Besides Steve Porter’s “Laughing Spectator,” a lot of laughter can be heard on early phonograph records. One of the most successful examples was the “Okeh Laughing Record,” released in 1922. This recording did so well that it was quickly followed by two sequels called, not surprisingly, “The Second Laughing Record” and “The Okeh Laughing Dance Record.” In the most prevalent model of the laughing record genre, a recurring, elementary narrative frames the laughter. The record begins with a very solemn performance of a musical solo (often a horn or a vocal performance). The introductory music on these laughing records establishes a classical performance with a one-to-one relationship between the musical performer and a listener. This performance is then punctuated by a fluff of some kind, an audible (sometimes barely audible) mistake that interrupts the smooth flow of the musical solo. Immediately following the mistake, a woman is heard to break out laughing. As the recording develops, the musician nobly tries to continue the instrumental solo, but the laughter of the woman in the audience proves so unsettling and infectious that the performer “cracks up” as well, revealing his identity as a man. What follows for the rest of the record are waves of laughter from both the man and woman, each one’s guffaws stimulating and encouraging the other’s, interspersed by short-lived attempts by the man to return to his performance.
The main purpose of these recordings seems to have been the incitation of the listener’s infectious laughter, a project in which they were successful far beyond the scope of their local cultural origins. Early gramophone producer F.W. Gaisberg wrote that Burt Sheppard’s “Laughing Record” was “world famous,” and had sold “over half a million in India alone.” He provides this brief description of its reception: “In the bazaars of India I have seen dozens of natives seated on their haunches round a gramophone, rocking with laughter, whilst playing Sheppard’s laughing record.” It seems to me that laughing records helped to ease anxieties about a potentially disturbing new medium. Laughter served as a kind of suture between the rigid and the flexible, the social and the individual, the mechanical and the human. The incitation of infectious laughter in the listener would work to remove anxiety about interacting with a machine, making the phonographic apparatus appear more “human.” The ability of a mechanical recording to “crack up” helps it to emanate a sense of authentic presence and humanity. Laughing records, then, were important ways of establishing the credibility and authenticity of early recordings, alleviating the anxiety of hearing a disembodied, recorded voice.