After his retirement, Charley's son Bob took over Northridge Electronics and continued to improve the technology. Modern laugh track operators use a laptop computer to deliver a wide range of sweetening effects, from traditional laughs to emotional sighs and even unique signs of appreciation from foreign cultures. Northridge’s software can overlay and sequence as many as 40 at once, creating a rich tapestry of artificial audience ambiance.
But these days, fewer and fewer jobs exist for them. Starting in the late 1980s, TV producers began moving away from canned laughter. Writers applauded the change, saying that it freed them up from the constricting rhythm of non-stop jokes to explore more subtle character-based humor. Think about what a show like The Office would have been like with an artificial laugh track, for example.
Chuck Lorre (creator of hits like The Big Bang Theory) insists that absolutely no audio sweetening happens on any of his shows, but even his most dedicated fans have trouble believing that. The shows that do use laugh tracks, like Netflix's new One Day at a Time, deploy them in service of nostalgia. Riffing on Norman Lear's 1975 sitcom of the same name, it's only fitting that the show be sweetened like it. Other shows have dispensed with the Laff Box operator entirely. How I Met Your Mother was filmed multi-camera but with no studio audience. To get their laugh track, producers would show a finished edit of each episode to small groups of viewers and record their reactions in real time.
Amazingly, the actual physical Laff Box showed up on an episode of Antiques Roadshow in 2010, giving the world their first peek at the inside of the device. The machine featured 32 typewriter keys, each one of which would cue playback on an individual tape loop featuring ten laughs. A foot pedal controlled master volume, allowing Douglass to fade the sounds in and out realistically. It was a remarkable piece of engineering, a versatile device more musical instrument than machine.
Even though canned audiences are primarily a thing of the past, it's amazing to think about how this bespoke invention changed the way the world laughed.