Robert Hampton

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15th July 2010

Laugh and the world (or at least, a studio audience) laughs with you
Posted by at 11.38pm | No responses | Television

I like sitcoms with live studio audiences. There, I said it.

In some quarters, this admission will land me with Cliff Richard fans and bus-spotters in the credibility stakes. However, I think that those who automatically dismiss studio sitcoms as a relic from the past are missing out on a treat, and I shall try to explain why.

The mainstay of television comedy, from the fuzzy black and white era right up to the late 90s, was the studio sitcom. Shows such as Hancock’s Half Hour, Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, One Foot in the Grave and Father Ted are fondly remembered by successive generations.

The audience sitcom has gone rather out of fashion in the 21st century, however, with the arrival of the “realistic” comedy in the shape of shows like The Royle Family and (of course) The Office, with a rather more subtle style of humour than the larger-than-life characters and farcical situations favoured by most traditional sitcoms.

In Extras a key plot point was the crap sitcom When The Whistle Blows, a show whose success seems to entirely revolve around the lead character’s spouting of a lame catchphrase week in, week out. By the way, is it a coincidence that this show-within-a-show seems quite similar to Dinnerladies?

I always assumed that the intention was to critique “catchphrase comedy” rather then studio sitcoms specifically — at one point there is a cutaway to the studio audience, who are all wearing T-shirts of popular Little Britain and Catherine Tate catchphrases. But intentionally or not, the image of the studio sitcom as a home for lazy writing and clichéd characters does seem to have been cemented in the public consciousness partly as a result of Andy Millman’s mugging to camera.

It didn’t help that around the same time there was a stream of absolutely dreadful studio sitcoms. In the first half of the decade the BBC inflicted The Fitz, Beast, Lee Evans: So What Now? and According to Bex on the nation. None of these shows lasted past the first series and are largely forgotten now, but the critical scorn that was heaped on them during their short existence seems to have tarnished the whole genre in the public’s mind.

Even worse, there are two shows in existence which are both dreadful and yet have inexplicably been recommissioned time and time again: My Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. The former is perhaps the ultimate in formulaic television, churning out umpteen episodes a year without making any effort to be original or innovate. The latter is just offensively poor; a sitcom consisting almost entirely of sex gags, seemingly aimed at knuckle-draggers who read Nuts magazine.

Nowadays a new audience sitcom faces an uphill struggle. Any scripted show that dares to feature the sound of people enjoying themselves is setting itself up for a barrage of criticism even before such minor details as characters or story structure are considered. “Canned laughter? What’s that about? I don’t need to be told when to laugh! Haha!”

For a prime example, check this Guardian review of first episode of the new series of The IT Crowd:-

I don’t like being told when to do anything – when to eat, when to wash, when to go to bed. Or when to laugh. If something’s funny, I’ll laugh, OK? So I’m not keen on canned laughter. All right, I know that, strictly speaking, this isn’t canned laughter, that The IT Crowd (Channel 4) is filmed in front of a real, live studio audience, and that it’s them we can hear. But, oddly, it sounds more like a laugh track than real laughter – maybe they did something technical to synthesise it? Weird if they did, like serving real peaches for dessert but with the syrup from a tin of peaches poured over the top, so that people recognise it as dessert.

Anyway, the modern sitcom audience is sophisticated enough (even I am) not to need to be told when to laugh (see The Office, Green Wing, The Thick of It). It just makes it feel dated.

I get really annoyed by these ‘sophisticated’ people (note the casual insertion of the titles of three popular comedies in the last paragraph to show how hip and cool the reviewer is). What do they do when they watch a comedic play at the theatre, a funny film at the cinema or live stand-up comedy? Do they bring a soundproof booth with them so that the noise of other people laughing doesn’t offend them?

The idea that the studio audience (it is not canned laughter) is only there to make the jokes seem funnier is just plain daft. What the audience is all about is atmosphere. For me, genuine unforced laughter from an audience who are enjoying the performances can enhance a show greatly, while I’m sure it’s also good for the actors to have real live people to play to. There’s also the bonus of instant feedback for the nervous writer, watching the action unfold from backstage.

That’s not to say that every comedy show should be filmed before a live audience. Obviously shows like The Thick of It would be completely unsuited to this style of recording. And actual canned laughter is a definite no-no: when the BBC showed M*A*S*H, they specifically requested tapes without it and the show arguably worked better that way. Fast forward twenty years, and I’m Alan Partridge — which was heavily criticised in some quarters for having a laughter track — would, I think, have succeeded either with or without.

There will always be some types of show though where a studio audience is best. Watch this classic scene from Red Dwarf and tell me it would be better without an audience in hysterics in the background:

Nevertheless, in the eyes of many, the only “proper” way to do comedy these days is on film (or at least video treated to look like film), with wobbly camerawork, subtle jokes and awkward pauses. That’s a shame, because alongside the Peep Shows of this world, there should also be room for brash sitcoms where set pieces and one-liners are packed in relentlessly.

I mentioned The IT Crowd above, but there are other shows bravely carrying the flag. My favourite at the moment is Miranda, first shown last year on BBC2 and currently being repeated on Tuesday nights. It’s a truly old-fashioned affair, right down to the Dad’s Army-style “You Have Been Watching” credits. It is, however, an absolutely marvellous half-hour, packed full of great gags and slapstick humour, with a brilliantly eccentric performance from Miranda Hart, backed up by a marvellous supporting cast.

So, in conclusion, don’t dismiss all audience sitcoms out of hand immediately. Forget about My Family and Two Pints and hunt out the genuinely funny ones that do exist. Who knows, you might find yourself laughing even before the audience cues you to!

To whet your appetite, here are some clips from recent sitcoms for your viewing pleasure.

Not Going Out:

After You’ve Gone (now sadly axed but great while it lasted):

Lab Rats (honourable mention: it only lasted one series and wasn’t perfect by a long way, but showed lots of promise)

I would have included an IT Crowd clip here, but couldn’t find a single one on YouTube that didn’t have embedding disabled! Instead I will direct you to The IT Crowd Channel.

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