The Morality of Canned Laughter

Michael Stuart Kelly

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The Morality of Canned Laughter

When is A not A?

The answer is when a person is morally perfect and morally imperfect at the same time. This only happens in Objectivism. It is a continuation of Rand's observations about God. She stated that God represented an unattainable moral ideal and she found this idea insulting to man. Everything was possible to man. Thus moral perfection was born.

Enter canned laughter.

I have been studying Robert Cialdini's Influence: Science and Practice (4th ed.), and I came across a very interesting discussion about canned laughter that has some bearing on moral perfection. Here is a quote from his chapter on the principle of social proof (Chapter 4):

I don't know anyone who likes canned laughter. In fact, when I surveyed the people who came into my office one day—several students, two telephone repairmen, a number of university professors, and the janitor—the reaction was invariably critical. Television, with its incessant system of laugh tracks and technically augmented mirth, received the most heat. The people I questioned hated canned laughter. They called it stupid, phony, and obvious. Although my sample was small, I would bet that it closely reflects the negative feelings of most of the American public toward laugh tracks.

Why, then, is canned laughter so popular with television executives? They have won their exalted positions and splendid salaries by knowing how to give the public what it wants. Yet they religiously employ the laugh tracks that their audiences find distasteful, and they do so over the objections of many of their most talented artists. It is not uncommon for acclaimed directors, writers, or actors to demand the elimination of canned responses from the television projects they undertake. These demands are only sometimes successful, and when they are, it is not without a battle, as has been the case with ABC's critically acclaimed situation-comedy Sports Night. Although the show's producers pressed from the start for laugh-track-free airings, network officials have relented in only one instance—when an episode explored the sensitive issue of sexual assault (Collins, 1998).

What can it be about canned laughter that is so attractive to television executives? Why are these shrewd and tested people championing a practice that their potential watchers find disagreeable and their most creative talents find personally insulting? The answer is both simple and intriguing: They know what the research says. Experiments have found that the use of canned merriment causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented and to rate the material as funnier (Fuller & Sheehy-Skeffington, 1974; Smyth & Fuller, 1972). In addition, some evidence indicates that canned laughter is most effective for poor jokes (Nosanchuk & Lightstone, 1974).

In light of these data, the actions of television executives make perfect sense. The introduction of laugh tracks into their comic programming increases the humorous and appreciative responses of an audience, even—and especially—when the material is of poor quality. Is it any surprise, then, that television, glutted as it is with artless situation-comedies, is saturated with canned laughter? Those executives know precisely what they are doing.

With the mystery of the widespread use of laugh tracks solved, we are left with a more perplexing question: Why does canned laughter work on us the way it does? It is no longer the television executives who appear peculiar; they are acting logically and in their own interests. Instead, it is the behavior of the audience that seems strange. Why should we laugh more at comedy material afloat in a sea of mechanically fabricated merriment? And why should we think that comic flotsam funnier? The executives aren't really fooling us. Anyone can recognize dubbed laughter. It is so blatant, so clearly counterfeit, that there can be no confusing it with the real thing. We know full well that the hilarity we hear is irrelevant to the humorous quality of the joke it follows, is created not spontaneously by a genuine audience but artificially by a technician at a control board. Yet, transparent forgery that it is, it works on us!


To discover why canned laughter is so effective, we first need to understand the nature of yet another potent weapon of influence: the principle of social proof. This principle states that we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a certain stretch of highway, or how to eat the chicken at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important guides in defining the answer.

The tendency to see an action as appropriate when others are doing it works quite well normally. As a rule, we will make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than by acting contrary to it. Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do. This feature of the principle of social proof is simultaneously its major strength and its major weakness. Like the other weapons of influence, it provides a convenient shortcut for determining the way to behave but, at the same time, makes one who uses the shortcut vulnerable to the attacks of profiteers who lie in wait along its path.

In the case of canned laughter, the problem comes when we begin responding to social proof in such a mindless and reflexive fashion that we can be fooled by partial or fake evidence. Our folly is not that we use others' laughter to help decide what is humorous; that is in keeping with the well-founded principle of social proof. The folly is that we do so in response to patently fraudulent laughter.

I recently skimmed through one of those long discussions on moral perfection on another forum devoted to Rand's works. As usual, this is a traditional Objectivist hot topic. People make post after heated post and nobody ever convinces anybody of anything.

Part of the reason for this is a somewhat inconvenient fact. I never see it discussed, yet I believe the members of the many different discussions know it, at least on some level. Perfection is a comparative term, a measurement. Perfection only exists in relation to a standard. In other words, if there were no flaws, there could be no perfection since that aspect of an existent was not being compared or measured.

Objectivists hate to be called social metaphysicians, but there is no escaping the fact that if there are no morally imperfect people in the world, an Objectivist cannot be a morally perfect one. This means an Objectivist can only be a good guy if there are bad guys he can condemn. An Objectivist cannot be morally perfect only in relation to himself, since he would have to be morally imperfect at the same time to create the standard for comparison. In that case, A is no longer A. Twist the words any way you want, they keep coming back to this point. That makes morality way too social. It also condemns a part of humanity as inferior moral creatures on a metaphysical level, not a volitional one, so the superior morally perfect people can exist.

Obviously, I think this is hogwash and Objectivism can easily move beyond it, but the logic—using traditional Objectivist meanings—goes there and no place else. The only exceptions are the infamous rationalizations of hairsplitting over inessential terms and/or grossly oversimplifying essential ones in order to beg the question.

With the case of canned laughter, this situation gets even worse. On a strictly volitional level, a person decides canned laughter is a manipulative fraud, yet the person knowing this, even if he is determined to not succumb, will still make a moral evaluation of merriment and laugh right along with the emotional swindle in a moment of inattention.

If being morally imperfect is doing something you know to be wrong, allowing—by conscious choice—a fraud to influence your own positive judgment is about as wrong as it gets. Yet we all do it over and over with canned laughter.

I happen to think that there is an instinctual "monkey-see monkey-do" response going on, but there is still a volitional element with laughter. Anyway, human instincts are denied in Objectivism.

So is contagious laughter man's Original Sin according to this logic? Contagious laughter can happen by fraud and it works even when we know it is a fraud. Is this the demon who keeps man from attaining moral perfection? If not, how then can one lead a moral life in the face of canned laughter?

I know what I do.

I laugh.


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