Can canned laughter

The BBC’s new sitcom Outnumbered wasn’t edgy or awkward enough to be aired without a laughter track.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

By the time you read this column, you will have either enjoyed or missed the opening episodes of the BBC’s new situation comedy, Outnumbered. This is because the Corporation took the unusual decision to screen it on successive nights this week, presumably to complement the programme’s overtly quirky nature.

Starring Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner as an unremarkable south London couple with three difficult and eccentric children, Outnumbered was seemingly unusual: it didn’t really have a script to speak of, being a series of unconnected household incidents and arguments; while the parents’ dialogue was scripted, the three children mostly ad-libbed; it was shot using the mockumentary style pioneered in the film This is Spinal Tap; there were no opening credits, and there was no laughter track.

Yet, as with the aforementioned mockumentary style, the absence of a laughter track is commonplace today, from The Simpsons to The Royle Family, Larry Sanders to The Office. Outnumbered is merely the latest in a long line of programmes that has decided to eschew a device that has been the source of great annoyance to a great number of people over the years.

Some welcome this, recognising that the laughter track is a hangover from the days of Vaudeville and Variety, in much the same way that sporting commentary on television owes its existence to the days of radio, when it was a requirement (having had to endure the intolerable John Motson once more during the England v Germany game the other week, I look forward to the day when an absence of commentary becomes default on the BBC’s Match of the Day, too).

Another objection is that canned laughter is used to mask unfunny programmes or unfunny sections therein. But the principal grievance with laughter tracks is that they are insultingly didactic, in that they insult the viewer’s intelligence, both by informing her when to laugh or trying to connive him into believing these shrieks of hilarity come from a genuine studio audience, when they are manifestly canned.

M*A*S*H was one of the first television comedies to temper its use of the laughter track, not featuring it in its operating room scenes. Its creator Larry Gelbart had initially wanted it free of all laughter: as the series was about the Korean War, he thought it inappropriate to have canned laughter in a serious setting. But the makers, CBS, rejected the idea. One of Gelbart’s previous comedies, the Alvin Show, had no laughter track and was cancelled after one season in 1961. Thus, for M*A*S*H a compromise was reached.

Being retained for the outdoor scenes, the laughter heard on M*A*S*H clearly didn’t come from a live studio audience, and canned laughter, once so commonplace in the 1960s, fell out of fashion in the 1970s, killed off largely by misuse and satire. The decision to use it for cartoons such as The Flintstones gave the suggestion that programmers either realised the audience knew most laughter tracks were fake, or didn’t care. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which did use genuine laugher in its studio scenes, lampooned the canned variety in its sketches by having it abruptly and unnaturally halted. From then on, its presence would always be regarded with suspicion.

Canned laughter does still exist these days, but real-life chuckling and chortling from a live audience is commonplace, too. If you’re wondering if it is really possible that people can bring themselves to laugh at poor quality comedies, then, as someone who has been in a television comedy audience, I can let you into a little trade secret: before filming, the producers get you all completely plastered.

I am not a purist when it comes to soundtrack laughter. I don’t think my intelligence is being insulted. I watch so much crap on telly anyway that I’ve got used to it. I also think it depends on the context. Some of the best shows of recent years, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, Alan Partridge, have all employed it, and I wonder what they would have been like bereft of accompanying laughs. In these cases I think the laughter augmented their humour, rather than masked an inherent lack of it.

It was also because these shows were traditional, middle-of-the-road comedies that relied on the oldest trick in the sitcom box: misunderstandings. So-and-so thought he heard whatshisface saying this about that but he was really talking about another thing and hilarious chaos ensued. The only one that could have worked without a laughter track was Alan Partridge, because it had a more modern anchor for its humour: awkwardness.

Outnumbered presumably did not use it for the same reason that The Office, Nathan Barley or Larry Sanders didn’t, because these shows centre on making you cringe. It is when there is silence, when there is nothing being said – for example, when David Brent makes a joke about disabled people and the Swindon branch people just look at him with bemused horror – that the show makes its full impact. Soundtrack laughter is entirely inappropriate for such programmes.

Outnumbered didn’t have the same ‘I can’t watch The Office by myself I cringe so much’ factor. It was not even particularly original. Awkward suburban dads who seek to be trendy (and fail) and who can’t control their children have been spotted in sitcoms before. Dennis and Skinner were competent, but there was one star in the show in the form of the youngest child Karen, played by Ramona Marquez. She came out with brilliant lines, such as, after being told she couldn’t adopt a nit as a pet, asking if she could have a giraffe instead – or when she showed her parents drawings she had done at school of cows machinegunning human beings because they didn’t want to be turned into hamburgers (a reminder in these sentimental times that children are not innocent, and that we all had dark thoughts as infants). These were, though, the only times that this member of the audience at home actually did laugh out loud.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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