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Fifty Years Of Laughing Records

At some time or other most of us have laughed at a "Laughing Record". That they were popular there can be little doubt; they were made by most of the record companies and were produced throughout the 78 rpm era.

The earliest laughing record on disc that I have come across is "Laughing Song", performed by Henry Klausen (Victor 62576-B, issued somewhere between 1905 and 1908). After an introduction in a foreign language, someone tries to imitate a cornet playing "Carnival of Venice" and bursts of laughter interrupt every wrong note. (I call this kind of laughter "free-form".) This was the very song that Herbert Clarke, famous Canadian cornetist, had arranged and played with such great success throughout the world and, no doubt, the comparison made this laughing record seem even funnier at the time.

In 1912, Cal Stewart (Uncle Josh) recorded "Ticklish Reuben" (Victor 17232-B). This is a song that has a verse of singing followed by laughter in time with the music. (I call this kind of laughter "rhythmic".) On the other side is "Laughs You Have Met", performed by five comedians, one of whom is named Moule. (I wonder if he was any relation to Vanessa Lee whose real name was Ruby Moule?)

Also around 1912, an English comedian, Mr. Billy Whitlock, recorded two laughing songs, "Always Jolly" and "What a Very Very Dreadful Thing" (John Bull Record, 40549) in which verses of singing are followed by rhythmic laughter. This same Billy Whitlock returned to the recording studio in 1950 to make "Khaki Boys' March" and "Naval Cadets' March" (his own compositions) for London Records, this time playing the xylophone. He must have been well on in years.

The grand prize for laughing records has to go to Irene Young and Al Weston who worked for Columbia, Edison, Cameo, Starr-Gennett and probably Okeh and Grey Gull. An early example of their work is "Laugh and You'll Never Feel Blue" (Columbia A1995, 1916), and I would call it a timid song. The laughter is not robust and stays with the beat ("rhythmic"). Their 1918 version of "Come Join in Our Laughter" (Columbia A2532) could be placed in the same class.

In June of 1921, Young and Weston recorded "At the Circus" and "Country Days" for Edison (50809). This is more rhythmic laughter, but occasionally they break into free-form - an interesting prelude to better things.

In August 1922, "The Okeh Laughing Record" was issued. The laughers get no credit, but I think they are Young and Weston. The laughter is all free-form. A cornetist tries to play a serious classical air, makes a mistake and a man and woman burst into laughter. The cornetist makes several tries only to the increased merriment of the laughers. All the laughter here is free-form which is much closer to real life than following a beat or even a tune. The laughter is highly infectious and if the public is to be the final judge, this record was a smashing success. One researcher estimated that it sold close to one million copies.

In the same month, Grey Gull issued a record entitled "Button Buster (Try not to Laugh), World's Funniest Record". Again. no artists' names appear, but this record has all the earmarks of a Young and Weston record. A trombonist starts to play the Quartet from "Rigoletto", makes a mistake and the laughter begins - all free-form. Like the "Carnival of Venice" record mentioned earlier, the choice of music was very daring. The beloved Caruso had died just one year before and Victor had been pushing his recording of the Quartet as one of the two greatest recordings ever made.

In the "Cameo Laughing Record" (Cameo 279, September 1922) Young and Weston laugh at a saxophonist trying to play "Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms". Although this tune doesn't mean much to us today (the Road Runner plays it on the piano to get Coyote to blow himself up), in the 1920's it was a popular concert favourite and was recorded by many of the great singers including Nellie Melba, Geraldine Farrar and Lawrence Tibbett.

The "Starr Gennett Laughing Record" (Starr Gennett 9325, February 1925) was the same, but the saxophonist played "When You and I were Young, Maggie", another composition that was dearly loved.

In may of 1926, Charles Penrose recorded "The Laughing Police- man" (A3197) and "Laughter of Lemons" (A3199) which were coupled together. The policeman laughs rhythmically while on the other side, the cornetist finds his instrument difficult to play while a boy sucks on a lemon amid gales of laughter (free-form). (Record buffs may find it of interest that, according to the label, "The Laughing Policeman" was recorded at Speed 80. Did Columbia change over to Speed 78 about May 1926?) Charles Penrose was well-known for his laughing songs. In February 1918, two laughing songs, "The Laughing Curate" and "Laugh and Grow Fat Like Me", both rhythmic and both written by C. Penrose, were recorded on Columbia-Rena by Fred Arthurs. The voices of Arthurs and Penrose are similar! (Record sleuths: Was Fred Arthurs really Charles Penrose?)

I am not too impressed with Laughing Records after the 1920's (perhaps I was getting too old), but here are a few that seemed to be widely circulated:

In 1932, Cicely Courtneidge made a double-sided record called "Laughing Gas" (free-form). Spike Jones did "Holiday for Strings" in 1944 (rhythmic) and a "Laughing Record" in 1946 (free-form). In 1954, Columbia (40577) issued "Santa's Laughing Song" sung by "Santa Claus and His Helpers". This record is rhythmic and stilted, and I feel that an era may have been brought to an end.

This article is far from being a complete study of Laughing Records, but based on the above information I shall tentatively come to a conclusion: as laughers, Irene Young and Al Weston were the most prolific, and at their best when they were laughing naturally (free-form) at serious tunes played badly. (I wonder if they got that idea from Henry Klausen?)