Laugh tracks do make us laugh – no joke

It’s annoying to have to report this, but is seems that “laugh tracks” work. They even make really corny “dad jokes” seem funnier. Double annoying.

The only upside is that the added laughter is more effective when it is spontaneous rather than posed.

We know this thanks to research by Sophie Scott and colleagues from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, UK, which is published in the journal Current Biology.

Scott’s team often conducts studies in which they ask people to rate laughter or other sounds in different ways. In the new work, they wanted an implicit measure of the effect of laughter.

“Laughter is an extremely salient and important social cue and although laughter can be commonplace, it always carries a wealth of critical social and emotional meaning, and we process it even if we are not directed specifically to engage with the laughter,” they write.

The first step was to establish baseline ratings for how funny 40 jokes were perceived to be. All were intentionally groan-worthy; eg, “What do you call a man with a spade on his head?” Answer, “Doug”. 

Next, a professional comedian recorded two versions of each: one accompanied by a short burst of canned laughter and the other real, spontaneous laughter.

The results showed that the addition of laughter made the jokes funnier, with the addition of spontaneous laughs earning higher funniness ratings.

An interesting part of the research was that they tested the jokes on two distinct participant groups: neurotypical and autistic.

The only difference between the groups was that those with autism gave all the 40 dad jokes an increased funniness rating, when laughter was added. 

This may be because neurotypical adults were more aware these “dad jokes” are considered childish and uncool, whereas autistic adults are more open to such jokes, the researchers say. 

“Our data suggest that laughter may also influence how funny the comedy is perceived to be, and that people with autism are equally sensitive to this effect,” Scott adds.

“This might suggest that comedy and laughter are more accessible to people with autism than typically considered to be.”

In future studies, the researchers hope to explore the way that laughter influences brain activity in response to jokes. “We want to do a brain-scanning study so we can see how the laughter influences joke perception in the brain, and whether this is the same for everyone,” Scott says.

There’s also a bit of background context that’s worth keeping in mind.

“Historically, TV and radio programs were always recorded in front of a live studio audience: this allowed those watching and listening to feel part of the performance,” Scott says.

“However, as the audience reaction was natural, certain ‘comedy’ programmes which weren’t overtly funny wouldn’t get a long laugh, so TV and radio producers increasingly added canned laughter to prompt an audience reaction.

“This research shows that while canned laughter does elevate the humour of a comedy, adding real laughter would get a better response. This has been adopted in shows like Friends, which are recorded in front of an audience, with the real laughter amplified during editing for particular jokes that had been well received.”

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