In 1819, an elderly, deaf Francisco Goya purchased a house in the outskirts of Madrid. Even before he bought it, it was known as La Quinta del Sordo, or the House of the Deaf—but I’m sure he found the name fitting. He would give the house to his grandson five years later, and for decades, it sat in the Spanish countryside, attracting little attention. But Goya, one of the greatest painters in Spain’s history, had left something in that house. Nearly every wall was covered with scenes of sheer horror—the most disturbing and compelling work of Goya’s entire career.
The Black Paintings, which Goya painted directly onto the walls la Quinta del Sordo during his self-imposed exile from the Spanish Court, are unlike anything else he created in his long career. A man who became famous for light-hearted tapestry cartoons and portraits of European nobility spent some of his final days living alone in the country, painting dark, foreboding scenes of torment and anguish for no one in particular. The Black Paintings, it would seem, are the final cry of this genius mind—a mind that had been haunted by the ravages of sickness and war.
Francisco Goya started painting in 1760, when he was 14 years old. At the outset of his career, he spent four years painstakingly copying stamps until he felt ready to, in his words, “paint from my invention.” He initially worked in the Spanish city of Zaragoza, and while he eventually relocated to the more cosmopolitan Madrid, he struggled to gain a foothold in the art world. He applied to the Royal Academy of Fine Art of San Fernando twice, in 1763 and 1766, but was rejected each time.
After a trip to Rome to help hone his craft, Goya returned to Zaragoza, where he eventually started to see some success. He landed a commission to design a series of tapestry cartoons for the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid. Now, tapestries were not exactly considered prestigious, and Goya wasn’t particularly well paid for his work, but his popularist cartoons quickly became a hit. He got his name out there, and within a few years he was working as a portraitist for the Spanish aristocracy. He was finally elected to the Royal Academy in 1780; he became the painter to the king in 1786, then the official court painter in 1789. It took some time, but Goya had arrived.
The meteoric social climbing of Goya’s early career was nothing short of remarkable—from art-school reject to rubbing elbows with Europe’s elite. So, how did he go from the darling of the Spanish art world to a mad hermit, painting nightmares on the walls of his fortress of solitude? It would all begin in 1792, when a devastating illness would change Goya forever, and set him on the dark path to la Quinta del Sordo.
Though Goya’s illness was never identified, it nearly killed him, and it left him completely deaf. Fragile and isolated, Goya’s work began to grow dark and pessimistic—a stark contrast to the bright scenes that had brought him fame. Works such as his haunting painting Yard With Lunatics and the etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters reflect his souring world view. But as he continued to grow older, he would experience humanity’s ugly side first-hand, and his outlook would only become more and more bleak.
When the Peninsular War between France and Spain broke out, Goya had a front row seat to the brutal violence, and had an enormous effect on him. He refused to comment publicly on the conflict, but his work speaks for itself. His Disasters of War print series, along with his paintings The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, are melancholic and haunting, depicting atrocities on every side of the war. The lighthearted and snarky Goya of his early career was gone, replaced with a much more world-weary artist.
In the aftermath of the Peninsular War, King Ferdinand VII returned to power in Spain, and Goya—whose relationship with the king was strained at best—felt it best to withdraw from city life. He purchased La Quinta del Sordo in the country and secluded himself there. By this time, he had survived not just one, but two illnesses that nearly killed him. He had seen the horrors of war, and had watched his wife Josefa die. He was also 72 years old, completely deaf, and growing increasingly feeble. All of these factors are believed to have inspired the Black Paintings, Goya’s most enduring work.
Goya spent years painting lucrative commissions for Spain’s social elite, but in the House of the Deaf, he painted only for himself. By all accounts, his Black Paintings were never meant to be shown to anyone. They weren’t commissioned or sold. He painted them directly onto the walls, as if his isolated home were a physical representation of his tormented mind. He never mentioned them to anyone, and next to nobody would see them until years after he was dead.
The Black Paintings are almost entirely devoid of color, very rarely venturing beyond harsh blacks and browns. If Goya titled any of them, their names are lost—the titles they’re known by now were all invented by art historians years after the fact. They are undeniably his bleakest work, offering clear insight into the artist’s fraying mind. They have been exhaustively studied for nearly two centuries, but historians have failed to discover any cohesive narrative to the paintings outside their pervasive, incomparable pessimism.
There are 14 (potentially 15) of these paintings. They include Duel with Cudgels, which depicts two men beating at one another while they are each stuck knee deep in inescapable mud, and The Witches’ Sabbath, filled with tormented figures as the Devil, in the form of a giant he-goat, looms over them. But the most iconic of the Black Paintings is undeniably Saturn Devouring His Son, interpreted as a depiction of the Ancient Greek and Roman myth in which the titan Kronos (Saturn) eats all of his children alive.
After hearing that one of his offspring will overthrow him, Kronos (Saturn) decides that he will devour every child as soon as it is born. He eats infant after infant, but he can not avoid his fate. His wife tricks him and saves their final child, Zeus (Jupiter), who would see that the prophecy comes true. The myth has been portrayed in countless works of art, but none quite like Goya’s.
The haunting white of the headless corpse and the stark red of its blood stand out against giant’s muddy tones—but perhaps the most shocking aspect of the painting is the sheer horror on the giant’s face as it tears its child apart. The Kronos of myth eats each child with little remorse, but Goya’s Saturn is chillingly aware of how horrific the act is. He goes through with it anyway, desperate to cling to his power. The painting is a nightmare given form, and it seems a fitting culmination of Goya’s path from aspiring artist to court darling to haunted wreck.
The Black Paintings sat hidden in La Quinta del Sordo for decades. Eventually, a French banker named Baron Émile d’Erlanger paid to have them removed from the walls of the house and transferred onto canvas—a process that was done haphazardly at best. In one writer’s words, they were “hacked off the walls and attached to canvas.” They suffered serious damage in the transferal process, and needed heavy restoration, meaning that the paintings that today hang in the Museo del Prado in Madrid are considered to be a “crude facsimile” of Goya’s original work.
For his part, Goya likely wouldn’t care. Not all great art is made to be hung in a palace or a museum. This Spanish master artist created the Black Paintings for himself alone—his exhausted and weary mind thrown onto the walls of his house, if just to get some respite from the demons that plagued him.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Who Laughs Last? The Rise And Fall Of The Laugh Track
If you think of a stereotypical 60s sitcom, a la Bewitched, I 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?
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 & Shirley, Happy 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 Middle, 30 Rock, and Scrubs.
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?