claque, aka canned laughter It’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s nothing new under the sun (a heavenly body, by the way, that some Indian ascetics stare at till they go blind). I knew that some things had a history—the Constitution, rhythm and blues, Canada—but it’s the odd little things that surprise me with their storied past. This first struck me when I was reading about anesthetics and I learned that, in the early 1840s, it became fashionable to hold parties where guests would inhale nitrous oxide out of bladders. In other words, Whip-it parties! We held the exact same kind of parties in high school. We’d buy fourteen cans of Reddi-Wip and suck on them till we had successfully obliterated a couple of million neurons and face-planted on my friend Andy’s couch. And we thought we were so cutting edge. And now, I learn about claque, which is essentially a highbrow French word for canned laughter. Canned laughter was invented long before Lucille Ball stuffed chocolates in her face or Ralph Kramden threatened his wife with extreme violence. It goes back to the 4th century B.C., when Greek playwrights hired bands of helpers to laugh at their comedies in order to influence the judges. The Romans also stacked the audience, but they were apparently more interested in applause than chuckles: Nero—emperor and wannabe musician—employed a group of five thousand knights and soldiers to accompany him on his concert tours. But the golden age of canned laughter came in 19th-century France. Almost every theater in France was forced to hire a band called a claque—from claquer, “to clap.” The influential claque leaders, called the chefs de claque, got a monthly payment from the actors. And the brilliant innovation they came up with was specialization. Each claque member had his or her own important job to perform: There were the rieurs, who laughed loudly during comedies. There were the bisseurs, who shouted for encores. There were the commissaires, who would elbow their neighbors and say, “This is the good part.” And my favorite of all, the pleureuses, women who were paid good francs to weep at the sad parts of tragedies. I love this idea. I’m not sure why the networks never thought of canned crying. You’d be watching an ER episode, and a softball player would come in with a bat splinter through his forehead, and you’d hear a little whimper in the background, turning into a wave of sobs. Julie already has trouble keeping her cheeks dry, seeing as she cried during the Joe Millionaire finale. If they added canned crying, she’d be a mess.
A.J. Jacobs (The Know-it-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World)