It was just over five years ago that the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox took to the field at Camden Yards to play in a stadium with no fans. It was the first time a major league game was played without a crowd in attendance; a decision driven by fears for public safety after unrest in Baltimore following a young man's death while in police custody. While other games were able to be rescheduled, the situation required one game go ahead, but without the cheers, jeers or applause of people in the stands.
The players involved described it as weird, and even painful, given what their city was going through. Without the type of noise they were accustomed to there was less chatter in the dugout, less excitement over big plays, and an unnerving clanking sound when foul balls hit the empty stands.
Sports leagues are trying to figure out what comes next as they deal with seasons that have been suspended due to the coronavirus and many wonder what, if any, schedule can be put together. Coaches, managers, owners and athletes are grappling with the question of how their sport can best resume safely, and without the presence of fans, since fans themselves are simply such a big part of the game. Revenue to be sure, but something else, too.
I have always loved watching live sports events, whether it was my children on their school teams or the handful of times I've been able to cheer on my favorite professional franchises. It's fun sharing in the emotion, the suspense, and the cheers that are unique to each team. You feel like you are part of something bigger as you take your cues from each other and feel the sense of excitement that ripples through the stands. You get caught up in it as it spreads. Without the fans, the atmosphere just isn't the same.
Sharing experiences with others can shape our reactions to joy, sorrow, pain, and even humor. If others are cheering, we are more likely to do so. If others are laughing, we probably will too. That’s the reason TV sitcoms have often used laugh tracks to generate a greater sense of amusement. We typically consider something more funny if others do as well and so we are more likely to laugh if we hear others chuckling.
Conversely, the lack of laughter can change how a joke is perceived. There have been several studies in which well-known scenes from classic TV sitcoms are played with the laugh track or live audience reaction removed. The level of humor was consistently rated less amusing when the laughter was edited out.
It's not that we need others to gives us cues us as to what is funny, it's simply that we find things funnier when we join in with others. To be honest, two of what I deem to be the funniest comedies in the last decade used no track at all, and in fact I think adding canned laughter would change the pacing and style that make it funny in the first place. It works, but studies say it works better when we hear others laugh. Does it mean we don't find things as funny if we're not cajoled into laughing? Turns out, not really. While many wished the laughter sound more spontaneous, survey subjects admitted it was still more enjoyable while laughing along with the sound of others, than having the laughter edited out.
A home run, a game winning goal or a well-crafted joke requires skills of good preparation meeting the opportune moment. At its core it needs no one else but the athletes, the writers or the comedians doing the work. But without the fans, something huge is lost; the appreciation, participation and the enjoyment of others.
While our sense of humor is very much an individual trait, the expression of what we find funny is greatly impacted by the community experience. The more we laugh with others, the more enjoyable the moment, not only for ourselves but those around us, too. If it's true that laughter is infectious, it's the best thing we can be spreading right now. That's my outlook.