One of the unexpected victims of COVID-19 has been our laughter. So, aghast, comedians have made a deal with a familiar devil: the laugh track.
Late night hosts, like many of us, have been ordered to stay home. For the most part, they’ve managed; partners have become camerawomen and off-screen interlocutors; children are recruited as wobbly-handed graphic designers; pets crash opening monologues. So far though, no one has managed to account for the deafening silence that follows quips and wisecracks where a live studio audience’s laughter would have once been.
Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver is particularly off-balance without the cue of audience laughter. Oliver’s style doesn’t always make it obvious if you’re supposed to be laughing, and his witty observations have followed by an unhelpful silence of late. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live have also been at a loss at times without their live studio audiences. The habitual pauses the hosts take to allow for laughter no longer signal the cue for chortling, but rather give the impression that the host is bombing it, performing duds to a stone-faced crowd.
Under normal circumstances, everyone hates laugh tracks. “The laugh track is the single greatest affront to public intelligence I know of,” actor David Niven claimed in 1955. “Give us, the viewers, some respect,” slammed Sam Wollaston in The Guardian in 2016. There hasn’t been an Emmy comedy nominee with a laugh track since 2014. And yet, it may prove to be the solution to late night’s quarantine-induced awkward-silence problems.
Laugh tracks are manipulative. It is scientifically proven that hearing someone else laugh at a joke makes us more inclined to find that joke funny; in fact, watching a show like Friends or The Big Bang Theory devoid of the usual accompanying laugh track will make you realise how bland and creepy the humour employed really is. We naturally seek clues about how to respond to jokes from those around us. Laughter is a social form of communication—how intense is your laugh when around others compared to that of when you’re alone? If a heuristic isn’t enough to convince you, consider that researchers have found that “we are 30 times more likely to laugh if we are with someone else than if we are on our own.”
“The necessary stimulus for laughter is not a joke, but another person,” explained Association for Psychological Science Fellow Robert R. Provine, a “laughter expert,” in an article for Current Directions in Psychological. In such tense times, late-night hosts should return to tradition, utilising laugh tracks as a sort of lubricant for viewers to relax into the humour.
One day, when this is all over, the studios will reopen and hosts will go back to delivering jokes before live audiences who will laugh on their own accord, and it will be beautiful. Until then, we may have to make some uncomfortable decisions.