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Laugh Tracks Make Bad Jokes Funnier, According to Science

The bursts of audience laughter hated by TV critics do induce laughter, meaning the sit-com giggles are here to stay

When does a joke become a dad joke? When it becomes apparent. ( Westend61 / Getty Images)
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Over the last decade, television has entered what some critics call a “new golden age” marked by better writing, more complex storylines and characters, higher-caliber actors and big-screen quality special effects. But one relic from less-sophisticated times remains: Many sitcoms still employ a laugh track, a burst of pre-recorded giggling or laughter from a live studio audience that tells viewers when something is supposed to be funny.

Critics have argued that in the era of prestige television, the laugh track needs to die. But a new study suggests the canned laughs will be probably with us for a while longer since, it turns out, the technique makes people perceive bad jokes to be funnier.

To investigate the power of audience laughter, researchers subjected 72 adults to 40 really bad, so-called “dad jokes.” The jokes were either presented with no laughter, followed by a short burst of distinctly fake or forced laughter or by short, spontaneous real laughs. Participants were instructed to rate the jokes on a scale of 1 to 7.

The jokes chosen were admittedly pretty lame, says study leader Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London.

“They are terrible jokes. They are really bad jokes,” Scott tells Nell Greenfieldboyce at NPR. “We wanted it to be possible for them to be made funnier because if we went into this kind of study with absolutely fantastic jokes, there’s the danger that they couldn't be improved upon.”

Each joke was given a baseline rating by 20 students who listened to them without added laughter. The scores for all 40 jokes ranged from a dismal 1.5 to 3.75 and a small sampling of the jokes reveals why:

  • What state has the smallest drinks? Mini-soda!
  • What does a dinosaur use to pay the bills? Tyrannosaurus cheques!
  • What's orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot!
  • What do you call a man with a spade on his head? Dug!

When the laughter was introduced, however, those ratings bumped up a bit. Jokes followed by forced or canned laughter averaged a 10 percent score boost and those with a burst of more spontaneous sounding laughter saw a 15 to 20 percent spike. The research appears in the journal Current Biology.

So why does hearing other people laugh make us chuckle along too? “The laughter is influencing how funny the jokes seem and I think that’s because laughter is a very important signal for humans. It always means something,” Scott tells Ian Sample at The Guardian. “You’re getting information not only that it’s funny but that it’s OK to laugh.”

Previous research has suggested that laughter is processed differently in individuals with autism. To the researchers’ surprise, however, the results were the same for 24 autistic adults included in the study. Autistic participants reacted to the jokes in the same way as neurotypical individuals, boosting their joke scores when laugh tracks were added.

Robert Provine, a researcher who studies laugher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tells Greenfieldboyce that the finding echoes what he’s learned about laughter. Laughter is a deep, ancient signal of playfulness and it’s more or less contagious.

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

That’s something Scott has found as well. In a previous study, she found that the premotor cortical region of the brain preps the muscles in the face to begin laughing when we hear other people laughing. In other words, the jokes barely matter—we laugh because other people laugh.

“This research shows that while canned laughter does elevate the humor of a comedy, adding real laughter would get a better response,” she says. “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.”

And as others have found, watching some shows without canned laughter is actually pretty awkward.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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