The Boo Racket

If you’re a fan of sitcoms — and in particular, those from before 2010 or so — you’re probably familiar with the “laugh track.” In the 1950s, a television engineer named Charles Douglass invented something called the “Laff Box,” which, basically, was a recording of audience laughter that could be added whenever show producers wanted to make it clear that a joke was intended to be a joke. As the New York Times noted in an obituary for Douglass, the Laff Box “is responsible for an incalculable number of poor sitcom jokes being greeted with bursts of unearned, prerecorded laughter,” having inspired similar decades of sitcoms since.

But Douglass’s innovation wasn’t the first time show producers found ways to fake an audience’s reaction. And in one case, it led to a tiny bit of extortion.

The idea of having some sort of cue when to laugh, clap, or cry isn’t all that new, perhaps dating back to the Roman empire. Under the reign of Nero, the emperor from the year 54 until his death a decade and a half later, Rome built many amphitheaters across its territories, in part so that Nero himself could take the stage. He loved performing — he was known to be an actor, poet, an more — and, being the emperor, always was able to command an audience. But in his case, he took the idea of “commanding” seriously — he was known to require soldiers to applaud when he performed in front of them. And of course, others followed suit.

In Nero’s case, the participatory applause of the non-solider audience was probably, in part, encouraged by the fact that he was the guy in charge. But other producers found that the power aspect wasn’t necessarily required for the ploy to be successful. In the 1500s, a French poet named Jean Daurant bought up some tickets to his own show and gave them out, for free, under a condition: the gratis entrants agreed to applaud his work, no matter how they felt about it. And by the mid-1700s, the idea spread to the French opera houses. Per London’s Opera Holland Park’s website, “theatres in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paris, whether in the spoken theatre, opera or ballet, would pay organized groups to bolster success for a production with their applause.” 

These hired clapping hands, called a “claque” (from the French word claquer, which means “to clap”), quickly proved their worth. Show producers became increasingly interested in giving up a few seats to ensure that the right moments received the right reaction from the crowd. And shortly thereafter, a cottage industry emerged. The 1919 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica explains: 

[In] 1820 that a M. Sauton seriously undertook the systematization of the claque, and opened an office in Paris for the supply of claqueurs. By 1830 the claque had become a regular institution. The manager of a theatre sends an order for any number of claqueurs. These people are usually under a chef de claque, whose duty it is to judge where their efforts are needed and to start the demonstration of approval. This takes several forms. Thus there are commissaires, those who learn the piece by heart, and call the attention of their neighbors to its good points between the acts. The rieurs are those who laugh loudly at the jokes. The pleureurs, generally women, feign tears, by holding their handkerchiefs to their eyes. The chatouilleurs keep the audience in a good humor, while the bisseurs simply clap their hands and cry bis! bis! to secure encores.

As the practice of claquering matured, so did the sophistication around the deployment of applause. In a 1919 article in the Musical Times (via JStor), highly-trained chefs de claque could even provide an assist to those on-stage — by helping mask their breathing. Per the author of that Musical Times article, a tenor who was “well known to be past-master of long breaths” had found a little difficulty in holding one extraordinary note — so the claque gave him some assistance. Specifically, “after holding the note for an already long period, “part of the claque began applauding [ . . .] giving the singer time to take fresh breath and go on with the note, never, to the ordinary listener, having relinquished his hold on it.” 

But while having forced applause can be valuable, many artists shunned its use — much like many shun the laugh track today. Unfortunately, in some cases, performers didn’t have a choice. Unlike the laugh track, which is a recording controlled by the show’s producers, the claque was made up of ticketholders who, ultimately, weren’t any different than paying audience members. Some chefs de claque knew this — and took advantage of the situation. Instead of waiting for someone to hire them to clap and cheer, they would buy tickets and instruct the ticket holders to either not clap or, in some cases, jeer, unless the producers and performers paid up. Per Opera Holland Park, one baritone from England recounted a conversation before a performance in Italy: “two gentlemen previously noticed by the baritone around the theatre entered his dressing room and complimented him on his singing. ‘We lead the applause’, one of them explained, ‘so the singer traditionally pays for us to have dinner or drinks. And for this clapping you pay.’” He refused — and was booed instead.

The practice of hired applauders and, by extension, extortionists, mostly faded by the 1950s or so (about when the laugh track emerged, coincidentally). The exception? Russia. As of 2013, according to the New York Times, you’ll still find claquers ready to work — or else.

Bonus fact: Laugh tracks may feel artificial — in part, because they are — but that doesn’t make them incorrect. According to a 2019 study by University College London professor Sophie Scott (via Smithsonian), “researchers subjected 72 adults to 40 really bad, so-called ‘dad jokes.’ The jokes were either presented with no laughter, followed by a short burst of distinctly fake or forced laughter or by short, spontaneous real laughs. Participants were instructed to rate the jokes on a scale of 1 to 7.” The results? Fake laugh works: “jokes followed by forced or canned laughter averaged a 10 percent score boost and those with a burst of more spontaneous sounding laughter saw a 15 to 20 percent spike.”

From the Archives: The Job That’s a Riot: Another problem with modern-day claquers? Stalkers.