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No Laughing Matter

By Bob Priest-Heck

Have you watched any of the live DIY versions of late-night TV programs in the social-distancing era? The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Late Show with James Corden, and Saturday Night Live are all offering cobbled-together programs recorded in the hosts’ place of quarantine and assembled with bits from other quarantined performers.

I love that they are putting it out there — they’ve done some nice work and I appreciate the sense of solidarity. But something has been bugging me and I figured out what it is. I really miss the sound of laughter from the live studio audience.

Likewise, when a guest musician puts it all on the line with some heartrending song and there’s no audience feedback, the silence is such a letdown. Even though I’ve never seen these shows in person, I miss that sense of sharing the experience with others. This confirms my belief that human beings are hardwired to enjoy live events socially. Further, when we’re a bit out of our depth, we often rely on fellow audience members, the mavens among us, to inform our own reaction.

Historically, theatres and opera houses would hire professional claqueurs to lead the applause at appropriate moments in a performance. This was especially true when a new piece was being performed and the audience literally didn’t know what to think. When they heard the enthusiastic applause of fellow audience members, they naturally joined in and everyone had a better time.

Many early radio shows and TV sitcoms were performed in front of a live audience so that the writers and producers could see what worked. They then amplified those laugh points with “canned laughter” and, over time, the concept of sweetening the track with a professionally recorded laugh track became common practice. The shows just seemed empty without it.

For similar reasons, even when we can’t make it to a college football game or a favorite pro-sport event, many of us will find our way to a sympathetic bar and watch it on TV with other fans. We feel the need to share the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

It’s all about the shared experience.

This should inform our approach to the design of virtual events. Without the sense that we are part of something bigger, there’s a risk that jokes will fall flat, poignant moments will feel lame, and the call to action will ring hollow. If we create virtual events building on a live platform, as part of an expansive experience, it’s relatively easy to capture and share real-time feedback — that’s vital.

And we can use technology to enhance the interactive aspects of the event, for live and virtual audiences, by digitally inviting real-time comments and questions, enabling audience chat platforms, and inventing competitions in which virtual audience members can earn points by participating and becoming de facto influencers. They can become your virtual claqueurs.

Until we can safely experience live events together, this kind of real-time interaction is imperative. And after it’s safe to get together… it’s still imperative.

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