Canned laughter makes ‘dad jokes’ funnier, scientists find

The more spontaneous the laughter, the funnier the punchline seems 

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Monday 22 July 2019 16:15
Nineties smash hit ‘Friends’ was recorded in front of an audience, with real laughter amplified during editing
Nineties smash hit ‘Friends’ was recorded in front of an audience, with real laughter amplified during editing

Adding canned laughter to the punchline of “dad jokes” makes them seem funnier, according to a new study.

Canned laughter is often used in sitcoms to signpost witticisms and make people feel they are part of an audience.

New research suggests using this device, first introduced in the Sixties and Seventies, makes scriptwriters’ efforts more likely to elicit a chuckle from those watching in real life.

Not only does hearing laughter make the joke appear funnier, but the more spontaneous it is the more amusing the punchline becomes, according to new research by University College London (UCL).

This suggests there is inherent joy in hearing a natural laugh.

Lead researcher Sophie Scott from UCL said: “What this study shows is that adding laughter to a joke increases the humour value, no matter how funny or unfunny the joke is.

“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.”

Researchers asked people to rate how funny they found 40 jokes which were accompanied by no laughter, short canned (recorded) laughter and short spontaneous (or real-life) laughter. The jokes – which were read out by a professional comedian – were intentionally cringeworthy.

They included the following rib-ticklers:

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?

Scientists established baseline ratings of how funny the jokes were perceived to be using a scale from one (not funny) to seven (hilarious), according to the paper published in Current Biology.

They then presented the jokes to 48 people who were considered neurotypical and 24 individuals who had autism. Both groups gave higher funniness ratings for jokes paired with canned laughter than with no laughter at all. Jokes accompanied by spontaneous laughter rated highest of all.

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

“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.”

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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. The difference could be down to the fact that neurotypical adults think “dad jokes” are uncool or childish and as a result may choose not to laugh.

Scientists say this suggests that comedy and laughter are more accessible to people with autism than first thought.

In children, previous research has shown that enjoyment of a cartoon is typically enhanced by laughter tracks, although autistic children do not respond in the same way.

Researchers now want to find out the ways in which laughter influences brain activity in response to jokes.

Professor Scott said: “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.”

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