Humor Is Contagious

If you’re going to a theater to see a funny movie…would you rather have the theater to yourself…or would you prefer to watch it with lots of other people?

Most people would rather share the movie with a good-sized audience.  Why?  Because laughter is contagious.  And if the movie is really funny, the enjoyment and laughter will be magnified by the crowd’s response to the film. 

When a room full of people are laughing, most people join in.  Laughter is contagious.

The key factor in the contagious nature of laughter is HEARING other people laugh.  But SEEING other people laugh is also important.

Because laughter is contagious, many television comedy shows have employed laughter-enhancement strategies.  Some have performed their shows live.  The best thing to energize the response to comedy is a live audience.  Another strategy has been to sweeten the laughter with a laugh track…canned laughter edited into the sound track. 

Although when producing a comedy TV show, a laugh track is not always chosen.  Adding canned laughter is a difficult art.  When done less than perfectly, the artificial nature of canned laughter can be irritating and work against the contagious element of laughter. 

Some of the current shows are played with no laugh track.  They rely on the strength of the writing and respect that the home audience will find it funny and do their own laughing.  Hopefully you’re watching it at home with friends.

Of course, the laughter response to a speech is not influenced by just a single factor.  There is the quality of the writing.  There is the reputation of the speaker.  There is the relationship between a speaker and the audience.  There is quality of the room, the sound, the lighting, the arrangement of the seating.  The size of the audience is a big factor.

Let’s look at some of these elements that may be factors in contagious laughter.

The contagious nature of laughter is a factor every time you use humor from the platform.  That’s why, when presenting humor, you’ll find that a large audience almost always beats a small audience if you care about the laughter.  An audience of 50 is better than an audience of 10.  In my opinion the best sized audience is between 50 and 400 with the ideal size being 200.  In my opinion, when you have more than 400 people you start to lose the conversational connection with your audience, and although you may get more contagious laughter, what is lost in connection isn’t worth the extra laughter you gain.

A club-level speech contest is often one of the most difficult contests.   The higher level contests have bigger audiences and hence more  contagious laughter.

When speaking at a conference, you might notice that the audience response is better with round tables than with straight theater seating.   Round tables make it easier for audience members to see each other.   Contagious laughter is enhanced.  If you have theater-style seating, try to arrange a chevron pattern where the left and right rows of chairs are slightly slanted toward the center of the speaking platform. It helps the audience member see others who are laughing.

An indoor speaking room almost always trumps an outdoor venue.   Likewise a room with a low ceiling traps the laughter better than a high ceiling, and thus magnifies the laughter.

Tall table center pieces can be a culprit in sabotaging laughter.  Primarily they keep people from seeing the speaker.  And secondly, they keep people in the audience from seeing each other.  If you don’t see others laughing, you’re not as likely to laugh yourself.

In my opinion, a common comedy myth is that humor plays best in a dark room.  I definitely feel that you’ll get more laughs if the room is lit.  People need to see each other to maximize the laughter.  We’re not talking about blinding light, but rather some light on the audience is better than no light.  We are conditioned to hearing comedy in a dark room.  In a comedy club, lights out and a spotlight on the stage says “Showtime!”  And in a theater, it’s always lights out.  But when it comes to giving a speech, you’ll almost always get a better audience response with some light in the room.  That’s always my first choice.

The contagious nature of laughter requires that you master the pause.   An audience response will never be instantaneous.  You’ll need to be patient for the contagious element of your audience response to kick in.  In fact, with a really large audience, you may notice the wave-effect as laughter rolls over the audience. 

Make sure that your audience’s laughter can be heard and seen.  Understanding and anticipating the contagious nature of laughter will help you maximize your laughs.