When coelacanths were in their prime hundreds of millions of years ago, they came in many different shapes and sizes. Some were formidable, agile predators; some were giant; some even lived in freshwater rivers and lakes. These fish occupied many different habitats, and not all habitats have the same pressure to evolve. The deep sea, for instance, is an extreme, relatively unchanging environment. Deep-sea Coelacanths were perfectly adapted to living there millions of years ago, and they’re still perfectly adapted to living there today.

The modern coelacanth looks almost identical to the 70 million-year-old fossils that we’ve found because there was no real selective pressure driving it to change. No particularly threatening predators or drastically changing climate. The deep sea back then was, for all intents and purposes, quite similar to the deep sea today, so why fix what ain’t broken?

The deep-sea environment can also explain why no palaeontologist had found a coelacanth fossil from the last 70 million years. The bottom of the ocean very rarely sees the conditions required for an animal’s remains to fossilize, and since the only remaining coelacanths have resided there for all this time, it’s little wonder that they “disappeared.” Palaeontology is, unfortunately, an imperfect science because the fossil record never tells the whole story. Scientists can only read into what Mother Nature has deigned to leave them, and she’s nothing if not an unreliable narrator.

So while the coelacanth may appear to be like many other fish in the sea, it is so much more than that. It is an extremely rare hint at our origins. It is a glimpse at the prehistoric world, a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and ocean. But it also represents something else.

The ocean is by far the largest habitat on earth. There is unfathomable room for life to hide and thrive beneath the waves. And if the coelacanth, a creature we assumed went extinct millions of years ago, could have survived in seclusion for all this time, who knows what other mysteries might remain for us to discover in some distant corner of the sea?

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Education

Why Don’t Banana Popsicles Taste Like Bananas?

I’ve always thought banana popsicles were…strange. Don’t get me wrong, banana is the best popsicle flavor, hands down. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either delusional or has an ulterior motive. Either way, they can’t be trusted, and you should turn and run from anyone who won’t immediately admit that banana is #1.

But rankings notwithstanding, banana popsicles are very weird. Their intense, neon yellow color isn’t exactly reminiscent of the fruit they’re named after, and let’s be real, that sweet, delicious, Banana Popsicle™ flavor is not what you taste when you bite into a banana. So why do they taste that way? My journey to answer that question started a long time ago.

It’s a hot summer evening. My soccer team just finished a game. I don’t know if it was to congratulate us for a win or to console us after a loss, but whichever parent was supposed to bring snacks decided that tonight they’d throw caution to the wind and risk the inevitable sugar high/crash for the brief moment of adulation that follows the announcement of their chosen snack: Popsicles.

The team rejoiced. What better way to ride the high of a hard-fought win—or to stave off the disappointment of a crushing loss? Which was it again? It doesn’t matter. Only one thing matters now. We’re getting popsicles. They’d better have banana.

I sprint to my teammate’s mom and/or dad to get there first. We’ve all heard the popsicles are coming, and I’m not going to settle for orange or, even worse, the dreaded grape. Banana popsicles are rare, but if there’s even an outside chance I can get one, I’m going to make it happen. They open their red Coleman Ark of the Covenant and reveal its contents. Popsicles in all the colors of the rainbow. I see yellow, and for an instant I’m worried it’ll be some weird lemon flavor. Maybe the evening sun is playing tricks, and I’m going to end up with orange—the most boring of all popsicle flavors.

It’s banana. I swear I could hear an angelic choir.

I rip open the plastic wrapping and bite straight down into the frozen treat, throwing caution to the wind. I’m rewarded with brain-freeze’s familiar agony, maybe the worst pain a bright-eyed, innocent kid like me has ever experienced. But the pain doesn’t last forever, and soon that sweet, sweet, banana flavor is all I notice. I’m immersed in it. I love it like only a kid can love anything. Then one of my teammates who’s also gotten a banana popsicle speaks: “Have you ever noticed that banana popsicles don’t taste anything like banana?”

