Ah, the laugh track. It’s been added to comedy programs and sitcoms on TV since the 1950s, both in the form of live studio audiences and recorded audio files added during the editing process.
For the industry, this was a carry-over practice from radio, helping to add context and entertainment value. But not all viewers were experiencing recorded laughter positively. In 1983, the television show Cheers added the announcement, “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience” presumably after viewers complained the laugh track was too loud – a complaint that persisted even after the disclaimer was added.
For researchers, the effect of laughter on the viewer’s experience was key. First, the idea was that laughter was contagious – at least, this is what one would expect when people are face to face. But time and time again, research had a hard time replicating this effect with laugh tracks.
It seemed, enhancing the viewers’ perception of how funny television content is using a laugh track depends on several factors, including whether or not it was live or recorded, and if it was a real reaction to that show. Researchers landed on the term ‘social proof’ to describe the degree of validity viewers perceive laugh tracks to have. The more “proof” the laughter has, the more likely viewer’s will change their rating of how funny the show is.
Laugh tracks do have an important function. They seem to enhance how funny viewers rate content that is already seen as minimally funny. And, they provide that informative context during scenes that may be confusing, sarcastic, or offensive, letting viewers know that humor is the intent. Even some news outlets found it worthy to report on the ‘creepiness’ of some popular sitcoms, minus that background noise, or call for it’s demise.
The take-away for the industry is two-fold: If the goal is to provide context, research confirms adding laugh tracks helps viewers understand when content is meant to be funny. If the goal is to spread laughter like a virus, the more realistic the laughter the better.
The claims made in this post are accumulated from the academic research articles cited below:
- Lieberman, E. A., Neuendorf, K. A., Denny, J., Skalski, P. D., & Wang, J. (2009). The Language of Laughter: A Quantitative/Qualitative Fusion Examining Television Narrative and Humor. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 53(4), 497-514.
- Lawson, T. J., Downing, B., & Cetola, H. (1998). An Attributional Explanation for the Effect of Audience Laughter on Perceived Funniness. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 20(4), 243-249.
- Olson, J. M., & Roese, N. J. (1995). The perceived funniness of humorous stimuli. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(9), 908-913.
- Vraga, E. K., Johnson, C. N., Carr, D. J., Bode, L., & Bard, M. T. (2014). Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience: Laughter and Aggression in Political Entertainment Programming. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 58(1), 131-150.
- We may hate laugh tracks, but they work — studies show. NBC News
- Who’s laughing now? TV laugh tracks and live audiences. Daily Review
- Laugh tracks are no replacement for the real thing. Variety