It's 7 a.m., I'm struggling with jetlag from the red eye I took into LAX the night before and I'm in the wilds of the Valley, about to audition for the world's only team of professional laughers. None of it makes sense, but then again, not much of my life has since I embarked on the Humor Code, a collaboration with humor researcher Peter McGraw, in which we travel the world in search of what makes things funny.
Our oddball expedition got its start last year, when, as a staff writer at Westword, the Denver-based sister paper to the LA Weekly, I learned about McGraw, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who'd become obsessed with uncovering comedy's underlying DNA. To do so, he launched the Humor Research Lab, aka HuRL, which involved off-the-wall experiments such as exposing test subjects to clips of Hot Tub Time Machine.
To prove that his research held up outside the lab, McGraw offered to try his hand at stand-up at Denver's toughest open mike night. The results were not pretty (you can read about the carnage at our post called “What makes us laugh?”).
It was enough to convince McGraw that he had a lot to learn about comedy in the real world, so he decided to take his research on the road, with me along for the ride. So launched the Humor Code, an expedition that's involved tracking dick jokes in sex-ed PSAs in Washington, DC, liquoring up funny ad men in Manhattan and tracking down Occupation humor in the West Bank.
Now we're in Los Angeles, exploring the comedy culture that stretches from the film sets to the TV studios to the comedy-club circuit. The humor stakes are so high around here that live-audience sitcoms are turning to laughter ringers, folks so good at guffawing they're planted the audience and get everyone else cackling at the right moment.
To find those ringers, TV execs turn to Central Casting, the staffing company that's been LA's go-to place for extras and stand-ins since 1925. That's where we are right now, at Central Casting's giant warehouse-sized headquarters in Burbank, ready to meet with the woman who started it all: Lisette St. Claire.
St. Claire became the world's first laugher wrangler thanks to The Nanny, the 1990s sit-com starring Fran Drescher. Drescher had been brutally assaulted in her own home by armed robbers, so she wasn't keen on having random people in her studio audience. The show asked Central Casting to provide pre-screened folks instead.
For St. Claire, the casting director assigned to the task, not any old laughers would do. “I was not about to just send anybody,” she tells us. “I wanted people who were really good.” It makes sense: From her outsized, bubbly personality to her riot of curly hair to her storied history as one-time mud wrestler, St. Claire isn't the sort of person to do the bare minimum on anything.
She started auditioning people, looking for dominating, infectious laughs, guffaws that were explosive and unique. If folks made the cut, she put them into one of three tiers: top-level Group A, second-string Group B, or “When hell freezes over” Group C.
She aimed for a 50-50 mix of men and women, and she discovered those in their 40s and 50s tended to be the best. She doesn't know why; maybe it takes more life experiences, more joy and sorrow, to find things to really laugh about.
Her formula was a hit. Her phone started ringing off the hook, with three to four shows a week planting her cacklers in their audience. It was likely a good move. There's a lot of research on how laughter is contagious, almost like a social disease. In 1962, parts of Tanzania were apparently stricken by multi-year “laughter epidemic” where more than a thousand people supposedly suffered uncontrollable fits of laughter. (We'll be investigating that, too; Tanzania is on the agenda for next year.)
While demand for St. Claire's laughers eventually began to wane, lately she says business is picking up. It could be tied in to the return of the laugh track; with competition fierce for the few comedy slots left on TV, folks are eager for any advantage they can get.
To prove her folks are right for the job, St. Claire picks up her phone and dials one of her go-to laughers, one of the Group A hotshots. “Give me a laugh,” she says, and puts him on speakerphone. Never mind it's 7:30 in the morning, that the man on the other end has just been woken up. A dramatic, spontaneous cackling erupts from the phone, causing the early-bird crew working around us in the casting office to look up and smile, and a few chuckle themselves.
Professional Laugher, Central Casting by HumorCode
So do McGraw and I have what it takes? With little warning, she turns to me. “Laugh like you're about to pee your pants.” I try my best, feeling goofy and awkward as I cackle as loud and long as I can. It's hard not to feel like a fool when you're laughing at nothing whatsoever. When I'm all laughed out, St. Claire turns to my colleague McGraw. He slaps his knee and rears his head back, mouth agape. No wonder his college buddies call him “T-rex.”
Not bad, St. Claire says to us with polite smile: “I'd put you both in Group B.” I think she's being kind. We've posted below clips of our laugh auditions — do you think we should have made the cut?
Joel Warner's laughter audition:
Peter McGraw's laughter audition: