The Guardian on canned laughterThis entry was posted in News, Press on .
‘Canned laughter’ doesn’t exist, so why complain about it?
Count Arthur Strong has been criticised for using so-called canned laughter, but what does that actually mean? Graham Linehan and Steve Coogan explain the ‘studio sitcom’
A critic at the Independent derided an early episode of Count Arthur Strong, which concludes tonight, saying: “Good radio comedy could not have sounded less funny on television, nor canned laughter more ironic.” The Mail said its “only weakness” was “the overused canned laughter”. Digital Spy described Ben Elton’s axed The Wright Way as “an old-fashioned canned-laughter BBC sitcom”; Time Out called the “canned laughter” on ITV’s camp two-hander Vicious “redundant”.
My generation grew up during the three-channel 1970s “golden age” of British TV comedy, when every sitcom had audience laughter and a grateful nation chortled along. Even 1980s new wave landmarks The Young Ones and Blackadder were accompanied by studio guffaws. But the rise of more esoteric “single-camera” shows – from The Comic Strip to mockumentaries People Like Us and motherlode The Office – set a new standard for cool.
By the time I worked with Lee Mack on the development of studio sitcom Not Going Out for BBC1 in the mid-noughties, we wore the unfashionabilty of our endeavour as a badge of pride. But its success, and that of our most decorated alumnus Miranda, seems to have fanned a revival. Mrs Brown’s Boys, whose development from a live show harks back to the theatricality of early TV comedy, sealed the deal: audience sitcom was back.
It wasn’t for critics. I wonder if the “canned laughter” canard is used, knowingly, as bitchy shorthand – surely no one really believes it is artificial? It’s been half a century since actual machinery was regularly used. A cursory Wikipedia search reveals that American sound engineer Charley Douglass invented the technique of “sweetening” a live recording by adding laughs to shows such as Jack Benny’s and Milton Berle’s in the late 1950s. Through the 60s and 70s, it was industry default to have Douglass give the live illusion to taped sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies or Bewitched. He even built the “laff box”, a proto-Mellotron containing tape loops of merriment and applause, operated by a keyboard. It ended up on Antiques Roadshow.
Orthodoxy states that we live in more sophisticated times, and resent being “told” when to laugh. This truism is turned on its head by Graham Linehan, writer and director of audience shows Father Ted, The IT Crowd and Count Arthur Strong: “The studio audience is not there to tell you when to laugh, they’re there to remind us to be funny.”
Studio audiences aren’t forced to laugh with cattle prods. They give it up willingly. If you’ve ever been to a TV comedy recording, you’ll know that the excitement of being there, tickled by a warmup comic and free beer beforehand, really works the funnybone.
However, as Jamie Rix, producer of Not Going Out, explains, there are technicalities in post-production. “When we come to the edit we always try to preserve the laugh from take one because that is inevitably the biggest. Sometimes, however, this is not possible. So when we use shots from take two or three – because of a technical fault or an actor forgetting a line – we lay the first-take laugh over the second performance. The laugh has been genuinely earned.”
Linehan finds the use of “canned laughter” as a stick to beat studio sitcom with “insulting and frustrating, because we all work very hard for those laughs. My kids sat in one of the Count Arthur audiences. They’re six and eight, and they now know better than most TV critics how a programme like this comes about.”
Studio sitcom is certainly not the easy option, and Linehan has just finished shooting a “naturalistic” comedy pilot, with no audience. “It was so much easier it made me want to cry,” he says. He likens the intense pressure of staging a studio sitcom to “putting on a play that lasts one performance. But I think it’s worth it because the rewards are often greater.”
Meanwhile, Steve Coogan recalls how critical consensus shifted between the first and second series of I’m Alan Partridge in 1997 and 2002, between which The Office had been a hit. “We did the second series and people said: ‘Why’s there all this canned laughter?’ We said, There’s no canned laughter, it’s real audience laughter because we’re in a studio and they’re laughing. But they choose to ignore what you’ve just said and say, ‘Yes, but why is there canned laughter?'”