We all mutter some form of “yeah,” or “huh,” and move on with our feast. But as we finished up and got into our parents’ cars with sticky fingers and lips, that kid’s question stuck with me. Why don’t banana popsicles taste like bananas? I liked bananas fine, but I loved the popsicles. Why were they even called banana popsicles? I had to know!

Of course, I didn’t have to know. I was a kid with the attention span of…a kid. I got over it. I grew up. I stopped playing soccer. I remember being curious about banana popsicles, then I moved on with my life. I probably haven’t had one in years. But then one day, when I was a less-than-bright-eyed 20-something, a know-it-all co-worker told me something crazy. He said: “You know how banana flavored popsicles don’t taste like bananas?”

I had flashbacks to soccer and Coleman coolers and brain-freeze, and I said: “Yes. I have noticed that.”

He then says, “Well, did you know it’s because back when banana flavoring was invented, bananas were a completely different species than they are today. The kind of banana the flavoring was made from eventually went extinct, so none of us have ever tried it. So now, when you eat something banana-flavored, you’re really tasting an extinct species of banana.”

Woooooaaah.

This was exactly the kind of bizarre factoid that a trivia nerd like me loved. It also happened to be exactly the kind of bizarre factoid that is usually completely untrue.

And sadly, after a little research, it turns out that no, banana flavor is not derived from an extinct type of banana. That’s not how artificial flavors work. But like so many stories, this one has many aspects of truth. As it turns out, the story of bananas and banana flavoring is still bizarre and fascinating, if not quite as neat as that coworker would have you and I believe.

For starters, the idea that bananas used to be different than they are today? That’s completely true. If you go way back, you’ll actually end up with a plant called Musa balbisiana. It only barely looks like a banana, but it, along with a couple related species, is actually what the fruit we know today as a banana is derived from. It’s shorter and much fatter, and it’s filled with huge seeds that make it all but inedible, but over generations of selective breeding, humans morphed it into the fruit we all know and love.

Musa balbisiana

But it wasn’t a short process to get from Musa balbisiana to modern bananas. There have been, and there continue to be, many different varietals of banana. What we usually picture when we think of a banana today is called a Cavendish banana, but it wasn’t always the most popular kind of the fruit. In fact, the yellow Cavendish only became popular when disease almost wiped out one of the most common kinds of banana, the Gros Michel.

When my coworker was telling me about this extinct, popsicle-flavored banana, he was talking about the Gros Michel, but he had the details wrong—the Gros Michel is not extinct. It still exists today, but it’s far less common than it once was. Up until the 1950s, it was the most widely grown banana on Earth, until an epidemic of Panama disease devastated Gros Michel Harvests and the Cavendish rose up to fill the void. The Cavendish was resistant to the disease, so it took over the banana crown, but Gros Michels weren’t totally wiped out. If you really want to try one, they’re not that hard to get a hold of. And, as if to lend credence to my coworker’s story, people say they do taste sort of… artificial.

That’s probably where the myth came from. Gros Michels have a more aggressively sweet taste than Cavendishes—indeed, more similar to the artificial banana flavoring that makes me love Banana popsicles so much. But that doesn’t mean that the flavoring is derived from Gros Michels. That’s not how artificial flavors work—it’s way, way more complicated than that.

While specific combinations of molecules that make a thing taste a certain way are very complex, some flavors, especially fruit flavors, have a few simple chemicals doing the vast majority of the work. These chemicals can be created artificially, with no input at all from the thing they’re meant to taste like, and still come out creating a very similar flavor. So while octyl acetate isn’t just made from oranges, it still tastes a lot like them. These chemicals can be made extremely inexpensively, and they do a pretty darn passable job of mimicking the chemical makeup of whatever fruit they’re imitating. It’s a popsicle maker’s dream!

Artificial chemical compounds

So, why would a company take a Gros Michel and do some weird science magic to create banana flavoring, when one sniff of the cheap chemical isoamyl acetate will have almost anyone instantly think of bananas?

