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Science & Environment

A Study Confirms That Laugh Tracks Make Jokes Seem Funnier

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Laugh tracks - maybe you love them, maybe you hate them. You know, this is the canned, recorded laughter that you hear on some sitcoms. Well, a new study confirms that adding extra laughs works. It can actually make jokes seem funnier. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce investigates.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: OK, here's a joke. What's the best day to cook? Friday. Get it? Fry-day (ph). This is one of 40 jokes used in a recent scientific study.

SOPHIE SCOTT: They are terrible jokes. They are really bad jokes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sophie Scott is a researcher at University College London. Over Skype, she told me the jokes had to be bad.

SCOTT: 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She and her colleagues wanted to see if the jokes could be improved by adding laughter. The researchers had a bunch of people listen to the jokes and rate how funny they were. Then they had other people listen to the same jokes. Only now, the jokes were followed by laughter like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Who is best kung-fu vegetable? Broccoli.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The results in the journal Current Biology show that jokes consistently got higher ratings when they were paired with laughter.

SCOTT: Having any laughter there at all makes the jokes seem funnier. And people are sensitive to the laughs themselves. So the more intense the laughs, the funnier it seems to make the joke.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They know this because they tested the effect of both forced laughter...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...And spontaneous giggles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Interestingly, all of this held true for study participants who had autism, even though people with autism can have difficulty with social cues and connections. That's the part of the study that intrigued Robert Provine. He's a researcher with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who studied laughter.

ROBERT PROVINE: The novelty of it is not just that we rate material as funnier and are more likely to laugh in response to it if we hear other people laughing, but this is also true of autistic individuals.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Provine says laughter is an ancient signal of playfulness that's contagious.

PROVINE: In fact, you can throw away the joke.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says all you need to produce laughter is laughter. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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