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Before laughter started pouring out of our TV sets from live studio audiences and pre-recorded laugh tracks, there were claquers. Claquers were members of an organized group of professional audience members, called a claque, who were paid by theatre and opera owners to attend performances and sweeten the reception of whatever was playing. By the 1830s, a theatre manager could order a certain number of claquers to attend a performance, with some being hired to lead applause, others to laugh at jokes, and some to hold handkerchiefs to their eyes and summon fake tears. Why would a theatre owner pay people to react as they deem appropriate? For the same reason we’ve had live audiences and laugh tracks projecting laughter into our homes from I Love Lucy to The Big Bang Theory: because laughter can be infectious.
Up until the late 1950s, the laughter