Yes, it’s true that the aggressively sweet Gros Michel does taste more like a banana popsicle than the complex flavor of a Cavendish, but that doesn’t mean that biting into a banana popsicle is some gateway to a time when the Gros Michel was king. Artificial flavors are, by their nature, less complex than natural ones, so the similarity between the Gros Michel and isoamyl acetate is mostly a coincidence. But it’s still cool to think about.

So what have I learned in my journey from soccer practice to here? Mostly just that banana popsicles are weird. It’s a frozen, sugary treat flavored with a chemical ester that happens to taste like the ancestors of a stubby, inedible fruit that has been selectively bred for size and flavor over centuries. It also likely tasted more like a banana to people in the 1920s than it does to someone today thanks to an epidemic that targeted a sweet banana over one that tastes more complex.

Apparently, it takes a whole lot of history and science knowledge to really understand the banana popsicle. If I could go back to my childhood self that day after soccer practice and he asked me, “Have you ever noticed that banana popsicles don’t taste anything like banana?” I’d probably just say “Yeah, weird huh? They sure taste good though,” and leave it at that.

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The Battle of Bosworth Field and the Death of Richard III

The House of York had won. The Lancastrian claimants to the throne were all dead, and the Yorkist Edward V was King of England, with two young sons to carry on his legacy. The Wars of the Roses finally seemed to be over. But of course, this is the game of thrones we’re talking about—endings that clean are rare. The roses were not quite laid to rest just yet. There was plenty more intrigue in store, and it would all culminate at Bosworth Field, the pitched battle which saw one king cut down, and another one crowned, all before the day was out.

Engraving of King Richard III at Bosworth Field by James Doyle

Edward IV was king. Son of Richard, the Third Duke of York, Edward had reaped the spoils of his father’s efforts in the war to become king after the feeble, Lancastrian Henry VI was finally deposed. Though his rule was challenged in 1470, he defeated the Lancastrians once and for all at Tewksbury and reclaimed his throne in 1471. As King, he attainted any nobles who refused to acknowledge him as their king, including a man named Jasper Tudor and his nephew Henry.

The Tudors were technically the sole remaining Lancastrian nobles that had any possible claim to the throne, but they were of little concern to the king. After Edward labeled them as traitors and took their land, their influence in England seemed completely dead. They fled across the English Channel and ended up in Brittany. It was written that Edward saw Henry as a nobody—his lands and reputation were gone, and his connection to the throne was distant at best. However, the Duke of Brittany thought Henry might be useful, and kept the Tudors under his protection. If he’d known what was to come, Edward just might have given this particular nobody a little more of his attention.

For the final 12 years of his reign, Edward IV actually managed to rule in relative peace, and with his young sons Edward and Richard waiting in the wings, the House of York seemed poised to begin a long dynasty on England’s throne. But a sudden illness threw that fact into doubt.

Though he was only in his late 30s, Edward’s health began to decline in his final years, before he fell ill for the last time in 1483. After putting his affairs in order—which included making his brother Richard England’s Lord Protector until his son came of age—he died on April 9, 1483 at just 40 years old. The first Yorkist king was dead, but at least here were plenty of men left in his family to keep the House in power. Right?

Edward intended for his son, the 12-year-old Edward V of England, to be crowned king after his death, but his brother Richard had other things in mind. Immediately upon Edward IV’s death, Richard took advantage of concerns that the Woodvilles, the family of Edward’s widow, were looking to control the young king and dominate England. Richard had the young king-to-be brought to the Tower of London for his protection, and had two of the Woodvilles executed for treason without a trial.

Young Edward’s brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, was brought to join him in the Tower soon after. However, uncle Richard had no intention of protecting his nephews. Once they were brought into the infamous castle, they were never seen again. Meanwhile, Richard had his brother Edward IV’s marriage to their mother declared illegal. This may seem like an odd maneuver, but it accomplished something very important to Richard: it made the two young princes illegitimate, and thus not eligible for England’s throne. So, who did that leave next in line? I think you know the answer.

