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Posts Tagged ‘laughter’

Canned Laughter: Ben Glenn II, Television Historian

July 20, 2010 | by

Last summer, Writers Digest Press published And Here's the Kicker a book of interviews I conducted with twenty-one humor writers, including Buck Henry, Bob Odenkirk, Dick Cavett, Harold Ramis, David Sedaris, and Marshall Brickman. Although he’s not a writer, I interviewed Ben Glenn II, a TV historian and expert in the history of canned laughter for the book. As I was talking to all of these people whose work produces laughter, it seemed appropriate to include at least one expert in producing fake laughter.

How did canned laughter come about?

The concept actually goes back at least five hundred years. History tells us that there were audience “plants” in the crowds at Shakespearean performances in the 16th century. They spurred on audience reactions, including laughter and cheering—as well as jeers.

How about more recently?

Canned laughter was used to a certain degree in radio, but its first TV appearance was in 1950, on a rather obscure NBC situation comedy, The Hank McCune Show. Remarkably, there are a couple of clips from the show on YouTube. Shortly after the show’s debut, there was an article in Variety noting that the show’s canned laughter was a new innovation, and that its potential for providing a wide-range of reactions was great. Of course, that eventually came true.

How odd did the laugh track sound to those early TV audiences?

I can only imagine that it seemed odd to viewers, but using a laugh track held many advantages for television producers. The most important was that it made it possible to film exteriors and on location. It gave producers freedom. For example, scenes from Leave It to Beaver were shot outdoors on RKO’s—and later Universal’s—back lot. With the laugh track, a studio audience was no longer absolutely necessary.

Who invented the canned-laughter machine? Read More »

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Manhattan Unfurled, Partying at The Paris Review

July 16, 2010 | by

I'm looking for good books about New York to give as host/hostess gifts. What would you recommend? —Elizabeth P., New York City

There is always E. B. White's little classic Here Is New York. The old edition is the one to buy for its beautiful jacket. Ten years ago I gave a copy to my friend Matteo Pericoli, a native Italian in love with the plain style in American prose. Matteo then turned around and created an even more beautiful book: Manhattan Unfurled. This unique object, which unfolds like an accordion, consists of two thirty-seven-foot pen-and-ink drawings. One portrays the western shore of Manhattan, the other the east. Matteo also made a children's version, See the City, with pencilled annotations, e.g. "This is a power plant"; "United Nations (I drew more than 3000 little lines!)"; "This is a not-so-famous building, but I like it." I don't know which version I prefer, loving them both as I do. If your hosts lives downtown, you may also want to give them Luc Sante's Low Life, with its haunting history of the tenement city New York used to be. Then, if your hosts are unemployed, you can always give them Gotham. Once, as a house-sitter in Greenwich Village, I spent the better part of a week in a gigantic Adirondack chair reading Gotham from cover to cover. I mention the chair because you need a big sturdy comfortable one, or a book stand. There is no question of reading the book in bed.

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