When Ross makes a paleontology joke on Friends, some viewers might find it funnier when the quip—whether good or bad—is accompanied by audible laughter. Sitcoms traditionally achieve this either by recording a live audience or utilizing a pre-recorded laugh track. And they're definitely on to something.
In a new study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers at University College London corralled 72 adults, including 24 with autism, and played them dozens of so-called "dad jokes" (a.k.a. bad jokes) that were prerecorded by a comedian. Each joke was presented with either no laughter; fake or forced laughter; or spontaneous, real laughter. The participants were then asked to rate the jokes on a scale of one to seven, with seven being the funniest. Here’s a sampling of some of those knee-slappers:
“What’s the best day to cook? Friday. Get it? Fry-day.” “What state has the smallest drinks? Mini-soda!” “Who is the best kung-fu vegetable? Brocco-Lee!”
“We wanted it to be possible for [the jokes] 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,” Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience who led the research team, told NPR. Participants rated the no-laughter jokes on the low end, from 1.5 to 3.75. However, when scientists introduced the two types of laughter, the participants rated the jokes higher, with spontaneous laughter accruing a higher percentage than the canned laughter.
The study notes that “we are overwhelmingly more likely to laugh when we are with other people,” whether or not a joke is truly funny. In 2000, a neuroscientist writing in Psychology Today came to a similar conclusion: "that laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together. It is a hidden language that we all speak."
"The laughter is influencing how funny the jokes seem and I think that’s because laughter is a very important signal for humans," Scott told The Guardian of her study's conclusions. "It always means something. You’re getting information not only that it’s funny but that it’s OK to laugh."