Murder of the Princes in the Tower by J.Northcote

Richard III was crowned two months after his brother’s sudden death. This was a man who simply could not be kept from the throne, and he tore down anyone in his path to get there—including his young nephews, who were forever more known as the Princes in the Tower. But while Richard was king, the sheer audacity of the way he’d claimed the crown for himself didn’t sit well with everybody, and there was widespread sympathy for the two missing Princes. Conspiracies against the throne emerged, and the Yorkist throne that had seemed so secure just months earlier now felt far more tenuous.

After some failed uprisings against Richard, many of the King’s remaining enemies fled across the English Channel to Brittany, where they rallied around none other than Henry Tudor, the forgotten nobody with a weak but viable claim to the throne. By Christmas in 1483, the year that Richard was crowned, Tudor made his claim tangible with an oath: He promised to marry the late Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, finally uniting the warring Lancaster and York families. Especially amongst those who opposed Richard, this seemed like a perfect outcome to the Wars of the Roses, and Richard suddenly had a genuine threat to his rule.

However, Richard was nothing if not cunning. He threw a wrench in Tudor’s plans in 1485 when he announced that he would marry Elizabeth of York—never mind the fact that she was his niece. This declaration threw the country into an uproar on many fronts. Not only would the marriage be incestuous, but Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, had only just died, leading to widespread rumors that Richard had her killed for the purposes of his political maneuvering.

Richard’s plan to marry his niece upset many on his side, but it nonetheless represented a real threat to Tudor’s plans. Without his marriage to Elizabeth, he could easily lose the support of the families who backed him out of their allegiance to Edward IV. Things had clearly reached a boiling point, and it was time to take action. Henry put together an army and set sail for England, a country that he had never even visited—he’d spent the first 14 years of his life in Wales and the rest of it in Brittany and France. His unfamiliarity didn’t stop him—he had his sights set on the throne.

This brings us to August 22, 1485, at Bosworth Field. Three armies were laid out before each other. The largest by far were under King Richard III’s banners, numbering between 7,500 and 12,000 men. They faced down the smaller force, likely between 5,000 and 8,000 men, of Henry Tudor, while a third force loomed off to the side, on top of Dadlington Hill. This army, another 4,000 to 6,000 men, was an enormous question mark looming over the day.

The third set of banners that day belonged to the Stanley family, who had not yet declared where their allegiances lay. Their patriarch, Thomas Stanley, had served Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III, having played all sides throughout the Wars of the Roses. Richard had attempted to secure his support by kidnapping his son, Lord Strange, but as of yet, neither Richard nor Henry could confidently say Stanley would come to their aid.

Richard’s army was divided into three sections, one led by the Duke of Norfolk, one by the Earl of Northumberland, and a smaller force led by Richard himself. But while Richard was an accomplished warrior, Henry Tudor was a stranger to the arts of war. Though he personally attended the battle, he left the command of his forces to the Earl of Oxford, an experienced veteran. Of all the commanders on the field that day, Oxford moved first.

Leaving Tudor behind with a small bodyguard, Oxford had his men engage with Norfolk’s forces, and it wasn’t long before the battle was going Oxford’s way. Richard knew he needed to act, but this is where things started to fall apart. First, he sent an ultimatum to Stanley up on the hill: support me now, or your son’s life is forfeit. Unmoved, Stanley simply sent the reply “Sire, I have other sons.” The third army stayed firmly on the sidelines.

Richard also commanded that Northumberland’s men move against Oxford. His army still vastly outnumbered the Tudor men, and it should have been cut and dry. Yet, Northumberland’s forces stayed put. No one truly knows why this is. It could be that his men were stuck in the marshy ground, or maybe that he’d secretly made a deal with Tudor, but regardless of the reason, one thing is for sure: Northumberland’s men did not come to Norfolk’s aid.

Battle of Bosworth by Philip James de Loutherbourg

The king was running out of options when he saw an opportunity. When Oxford had taken the army to attack Norfolk, Henry himself had been left exposed. With the battle getting away from him, Richard figured that his best chance at victory was to cut the head off of the snake. He took a small group of heavy cavalry and personally charged directly at Tudor and his bodyguard. Henry Tudor was no warrior, but Richard had seen many battles throughout the Wars of the Roses, and he was out for blood. It appeared that Bosworth Field was going to be determined in a skirmish between the two actual men that were vying for the crown.

