It’s 7 am, we’re struggling with jetlag from flying into LAX the night before and we’re in the wilds of Burbank, California, about to audition for the world’s only team of professional laughers.
We’ve come to Los Angeles to explore the comedy culture that stretches from the film sets to the TV studios to the comedy-club circuit. The humor stakes around here are so high that live-audience sitcoms are turning to laughter ringers, folks so good at guffawing that 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 L.A.’s go-to place for extras and stand-ins since 1925. And that’s why we’re here, at Central Casting’s giant warehouse-size headquarters in the Valley, 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 sitcom 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. So the show asked Central Casting to provide pre-screened audiences for the show. But for St. Claire, the casting director assigned to the task, not just any 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 a one-time mud wrestler, St. Claire isn’t the sort of person to do the bare minimum for anything.
She began auditioning people, looking for dominating, infectious laughs—howls that were explosive and unique. Those who made the cut were grouped into one of three tiers: top-level Group A, second-string Group B, or “when hell freezes over” Group C. St. Claire aimed for a 50-50 mix of men and women, and she discovered those in their 40s and 50s tend to be the best. She didn’t know why; maybe it takes more life experiences, more joy and sorrow, to find things to really laugh about.
St. Claire’s formula was a hit. Her phone started ringing off the hook, with three to four shows a week planting her cacklers in their audiences. 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 a multi-year “laughter epidemic,” in which more than a thousand people supposedly suffered uncontrollable fits of laughter. (We’ll be investigating that, too; Tanzania is on the travel itinerary for next year.)
Demand for St. Claire’s laughers eventually began to wane, but lately, she says, business is picking up. It could be tied to the return of the laugh track; with competition fierce for the few comedy slots left on TV, shows are eager for any advantage they can get.
To prove her people 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 that it’s 7:30 in the morning, or 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 in many cases start chuckling themselves:
Professional Laugher, Central Casting by HumorCode
With little warning, St. Claire 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’ hard not to feel like a fool when you’re laughing at nothing whatsoever.
When I’m all laughed out, St. Claire turns to Peter. 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 a polite smile. “I’d put you both in Group B.”
Listen for yourself:
Joel’s laughter audition:
Peter’s laughter audition:
We still think St. Claire was being kind. Do you think we should’ve made the cut?
A version of this post originally appeared in LA Weekly.