College Essay throwback Thursday: The price of humor

How do you know when a joke is funny? The measure we use to gauge if something is humorous is laughter. Laughter is the basis of all humor, without a spontaneous outburst of laughter a person does not know if their humor was appreciated. It is one of the most basic humor emotions and without it humor would be meaningless. If laughter is a spontaneous, emotional response, can human beings be programmed to laugh on cue?

When a person hears a joke they know to wait for the punch line before delivering their laughs.

Humor is a form of commerce and the laughter is the currency. With all commerce there are indicators of success, in the case of humor success is when the mode of humor being delivered invokes an emotional response from the person receiving said humor.

Can a comedian charge for their services by enticing their audience to laugh? Let’s take a look at the practice of canned laughter in the use of TV Sitcoms. Many television programs are filmed before a live studio audience. The audience laughter is presented alongside the performances of the comedians being filmed and the home viewing audience is subjected to both the performance and the pre-recorded laughter. In a way this can be seen as telling the viewer when to laugh as a way to ensure the comedian receives their expected payment, in this case the viewer’s laughs. As long as audiences reward the comedian they will continue to oblige.

Although there may be some monetary exchange in the case of tickets sold to see a standup comedian, it is different with television comedies. The source of income for a television performer is through the sale of advertising space to be aired during the programs run. In the case of sitcoms there is a high cost of production therefore there is a high risk involved. Advertisers expect a return on their investment as such they often employ tactics to increase audience participation, one method of doing so is canned laughter.

Canned laughter is when the production company will add laughter to the recording after the fact. It is different than recording in front of a live studio audience and recording the natural responses, instead pre-selected audience responses can be inserted into the recording at any time. The logic is that if the viewer hears an audience response then they will feel a sense of participation in the program and should be more likely to find the comedy humorous and enjoyable.

Upon further examination additional questions arise which need to be answered. One such question harkens back to laughter as a currency. In order for the comedian to reach their audience, their program has to broadcast. If nobody is watching the show then the comedian fails to reach their audience and their reward is withheld from them.

Generally speaking people tend to be social creatures. As such it is important for individuals to adapt to their surroundings. When a person behaves as expected in a given situation this is considered a social norm. There is a social norm that explains why when one person hears another laughing they will tend to chime in, out of fear of being outside the expected behavior.

Sticking with the analogy of laughter as currency, then humor is the product being exchanged. As a product it is the responsibility of the person delivering the source of the humor to ensure that they do so as intended. This requires getting the punch line just right, pacing the slap in the face for the right moment, or knowing when to hold back a joke to maximize audience participation. As such, using any means to artificially inflate the laughs could be seen as undermining the works for the comedian. This causes the entertainer to have to work harder for their laughs because not only are they vying for the audience responses; they have to reach a level adequate to discourage the insertion of canned laughter.

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Stephanie Bri

A transgender writer who also does podcasts and videos.