Richard fought with a wild abandon. He killed Henry’s standard-bearer, Sir William Brandon, in his initial charge. He unhorsed his brother’s old standard-bearer, the imposing John Cheyne, striking him in the head with a broken lance. Henry’s bodyguard was not prepared for such a sudden and vicious attack. Henry himself got off his horse and attempted to blend in amongst his men so he would be less obvious of a target.

Richard fought on, and he even managed to get within a swords-length of his rival, the helpless Henry Tudor. But Henry’s bodyguard managed to keep the warrior-king at bay until disaster struck for Richard and the House of York. Lord Stanley had finally decided to make his move, and he’d thrown in his lot with Tudor.

Richard had been so close to his goal, but once Stanley played his hand, all hope was lost. Richard’s men were pushed back several hundred yards and several of them outright abandoned the fight, but Richard himself fought on. Even after his horse had tumbled into the marsh and thrown him to the ground, the king fought on. Reports of that day say that he cried “God forbid that I retreat one step. I will either win the battle as a king, or die as one.” In these final, frantic moments, Richard’s own standard-bearer lost his legs in the fighting but still managed to hold the House of York’s banner aloft until the very end. But it, like Richard, would eventually fall.

Richard III was finally cut down in the fray. Different accounts exist as to who delivered the final blow, but it was said to be so brutal that Richard’s helmet was driven into his skull. There were still thousands of men on the battlefield, but the king’s death signaled the battle’s end. His forces completely fell apart and retreated. It was done.

Allegedly, Lord Stanley himself managed to find Richard’s circlet and brought it to Henry Tudor. He was proclaimed king and crowned beneath an oak tree near the field where the battle had been fought. Thus ended the Wars of the Roses. The white roses of York and the red roses of Lancaster had spent decades vying for the crown, and yet, neither side truly won. In the end, it was the red and white rose of Tudor that held England’s crown, creating a dynasty which would see some of the most powerful monarchs in the history of the British Isles.

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Education

Who Laughs Last? The Rise And Fall Of The Laugh Track

If you think of a stereotypical 60s sitcom, a la BewitchedI Dream of Jeannie, or The Brady Bunch, you might think of the generically good-looking white cast, the cute suburban homes filled with wall-to-wall carpeting where they were set, and the (relative) domestic bliss they portrayed. You may also think of the laugh track that accompanied each show.

Despite its heyday as a stalwart of the genre, the laugh track has become maligned over the years, regarded as something of a symbol of the crass commercialism and the synthetic nature of the programs that appeared on network television mid-century. With a reputation like that, will it ever make a comeback?

Davy Jones guest starring on The Brady Bunch

It wasn’t just the popularity of single-camera sitcoms that killed the laugh track. Since its very invention, the laugh track has been vilified by those in show biz and audiences alike, and its supporters have fought hard to prove its usefulness. Also known as canned or fake laughter, the laugh track came about as a solution to a problem that plagued producers of TV shows—that the audience’s laughs could be entirely unpredictable. They didn’t laugh at the right time, and some laughed too loud or too long when they shouldn’t. CBS sound engineer Charley Douglass was the one to identify and remedy this problem—starting first with what became known as “sweetening.”

Audiences new to the TV format might find the difference from the movie theater experience jarring—going from a room full of people laughing and reacting together to the deafening silence of a joke told to a near-empty room. Single-camera TV shows used the reactions by live audiences to augment the storytelling, but unpredictable reactions could have undesirable effects on the same story. Thus, Douglass began to manipulate the audience’s laughter in post-production, creating the “sweetening” effect. Through this process, he could raise the volume of laughter for certain jokes or fade it out when it was too uproarious for the scene.

