Knock, Knock? Canned laughter helps bad jokes

Some jokes are terrible but is there a way to make them seem funnier? Neuroscientists at UCL have the answer
30 July 2019

Interview with 

Sophie Scott, University College London


Green comedy chattering teeth


What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot! Some jokes are truly terrible. But is there a way to make them seem funnier? Neuroscientists at UCL tried to see if terrible “dad” jokes could be made funnier by adding laughter to them. They played jokes with and without laughter to groups of autistic and neurotypical adults to see how they responded. A key difference between the two groups is in how they mentalise - that is “think about other people thinking”, says Sophie Scott, author of this might you expect a difference in how people respond to laughter, as well? Ankita Anirban spoke to Sophie to find out more.

Sophie - What we did was we took a bunch of jokes and we deliberately set out to find, like, a really bad group of jokes because we wanted it to be possible for them to be funnier, and then we add laughter onto the jokes. And what we did is we used laughter that was either being produced by someone who's absolutely helplessly laughing or we have those same people laughing but we've told them to laugh so there laughing to demand, and that laughter is less intense. And then we gave them back to people and we asked people to rate the jokes again and now all they are doing is listening to the joke but now there's also laughter. And what we find is adding in any laugh makes the jokes seem funnier and then the more intense the laughter the funnier it makes the joke. So what we’re actually seeing is people are processing the laughter implicitly and it's influencing what they actually think of the joke.

Ankita - So is this why TV and radio use these laughter tracks in comedies to make people laugh more?

Sophie - The original introduction of laughter tracks, which was for comedy on the radio, that was done because people at home didn't necessarily realise they were listening to something that's supposed to be funny. So they started using a live audience frequently. And, of course, laughter normally happens in a group with other people so it's a strong cue to people that this is comedy. What these data suggest is that this is not only telling you it's okay to laugh, it's also giving you a sense that the whole thing is just funnier.

Ankita - So who did you ask these jokes to?

Sophie - We asked them to two groups of people, so we either had neurotypical participants and we also had a group of adults with autism, and what we found, actually, was that the results were pretty much the same for both groups. So both the neuro typical and the autistic adults have the same influence of laughter, so the more intense the laughter is the funnier it is making the joke. The only difference that we found is that the autistic adults rated all the jokes as funnier so they are possibly being a bit more generous to the jokes than our neuro typical population were.

The only thing that is worth bearing in mind, and Sarah White a collaborator on this paper, she's pointed out that first of all our autistic adults are - they're high functioning -  so we might be seeing an element of compensation here. And she's also found when you look at autistic adults performing mentalising tasks, which is classically something that children with autism can really struggle with, what she finds is that frequently they pass those tests, they perform "normally" on those tests. But what she's found is if you scan those autistic adults they are producing the same behaviour but using different brain regions than the neuro typical population, so we might still be looking at compensation that’s resting on different neurobiology.

So that's the next step for us; we're going to take this in the scanner and see if we can unpick whether or not the behaviour and the neurobiology of laughter is the same in the two groups, or if the behaviour is the same but the neurobiological basis still might be different.

Ankita - So do we know much about the neurobiological basis of laughter at the moment?

Sophie -  What we have found is that you certainly get a lot of facial mirror activation when you're listening to laughter which you might expect from a behavioural contagion. It's not confined to laughter, you also get it for positive emotions like cheering but those are also still social emotions. You also get lots of activation associated with people trying to work out what the laughter means. You also get lots of auditory activation, particularly for spontaneous laughter, probably because you hear sounds you don't hear in any other context. So, actually, we can get a lot of different neural systems activated by laughter and it will be interesting to see which, of any, or all of these are involved when the laughter's influencing how funny a joke sounds.

Ankita - What's the worst joke that you heard during the study?

Sophie - I think the worst is “what day is the best day for cooking? Fryday!!”

Ankita - Well maybe if you add some canned laughter to that it will make your audience laugh.

Sophie - Well, empirically, I hate to suggest, might be correct. It needs it, certainly.


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