Laughter, groupthink and physical distancing

One of the unexpected side-effects of our attempt to fire-break COVID-19 with physical distancing, is the absence of laughter in the late night shows I like to watch. This lack of laughter taught me some interesting things about my reactions to these shows, and gave me extra admiration for how the hosts are now doing the shows with no live feedback.

Colbert, John Oliver (and most other late shows) usually film in a studio with an audience, who laugh either spontaneously, or perhaps with a little cuing. When the shows started filming without an audience I was surprised at how uncomfortable I felt watching them.

Colbert (or Oliver) makes a crack, there is no laughter, and they carry on. At first I was a little confused. Well, I thought, the joke is a little lame, but not terrible, but why do I feel uncomfortable? After a while I learned something about myself – I subconsciously use the audience’s laughter as a cue to at least partly guide my own feelings about something the host says.

This was really brought home to me when my spouse came by and watched for a bit and we both laughed together at something. I felt a lot better. So the lesson is, during physical distancing, watch the shows with your loved ones. I also wonder if the shows could have a dial in audience, though that might get out of control. I think both those shows have too much integrity to use a laugh track, but I can see it’s utility now.

Another thing I gained is an admiration for both Stephen Colbert and John Olivier for having the courage to do the show without any feedback. It must be hard doing the bit and not having any social feedback and marching on.

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