Lost Journal: Laugh Track – the Next Generation

Journal entry: October 4, 2009 (age 40) – Laugh Track

Nothing makes a TV show funnier than a laugh track. Hearing other people’s laughter tells our social brains that we should conform and laugh as well. (Sure, Hawkeye is performing a tracheotomy in unsanitary conditions, but he’s also doing his Groucho!) It doesn’t matter that the laughter was recorded under completely different circumstances, and has nothing to do with what is currently occurring onscreen. If it did, the laugh track for Full House would have captured only yawning and, if you listened very closely, the Olsen twins telling John Stamos that his enthusiastic drumming performance in the Beach Boys’ music video for “Kokomo” in no way qualifies him to write the incidental music for Volume 45 of their video series The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley.

That got me thinking (as “Kokomo” often does): What other media could benefit from the simulated sound of a live audience, and how could I exploit, for my own financial and existential gain, a need people didn’t even know they had?   Within a few short years, it hit me. I’m now willing to share my breakthrough, confident in the pending award of my first U.S. patent, as well as an all-but-finalized agreement with the music label Deutsche Grammophon.

I’m going to create “cough tracks” for recordings of classical music.

Any studio recording of symphonic or chamber music can be made to sound more real, more alive, and more exquisitely human with the addition of some well-placed hacking. Let’s say you and your friends like to hang in your garage and jam out on Bartok’s “Introduzione: Andante Non Troppo – Allegro Vivace,” from his Concerto for Orchestra. But even when your buddies bring their tuba-groupie girlfriends along, you can’t re-create the sound of, say, the Oslo Concert Hall filled to the rafters with rabid devotees of the Oslo Philharmonic, also known as Jansons Fansons because of their devotion to Oslo’s longtime conductor, Mariss Jansons.

That’s where I come in. (Not, mind you, into the concert hall to cheer for Jansons, who I find pedestrian – a man unable to escape the boorish shackles of his predictably Latvian youth.) I’ve set up the very finest Radio Shack technology in my bathroom, to record me as I listen to the various pieces on my iPod. Microphones in my shower caddy pick up my forced coughs, faked sneezes, and the rustling of a program from a middle school flute recital, which I keep under a pile of Entertainment Weekly magazines on the back of the toilet.

As well as new releases, classical labels have requested that I prepare backing tracks for recordings made in the past. Depending on the year, I throw in ambient sounds of Beyoncé ringtones, beeper beeps, digital watch alarms, singing telegrams, or carrier pigeon droppings. I even dabble in subliminal satire. Listen to my work on the upcoming re-release of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s millennial performance of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung for some deliciously placed calls of “fascist” masked by deep, productive coughs. In this and many other ways, I feel as though I’m contributing to the work of these world-class artists, making their performances, in some small way, Philharmoniker-er.

Next up, I’m going to add some commentary to classic radio programs from the 1930s and ‘40s. For modern listeners hearing Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy for the first time, I thought it would be helpful to interject stage directions, such as “The puppet is talking now. Bergen’s lips aren’t moving.”

Tim Mollen
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