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IDEAS

The absence of live audiences is no laughing matter

Jokes are flatter in empty studios. Science helps explain why.

Jimmy Fallon sat in his "Late Night" studio in New York in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy prevented an audience from attending. Now the absence of an audience is an everyday challenge for comedy programs built around the infectious laughter of strangers.
Jimmy Fallon sat in his "Late Night" studio in New York in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy prevented an audience from attending. Now the absence of an audience is an everyday challenge for comedy programs built around the infectious laughter of strangers.Lloyd Bishop

“Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” the lighthearted news quiz show on National Public Radio, is usually recorded in packed theaters. But for the past four months, the live studio audience has consisted of host Peter Sagal’s dogs. There is applause, but it’s canned and deployed ironically, knowingly. The panelists and celebrity guests are brought together on Zoom, with predictable technical glitches that have “been a nightmare,” says executive producer Mike Danforth.

This is the awkward state of live and live-ish comedy these days: With comedians and audiences stuck in their respective homes, the former are never entirely sure whether their jokes have landed and the latter are not always laughing. As Michael Che quipped on an at-home edition of “Saturday Night Live” in April, “Telling jokes with nobody just looks like hostage footage.”

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Certainly, loads of comic media — TV shows, movies, all those memes that are getting us through our days — don’t rely on the interaction between the audience and the performers. But shows like “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” late-night talk shows, “Saturday Night Live,” and stand-up comedy are all performance models in which the audience is, for better or worse, an active participant.

“The audience, whether they know it or not, is playing a very crucial role,” Danforth says. The audience is part of the rhythm of the show, directing the trajectory — not just laughing at the funny parts, but groaning when jokes don’t land. “They scold us, they boo. We call those ‘boo laughs.’” Trying to mimic that energy without an audience is lopsided, lonely work; “Wait Wait” has been compensating by asking panelists to be the audience for their fellow comedians.

For the most part, it works, although it might feel a little awkward to the listener at first. That has a lot to do with how and why we humans laugh in the first place.

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Though the phenomenon of laughter is complex and not fully understood, at its roots it has a social function. “People laugh at things that are wrong yet okay, things that are threatening yet safe, what we call benign violations,” says Peter McGraw, a University of Colorado behavioral scientist who studies humor and whose latest book is called “Schtick to Business.” “The judgment that, ‘Hey, that’s funny,’ is a cognitive judgment, it’s an emotional judgment,” he says, and laughter communicates that. Part of the reason we laugh is to tell other people that potentially threatening, potentially scary things are okay, that the violation is benign. “The laughter indicates from the audience to the teller that, ‘I see what you did there, this is fun.’”

McGraw believes that laughter evolved out of play-fighting. When non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, are being chased or tickled, they emit “play panting” sounds that are a bit like laughter. This kind of non-verbal expression — also exhibited by rats in similar circumstances — tells the tickler or the chaser something akin to “this behavior is fine.”

“Laugher is a feedback mechanism. If I’m tickling you and you stop laughing, I wonder what’s wrong,” says McGraw. As human culture and language became more complex, the things that could be potentially scary and yet also safe multiplied.

Research consistently demonstrates that laughter is contagious, and that we are more likely to laugh when we are with other people — perhaps 30 times more likely — than when we’re alone. We laugh the most when we can both hear and see someone else, rather than, say, via text; we laugh a lot in conversation with others, at around five laughs every 10 minutes, underlining the role that laughter plays in social bonding and the reinforcement of social norms. What constitutes a “benign violation” is dependent on culture, context, and individual values, but because laughter has this contagious quality, says McGraw, “it can push people into the sweet spot on the Venn diagram: ‘If other people think this is okay, then it’s okay.’”

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It doesn’t always matter what we’re laughing at: A 2019 study found that people rated bad jokes funnier when they came with a laugh track. The producers of American comedy shows discovered that decades ago, after sound engineer Charles Douglass invented the “laff box” in the 1950s. Douglass’s DIY organ-meets-typewriter sound device reproduced 320 different kinds of laughs that producers deployed to “sweeten,” as they called it, sitcoms and radio broadcasts. The laugh track was a standard feature of TV comedies into the early 2000s, but it faded away after shows such as “Arrested Development” and “The Office” demonstrated that we could be trusted to still find things funny without the cues.

Still, something is missing when you can’t hear other people laughing on the kinds of shows that are premised on the existence of an audience. Filling the gap requires new forms of creativity, which has engendered a new kind of freedom.

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On NPR’s “Wait Wait” the producers have been writing more out-there bits for Bill Curtis, who serves as announcer, judge, and score-keeper on the quiz show. “Because there’s no audience, we have a lot more freedom to play around with stuff,” Danforth says. “He’s up for just about anything. A lot of them work and a lot of them don’t, but … if we had an audience in front of us, we probably wouldn’t do that.”

“The Infinite Monkey Cage,” a comic science panel show hosted by comedian Robin Ince and physicist Brian Cox on BBC Radio 4, is typically recorded in a theater with a live audience. But since late May, it has been recording in front of a virtual audience of around 200 people. Viewers are chosen through a lottery system and then connected via a bespoke Zoom platform. Their laughs can be heard by the panelists and listeners in their homes.

Ince was initially against the idea of a virtual audience — he worried it would feel stilted. But this season of the show, its 22nd, is probably his favorite.

“There’s something about the strange, different intimacy — you’re sitting at your desk watching someone else [who has] sat down at their desk, looking straight down the lens,” he says. For members of the virtual audience, they’re getting a tiny glimpse into the panelists’ lives, to see their homes (and, of course, the books on their shelves). “One of the things that you never get in the radio theater is an astronaut telling their dog to stop barking,” Ince says. Feedback from the virtual audience has been largely positive: “People weren’t just getting the fun and entertainment, they were getting this ‘Oh good, we have connected with someone.‘”

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Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent contributor to Ideas, is an American freelance writer living in London.