You've gotta laugh... I Love Lucy creator's $7,500 'laugh box' beats sale rival



When he created the classic US TV series, I Love Lucy, the programme itself wasn't the only great idea that legendary producer Jess Oppenheimer had up his sleeve...

The idea came in the form of the "Jayo Laugher", designed to house a library of sounds, specifically "canned" laughter and audience applause, which could be summoned with the tap of a key for use during the taping of TV shows.

Very pioneering... Yet Oppenheimer's ingenious invention would spark a conflict that would be resumed years later, in 2011, when auctioneer Don Presley publicly announced he would be auctioning a device known as a "Laffbox" in his May sale.

Discovered in a storage locker, the LaffBox was accompanied by a thick, neatly organised binder that documented its origin and use over the years. Based on the contents of the binder, Presley believed the LaffBox to be unique and publicised it as such.

Shortly after news of the LaffBox discovery was made public, Presley was contacted by the late Jess Oppenheimer's son, Gregg Oppenheimer, who informed the auctioneer that his father had invented a laugh machine that possibly pre-dated the LaffBox... the Jayo Laugher.

The 'Jayo Laugher' box by Jess Oppenheimer sold with a collection of related I Love Lucy show memorabilia

It transpired that, while Jess Oppenheimer (1913-1988) was developing his Jayo Laugher in 1953, a CBS sound engineer named Charles Douglass (1910-2003) was quietly developing a similar device of his own, which he dubbed the LaffBox.

As reported in the Dec. 16, 1954 issue of the show business publication Daily Variety, Oppenheimer and Douglass waged a neck-and-neck battle over which of their devices would receive a critically important U.S. patent.

In the end, the patent went to the Douglass, whose LaffBox was stocked with titters, chuckles and recorded during the taping of I Love Lucy - ironically, the TV show Oppenheimer had created.

With his hopes of a patent dashed, Oppenheimer scuttled the Jayo Laugher project. His ingenious prototype - capable of emitting "yocks ranging from snickers to giggles" to laughs of all lengths and intensity, "plus sundry variations of each" - was retired to the Oppenheimer family archive.

Meanwhile, Douglass's LaffBox went on to provide taped laughter and applause for more than 20,000 TV shows over several decades to follow, including The Beverly Hillbillies, The Munsters, The Brady Bunch and The Andy Griffith Show.

Competing for laughs... The LaffBox, back of shot, was left in the Jayo Laugher's wake - but could live to see another day on the markets

So, Douglass' box might have won the patent... But was it really the more classic of the two machines? Collectors had a chance to decide when, remarkably, both canned laughter machines went under the hammer at Don Presley Auction over the weekend (June 25-26).

In the end, Jess Oppenheimer's machine won the hearts and wallets of collectors, bringing a final $7,500. But, to our surprise, Douglass's LaffBox, however, didn't find a buyer.

Undoubtedly, the I Love Lucy connection helpedOppenheimer's Jayo Laugher bring figures - it isn't the first time that Lucille Ball and her much-loved vintage series have attracted auction bidders.

Yet the sellers at Don Presley Auction shouldn't feel dispirited. Charles Douglass's LaffBox remains the "official patented" first canned laughter machine and, as a bona fide piece of Hollywood and TV history, will undoubtedly find an eager buyer in the future.


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