Good news: August is National Happiness Month! Joy is in short supply these smoky, hyper-political days, so the arrival of the new “happiness” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly was appreciated. The magazine features excerpts from writing through the ages, along with gorgeous art, maps and charts, all related to the theme. One chart, “Business and Pleasure,” briefly described “the joys of intellectual property.” Apparently Pillsbury owns the patent to their doughboy’s “childlike giggle,” and the Jolly Green Giant’s “ho, ho, ho” trademark is controlled by General Mills.
Lapham’s finally resolved my childhood musings about where laugh tracks come from by revealing that the first laugh track was introduced by PBS sound engineer Charley Douglass in 1953. Producing artificial laughter that sounds genuine was difficult, and Douglass’ breakthrough came by utilizing recordings of live audiences laughing while watching silent comedy, like the miming of Marcel Marceau and Red Skelton. He “pored over these tapes at his kitchen table night after night, splicing them into analog tape reels that could by played on a patented device Douglass built himself out of household appliances, organ parts and vacuum tubes,” according to Willa Paskin in a Slate.com article, “The Man Who Perfected the Laugh Track.”
“This device was about 3 feet tall, the shape of a filing cabinet, very heavy, and had slots for 32 reels, which could hold 10 laughs each. It was officially known as the Audience Response Duplicator, but it became known as the Laff Box. It could guffaw. It could laugh with sighed relief. It even had a reel, controlled by the foot pedal, that was only titters, one person lightly laughing at a time … Charley Douglass played his Laff Box like it was an instrument.”
Many fathers could use Laff Boxes when amusing their offspring. “With Dad Jokes, a Little Laugh Goes a Long Way,” a recent NYTimes.com article, which cites a study from the University of London that showed that “people find even the most groan-inducing one-liners funnier if they’re paired with a laugh track. And the type of laughter matters, too: a joke seems funnier if it’s accompanied by laughter that seems genuine rather than forced.” Jokes rating “1” on a 1-7 scale jumped up to 2.5 or 3 if a good laugh track was played, even rib-ticklers like “What’s the best day to cook? Fry day.”
The Buddha said that “Happiness never decreases by being shared,” and few shared more happiness than Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts empire. On April 25, 1960, Peanuts character Lucy Van Pelt approached Snoopy, patted and hugged him, and avowed “Happiness is a warm puppy,” which became a cultural reference for the early 60s and a best selling book.
In 1963 a spin-off phrase came from Sally, Charley Brown’s little sister, when she said “Happiness is having your own library card,” and truer words were never uttered. After all, our library owns the Peanuts books, and free limitless knowledge, inspiration and entertainment is quite a deal. While completely agreeing with Sally, true happiness for me can come from enjoying someone else’s nachos, which I define as tortilla chips accompanied by dollops of refried black beans, guacamole, chorizo, “crema” (Mexican sour cream), pico de gallo, sliced jalapenos and grated cheese.
The original 1943 nachos were merely chips with peppers and cheese made by Ignacio Anaya, the owner of the Victory Restaurant in Piedras Negras, Mexico, for some Army wives from Texas on a shopping trip. The kitchen was closed so he threw together something quick that became known as his “Nachos Especial.”
The Oxford English Dictionary includes illustrative quotations showing the earliest printed use of terms. In 1994, their U.S. researcher, Adriana Orr, was asked to antedate (“to assign an earlier date to”) “nachos” which the OED only dated back to 1969. Orr struck out at the Library of Congress, but a Mexican-American librarian there told her that “nacho” has only one common use in Mexico: a diminutive for boys baptized as Ignatius. The food editor of the San Antonio Express provided the army wives story, and she eventually found “A Taste of Texas” from 1949 that included “the perfect nacho quote” for the OED: “‘These nachos,’ said Pedro, ‘will help El Capitan — he will soon forget his troubles, for nachos make one romantic.’” Like I said: happiness.
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.