This post originally appeared on Wired.com.
The comedy business has always been concerned with getting just the right kind of laugh. When vaudeville stars like Eddie Cantor first made the leap to radio, they demanded studio audiences since they weren’t used to sending their routines out into the ether without an immediate verbal response.
In the 1950s, talk show host Steve Allen purposely substituted nonsense words for his punch lines during rehearsals, so his band would be sure to laugh when they heard the real ones during tapings. Around that same time, a CBS sound engineer named Charley Douglass developed the “laff box,” a machine that played prerecorded laughs, itemized by laugher style, gender and age, during episodes of The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy to fix inconsistencies in audience guffaws. It was the dawn of the laugh track.
But what about live studio audiences, still a fixture for many sitcoms: Is there a way to guarantee they laugh at just the right time, with just the right amount of enthusiastic mirth after a particular gag? The television industry thinks there is, and that’s why it’s developed professional laughers — folks so good at guffawing they’re planted in live studio audiences to get everyone else sniggering, cackling or howling at just the right moment.
There is only one place to go if you’re in the market for pro laughers: Central Casting, the giant staffing company that’s been Hollywood’s go-to place for extras and stand-ins since 1926. That’s why we’re at Central Casting’s warehouse-sized headquarters in a bland Burbank industrial zone at 7 a.m.: to meet Lisette St. Claire, the woman responsible for creating the world’s first and only squad of laughter ringers. We want to know what it takes to laugh for your job — and to see if we would make the cut.
St. Claire became the world’s first laugher wrangler thanks to The Nanny, the 1990s sitcom starring Fran Drescher. As vividly recounted in an episode of Radiolab, Drescher had been brutally assaulted in her own home by armed robbers, so she wasn’t keen on having random people in her studio audience. That’s why the show asked Central Casting to provide prescreened audiences for the show.
For St. Claire, the casting director assigned to the task; not any old laughers would do. “I was not about to just send anybody. I wanted people who were really good,” she tells us once she’s given us a tour of Central Casting’s nearly empty operation (things will get busier in a few hours, once folks begin lining up outside for a shot at being cast as “Homeless Man No. 2″).
St. Claire’s overzealousness on the matter makes sense: From her outsize, bubbly personality to her riot of curly hair to her storied history as one-time mud wrestler, she’s not the sort of person to do the bare minimum on anything.
She started auditioning people, looking for dominating, infectious laughs that were explosive and unique. If folks made the cut, she put them into one of three tiers: top-level Group A, second-string Group B or “when hell freezes over” Group C.
She aimed for a 50-50 mix of men and women, and she discovered those in their 40s and 50s tended to be the best. She doesn’t know why; maybe it takes more life experiences, more joy and sorrow, to find things to really laugh about.
Her formula was a hit. Her phone was soon ringing off the hook, with three to four shows a week planting Central Casting’s cacklers in their audiences. Laughers got $75 for a day’s worth of chuckles, slightly better than your typical extra.
As crazy as it sounds, Hollywood might be on to something. Scientists have discovered that laughter really can be contagious, almost like a social disease. In 2006, London researchers found that the sound of laughter triggered parts of the brain that are activated when we smile. It’s as if the brain is primed for laughter even when it doesn’t know what exactly it’s laughing about.
After a few hot years, St. Claire’s laughter teams started running out of work. That’s because for a while, sitcom audiences, both live and virtual, were threatening to become an endangered species, what with reality TV gobbling up much of the airtime. But lately, sitcoms seem to be making a bit of a comeback, along with the return of the trusty laugh track. St. Claire reports that business for her laughers has been picking up, too. With competition fiercer than ever for the few prime-time comedy slots still available, it seems network executives are eager for any advantage they can get.
To prove to us her folks are up to the task, St. Claire picks up her phone and dials one of her go-to laughers, a real Group A hotshot.
“Give me a laugh,” she says, and puts him on speakerphone. Never mind that it’s 7:30 in the morning, that the man on the other end has just been roused from sleep. A dramatic, spontaneous cackling erupts from the phone, causing the early-bird Central Casting crew working around us to look up and smile, and in some cases start chuckling themselves. Hear it below:
Can we hope to compare? With little warning, St. Claire turns to me.
“Laugh like you’re about to pee your pants,” she says.
I try my best, feeling goofy and awkward as I cackle as loud and long as I can. (It’s hard not to feel like a fool when you’re laughing at nothing whatsoever.)
When I’m laughed out, St. Claire turns to my colleague, Peter McGraw. He slaps his knee and rears his head back, mouth agape. No wonder his college buddies called him “T-rex.”
Not bad, St. Claire says to us with a polite smile.
“I’d put you both in Group B,” she says.
I think she’s being kind. We’ve posted clips of our laugh auditions below — do you think we should’ve made the cut?