Right now, I’m imagining your laughter.
Stephen Colbert had meant that as a joke when he addressed the comment to the camera in a mostly-empty studio, during the brief period when late night TV taped in their normal venues but without live audiences, before the quarantine ax fell completely. The comment, delivered as a sort of punchline after a skit about the closure of Broadway, earned chuckles from those within earshot: Late Show technicians, the house band, maybe even a few writers who’d strayed into the theater. But watching it again today, Colbert’s delivery feels a little sharper, a little less funny, a little more desperate. Without the scattered laughter, I might not have realized it was a joke at all.
Since late night hosts, like the rest of Americans, have been ordered to stay home, they’ve been finding new, inventive ways to broadcast their programs from makeshift studios in their houses. Partners have become camerawomen and off-screen interlocutors; children are recruited as wobbly-handed graphic designers; pets crash opening monologues. But no one has yet managed to account for the weird new silence on late night TV, the pauses that only serve to emphasize the absence of a live studio audience. It is a void in the place of what is really needed: A laugh track.
Admittedly, under normal circumstances, people hate laugh tracks. The use of pre-recorded, studio, or “sweetened” audience laughter dates back to the early days of sitcoms, when producers feared that at-home viewers wouldn’t know how to take a joke. The laugh track, then, became a kind of indication that it was okay to snicker, or that a gag was a gag. While it seems obvious now, prior to the invention of TV, virtually all entertainment had been enjoyed in the company of others, and consequently within earshot of other people’s reactions — watching a joke without hearing others laugh didn’t often happen, unless the comedian was bombing. Still, even some at the time loathed the device: “The laugh track is the single greatest affront to public intelligence I know of,” actor David Niven claimed in 1955.
Of course, inserting a laugh track wouldn’t fool anyone — no one is going to believe there’s an audience of 100 people sitting just out of frame in Samantha Bee’s living room. But so long as late night hosts are going to continue with their opening monologues, then there needs to be some sort of cue to viewers to relax into the humor. “The necessary stimulus for laughter is not a joke, but another person,” explained Association for Psychological Science Fellow Robert R. Provine, a “laughter expert,” in an article for Current Directions in Psychological. In fact, especially in these times when audiences are tense enough to begin with, hearing others laugh makes us feel relaxed and pleasantly disarmed.
A laugh track is manipulative, sure. It has been scientifically proven that hearing someone else laugh makes bad jokes seem funnier to us — in fact, watching shows like Friends and The Big Bang Theory without the usual accompanying laughter makes you realize how insanely and uncomfortably creepy the humor is when everything is stripped away. But we naturally seek clues about how to respond to jokes from those around us. Laughter is a social form of communication; researchers have found that “we are 30 times more likely to laugh if we are with someone else than if we are on our own.”
Read the whole story: The Week