Douglass decided to take this process one step further, and built a prototype laugh machine, featuring a recording of laughter that could be played and essentially faded out. After leaving CBS, they took possession of it, but Douglass built another for himself in the mid-50s, collecting laughter and applause primarily from The Red Skeleton Show. At this point, shows were split—some used no audience laughter or laugh track at all, some just had an audience, and some used both.

The definitive move toward the use of a laugh track really happened with the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. They audience-tested a version with a laugh track and one without. The jokes on the show simply didn’t land without it. That was evidence enough for CBS, who aired every comedy with a laugh track from then on.

This first golden age of sitcoms provided us with many shows whose reruns (or movie remakes) we may have grown up on, including Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, I Dream of Jeannie, The Andy Griffith Show, The Munsters, and Get Smart. There was just one rule—more subdued sitcoms had more subdued laughter, while those with outlandish premises like The Munsters featured more uproarious laughter. Cartoons, including prime-time cartoons like The Flintstones, as well as the Saturday morning cartoons of the 70s, got in on the game as well, and a massive number of cartoons from that era used laugh tracks.

The whole time, the industry relied on one man for their laugh tracks: Charley Douglass. Whether it was through sweetening or the laugh track, the man had his fingers in the majority of prime time shows that aired in the US. Every time a show went into the editing phase, Douglass would show up with his device, which came to be known as the “laff box,” and he and the show’s producer would discuss (or argue about) what kind of laughter each scene required. Douglass would generate the laugh—he had a massive array of types of laughs from different types of people, and would mix them together for different effects, most played over a quiet mix of people laughing softly—and add it in.

Thus, hundreds of episodes of some of the most beloved sitcoms of all time were created.

The more the laugh track proliferated, the more that people fought against it. Shows were expected to use them, but that didn’t always sit well with those people working on the show. For the whole first season of The Odd Couple in 1970, co-stars Tony Randall and Jack Klugman complained about having to pause between jokes for it, and eventually for the second season, the format switched, and it filmed in a multiple-camera format in front of a live studio audience. A similar switch occurred on Happy Days after the second season, and while the producers of M*A*S*H acquiesced to using a laugh track, they insisted that it never be used during the surgical scenes.

Douglass also faced competition: The Muppet Show famously created their own laugh track, which they’d employ and then pan to an audience full of Muppets. The effect was so great that people actually inquired about audience tickets for show tapings. One of Douglass’s former employees, Carroll Pratt, also complained that his boss was unwilling to update his technology or techniques, and struck out on his own. Many late-70s/early-80s sitcoms like Laverne & ShirleyHappy Days, and Newhart opted for Pratt’s more subtle laugh tracks, as well as the later seasons of M*A*S*H, which became more comedy-drama than sitcom.

The most popular shows of the 90s, like Seinfeld and Friends, were filmed in front of a live audience and sweetened. Scenes that could not be filmed in front of an audience used a laugh track. Regardless, the laugh track began to fall out of fashion. Sitcoms that featured no audience or laugh track first became critically acclaimed in the 90s, like The Larry Sanders Show, and then gained mainstream popularity in the 2000s, like Malcolm in the Middle30 Rock, and Scrubs.

30 Rock

In the early days of television, producers were still figuring out what exactly to do with the medium—they didn’t know what worked and what didn’t until they tried it. The trajectory of the laugh track is predictably similar. What was once a chorus of loud guffaws set to slapstick jokes in the 60s became a mid-volume refrain in the 70s, and then a quieter strain of intelligent chuckles, meant to reflect the more cerebral vein of comedy in more recent years.

While the laugh track was once maligned for its early uses, now critics have come to understand the changing role it has played over the years. Now that we can look back with the 20/20 vision that hindsight provides and see the evolution of the laugh track, it seems likely that at some point in the future, it could proliferate again.

There are shows that tried to bring back the classic laugh track­—while Mulaney was an instant failure, Netflix uses it as a nostalgic-albeit-hollow device in One Day at a Time to middling effect. If it does come back, it will have to be in a way that doesn’t call back to earlier formats. For whoever decides to take that on, they’ll have just one question to ask themselves: what exactly could that sound like?

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Copyright © 2019 Rosemary Fryth.