Published on January 16th, 2013 | by Brian Gendron
How to increase the amount of laughter in your life. Or, if chimpanzees created a sitcom, they would probably use a laugh track.
Humans are more likely to laugh in the presence of laughing others. You don’t need to be a scientist to know this… although, scientists have, indeed, provided evidence. The effect is so strong that the entertainment industry employs it regularly, and has for quite some time. Enter: the laugh track.
A laugh track is pre-recorded audience laughter, edited into a show during post-production. As if you didn’t know. A TON of shows use it! Without a doubt, this invention, which essentially treats the audience as ignoramuses incapable of deciding when is the appropriate time to laugh, changed radio and television forever. In fact, the counterfeit is ubiquitous; even shows that claim to be filmed in front of a live studio audience often employ the use of sweeteners, false additions or subtractions to a real audience’s natural reaction [How dare you laugh too much!].
Question: Would everyone still love Raymond if the show did not have a laugh track? Decide for yourself; YouTube is stock-full of clips where laugh tracks are replaced by silence. By way of illustration:
In a way, this reveals how unnatural and awkward the character interactions really are, all in the sake of laughter. There are also clips that demonstrate the opposite effect—by cleverly editing The Dark Knight, somehow a movie about a guy who dresses in a costume to fight bad guys who wear makeup becomes funny:
These are informal examples, but they demonstrate the power of human laughter. Generally speaking, laughter is a method for enhancing communication, and can be translated in any number of ways.
Have you ever noticed yourself laughing at something that’s not even supposed to be funny? That happens because laughter is a complex behavior associated with more than just the expression of joy. You might, for instance, laugh at your boss’s jokes when (and we’ve all been there) they simply aren’t good. But stroking the boss’s ego from time to time might be important, especially if a promotion is on the horizon.
Given this basic understanding of social interaction, scientists have identified two very different types of laughter: Duchenne laughter (the kind where your expression matches your underlying emotions, like happiness) and non-Duchenne laughter (expressed without the same underlying emotions). Laughter can also be a mix of the two, and this probably contributes to the popularity of sitcom laugh tracks.
Broadly speaking, humans have an innate desire to belong—to be one of the gang. So, if you would normally find something mildly humorous, you might react with a slight Duchenne chuckle—one that matches your mild feeling of joy. But if you hear an entire crowd of people cracking up, your non-Duchenne laughter may kick into gear. Now, you are not only expressing some joy as a reaction to some humor, you are also joining in a shared experience, one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The effect is the same whether the crowd is real or just a sound effect, and is probably present at birth.
Plainly stated, laughing is odd. For quite some time, researchers believed humans and a few other higher primates were the only animals who cackled. Today, we know that’s not true. For example, when tickled, rats emit high-pitched sound that scientists interpret as full-on laughter. The sound is mostly inaudible to humans, so researchers developed technology to convert the noise to a lower register. If you want to see proof for yourself, just check out this clip:
However, rats are probably expressing Duchenne laughter since they have unequivocally been shown to enjoy being tickled. The problem, until recently, was scientists were unsure if other animals produce more complex types of laughter. For example, do animals use laughter in order to curry favor from others, like you do with your boss?
According to chimpanzee research: Yes.
Recent studies demonstrate that chimps use laughter for a number of reasons during social interactions. For instance, according to an article published in the scientific journal Emotion, chimps play longer with their chimp buddies who laugh at their jokes. Well, we don’t know if jokes are being told. But on average, when Charlie the Chimp laughs, and Chester the Chimp responds with laughter, Charlie decides to play with Chester for a longer period of time. In this example, Charlie could be your chimpanzee boss telling you chimpanzee jokes, and you are Chester, trying to kiss chimp ass.
Charlie: What do chimps read?
Chester: I don’t know. What?
Charlie: The ‘apers!
Chester: HEHEHE HEHE HEHEHE HEHE HEHEHE HEHE
Charlie: I like you, Chester.
Even non-human primates understand the complexity of social-snickering; and that is why chimpanzees would probably use a laugh track if they ever created a sitcom. Which I would watch.