Sweetening live video, then & now

How the spirit of the laugh track lives on

Craig Phillips
Jun 13, 2018 · 4 min read
10 claps for each time you clicked the play button :D Image via Moose

Nothing warms the soul quite like a 90’s sitcom.

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but many of us who grew up with them, think back with fondness. All of it. The characters, the fashion sense. Even that cheesy fake laughter.

That old laugh track. One of the silliest yet critical-est elements of these TV shows. Silly because, ya know, it’s fake laughter plugged in to cue our entertainment and enjoyment. And critical because without it, none of the jokes would be funny.

Take this example from Friends, where the laugh track is removed.

Charles Douglass pioneered laugh track history with his invention of the Audience Response Duplicator, aka the Laff Box.

In Charles’ day, people were changing how they consumed media. TV was increasingly a part of people’s daily lives. Where entertainment was previously enjoyed in groups, now people could spend time alone with their TVs.

At first, you can imagine how lonely and strange this could have felt. The bridge between audience and performer—or among audience members themselves—was never experienced like this before. And it needed to be addressed to ensure viewers’ comfort, and enjoyment.

Cheesy as the laugh track may be, they served this need. The need to be reminded, even in an artificial way, that others were watching along with you. The laugh track allowed audiences, spread around the country, to feel as if they were watching TV as a group. As if they were a community of viewers, all laughing out loud at the same jokes.

In this episode of 99 Percent Invisible, the host argues that the laugh track served a need in its time, but that viewing TV in solitude is no longer a defect of TV; It’s a selling point.

And this fact is why the laugh track feels so out of place to us now. Watching TV alone—even for hours at a time—is a normal thing to do.

The laugh track worked for a variety of reasons. Two ideas were that the social pressure it puts on viewers encourages them to fit in with the invisible, laughing audience. Another is that we have an automatic neurological response to hearing laughter, and responding to it with more laughs.

So, we know the laugh track is not about comedy. And, it now seems it’s not about a specific moment in time where viewers had to learn that it’s ok to watch TV alone. It’s about designing the presence of other people into the experience of viewing the video.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is still very much alive.

Mediums change, but the principles remain the same. Where the laugh track worked through your ears, what we see most today is working through your eyes. Specifically, how the screen’s interface communicates to you, the viewer, that exact sentiment of the laugh track; others are here and they’re having a damn good time.

There are three main user interface elements that contribute to this, using very similar patterns across platforms. Take a look at these three.

Looking at them side by side, we see just how similar they are. No laugh track is needed, not because we’ve evolved as lonely viewers, but because there are tones of things going around that serve the same need. These are UI elements employed by many products that define the modern live video viewing experience.

  • Active Viewers — At the top of each screen you’ll notice, abundantly clear, the number of fellow viewers. You probably don’t know any of them, nor will you ever meet them. Whether there’s 100 or 10,000 others, it changes nothing about the video you’re watching. It’s only reason for existing is to reinforce that others are there too.
  • Comment Thread—Every live video with a large viewership has the same lightning speed thread of messages that no human could ever possibly read. But, reading isn’t the point at all. The point is that you can see how many excited viewers are there with you. And, if you feel like sending a message off into the ether, you can do that too.
  • Reactions—Whether Facebook’s flying emoji bubbles, or Instagram’s floating hearts, the more they disrupt the video, the more effective they are. Viewers are just so excited (or upset), and you should know it.

Pay attention to how live video interfaces impact your interest, and overall level of entertainment. Chances are those little elements make you feel part of something. The bigger the numbers, the faster the threads, the more you feel like you’re part of something bigger.

And, for the futurists out there, how might other interfaces of today and tomorrow deal with this challenge? There’s plenty of room to think about how virtual or augmented reality interfaces will create a feeling of co-viewership.

The Fourth Wall

The design of interactive digital media