Mind & Body

Canned Laughter Makes Dad Jokes Funnier

We're living in a new golden age of television. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are locked in an arms race, pouring billions of dollars into original content. Traditional networks have been forced to step up their offerings and are scrambling to create their own streaming services to compete.

And yet, some of the most-watched shows on said streaming services are old standbys that have been off the air for ages, like "Friends" or "That 70s Show." One recognizable trait that distinguishes these sitcoms? The laugh track, which elevates Phoebe's goofy antics and softens Red Forman's fatherly threats. While you might think that the laugh track is cheesy or outdated, researchers from University College London recently published a paper in Current Biology showing that added laughter actually enhances the humor of even the worst jokes. That's right: dad jokes.

Hi, Hungry; I'm Dad

Long before "dad joke" was a phrase, laugh tracks were first used in radio to establish that a show was recorded in front of a live studio audience and to make the person listening or watching at home feel like part of that audience. Of course, in a real live performance, jokes are never repeated and sound is never edited. The same isn't true of a live taping, so a laugh track helped to make second takes sound funnier and fill any gaps in editing. It made its first TV appearance in 1950, and it spread like wildfire, giving television producers more flexibility to shoot in places where it would be impossible to have a studio audience.

These radio and television producers knew it, and a 1992 study confirmed it: Laughter is contagious. These scientists wanted to take things a step further and see whether canned laughter affected the funniness of the joke itself.

First, the team assembled a list of 40 so-called "dad jokes," the kind of humor you'd expect to find on a popsicle stick or to tickle a 6-year-old. Here's a sampling of some jokes from the study:

  • Why couldn't the toilet paper cross the road? Because it got stuck in a crack.
  • Why can't you give Elsa a balloon? Because she will "Let it Go."
  • Why was the tomato all red? Because it saw the salad dressing.
  • What do you call an apple that farts? A fruity tooty.

The team established a baseline ranking of how funny each joke was on a scale of one to seven, with the highest baseline ranking being somewhere between three and four. Sophie Scott, one of the paper's authors, explained to NPR that the jokes were intentionally bad.

"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," she said.

Next, a professional comedian delivered the jokes to a new group of volunteers. Half the jokes were paired with laughter that was clearly forced and the other half were paired with laughter that was more spontaneous and genuine. The researchers created two random sets of jokes so that each joke was heard with each type of laughter, but each participant only heard and rated each joke once.

Regardless of the type of laughter, adding laughs significantly enhanced how funny the raters found the jokes. But the team also found that the type and intensity of laughter could pump up the funny even further: The jokes with the highest ratings were those paired with the laughter that seemed most authentic.

It's How We're Wired

Interestingly, 24 of the 72 participants that the team tried their dad jokes on were on the autism spectrum. That means they may have trouble processing complex social cues, including recognizing others' emotions from body language and tone of voice, and sometimes even recognizing and expressing their own emotions.

Previous studies established that autistic people preferred slapstick humor, in which the comedy was very literal and therefore easier for them to grasp. Another previous study seemed to imply that autistic people process laughter differently: Neurotypical children enjoyed cartoons more when they were paired with a laugh track or when they watched the show with another person, while those things didn't have much of an effect for autistic kids.

However, in this instance, the results were the same across the board regardless of whether participants were neurotypical or autistic, which suggests that both groups were processing the presence and type of laughter the same way. The only difference was that the autistic participants tended to rate all the jokes as funnier overall.

"... this may be because the neurotypical adults were more aware that these 'dad jokes' are considered childish and uncool, while the autistic adults were more open to such jokes," the authors wrote.

So even though it might feel corny, the laugh track probably won't be going anywhere. Besides, as some Redditors point out, removing the laugh track from classic sitcoms can make them feel downright creepy.

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If you're a dad or just a dad at heart, you'll definitely want to brush up on your paternal puns with "101 So Bad, They're Good Dad Jokes" by Elias Hill and illustrated by Katherine Hogan. There is also an audiobook, which is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Steffie Drucker August 19, 2019

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