Thursday, 7 July 2016

Why Laughter Should Be Just A Normal Human Reaction

Bear with me. This ends up being about sitcom. Promise.

Your average stand-up comedian tends to look down on three types of comedian: the impressionist; the comedy musician (and possibly the poet); and the comedy magician.

The impressionists don’t seem to need much help in looking down on their own craft. With a few exceptions, impressionists seem to be keen to prove what else they can do the moment they get a reputation for doing brilliant voices. The likes of Steve Coogan and Chris Barrie managed to tunnel out of voicework and into character comedy. And Coogan can now go back to impressions on The Trip or chat show interviews now he’s proved beyond doubt he doesn’t need to do them. Because impressions aren’t enough on their own, apparently.

Comedy musicians are often crowd pleasers. Other comedians find them annoying, being dismissive of the craft of comedy songs. Rhyming doesn’t automatically make it funny, if the cynics are to be believed. While we can all admire the genius of Tom Lehrer or Bill Bailey, as a rule comedians seem to think audiences are too lenient on a comedian, just because they can play the guitar or let the audience sing along.

I don’t know if there’s still a north/south divide in comedy, but I do know that some comedians find it odd that a comedian will finish the night with a straight song. Like Ken Dodd would (and still does). And Peter Kay still does. Again, it's making the audience happy without doing any actual jokes. Which is cheating.

Finally, there’s the magician. and here things are even more adversarial. Embittered comedians can never really get behind the cocktail of magic and jokes because the jokes, they claim, wouldn’t stand on their own merits if someone weren’t creating a ‘wow’ effect or getting a round of applause with making something disappear or correctly guessing a card. That’s not proper comedy. If you’re a real comedy snob. So the theory goes.

Just as stand-up comedians tend to look up on at least two other types of comedy; the improv masters who conjure comedy out of thin air. The Ross Nobles, the Adam Hillses and the Phil Kays. That’s comedy in a very pure form. And all of those guys look up to wistful storytellers like Daniel Kitson. In fact, it’s mostly just Daniel Kitson who does beautiful poignant shows that are, apparently, just fab, selling out months in advance. And then there's Stewart Lee.

But what’s the problem here? Why point out divisions in the comedy world? It’s all entertainment, isn’t it? The audience don’t care, do they?


Yes, it’s all entertainment.

And no, the audience don’t care.

They’ve had a hard day or week at work. And they’d like a night out and a laugh. And if a comedy club gives them some magic, some music, some impressions, some improv and a story, then great. As long as its funny. Or they've seen someone they like on Mock the Week, and fancy an hour of that. And they get it. Great.

I mention this because I’m trying to work out how to respond to Sam’s Wollaston latest pontifications on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to TV comedy – especially in how it relates to so-called ‘canned laughter’, which newspapers and critics continue to use as a term, even though it’s not canned or fake, but real.

We’ve spoken of canned laughter before. Long ago. And many times since. In various places on the internet. And yes, we know that sometimes the sound of the audience laughter is enhanced or tweaked – sometimes for technical reasons, or to stop it sounding annoying or weird. Audience laughter is, ultimately a sound effect. And occasionally that is cheating.

So why go over old ground? Good point. My first instinct was to shut my eyes and assume that this particular critic will go and eventually review something else, like books or garden furniture.

But I feel I have to say something as it’s not just Sam Wollaston tipping idiocy all over the world of TV criticism. Plenty of people agree with him if you look at the comments below his article. (Don't bother) Moreover, opinions like this appear regularly in The Guardian, a significant newspaper in the media world, and read voluntarily by most people who work in it. This is how opinions are formed and trends are set. And sitcom writers like me have to work in a world in which those opinions and trends have consequences and ramifications for our mortgages.

I don’t want to repeat anything that Ken Levine has said in his blog. This guy wrote episodes of M*A*S*H. I’m prepared to go with him when he says "It’s such a stupid argument I have to shake my head" and so forth.

So, let’s make two other points here. Firstly, let’s go back to my original point.

The Audience Doesn't Care
The majority of the audience doesn’t care if there’s a laugh track or not. They’ve had a long week at work and they’d like some comedy with some jokes in it. They’re not watching it on a Tuesday morning on their own with a notepad because it’s their job. Your experience is different, Sam. They're watching at night with a brew or a beer and are wanting to have a nice time. So to state that “television comedy does not need to come served with laughter – studio laughter, audience laughter, whatever you want to call it – in 2016. Not just doesn’t need it, is much better without it" is just nonsense on roller-skates.

Like most normal people, I like different kinds of comedy. Subtle stuff, satirical stuff, and stupid stuff. With or without the sound of laughter. I love plenty of single-camera comedy with no laugh track. Right now, most comedy I watch is this kind. This year, it’s been Brooklyn 99, The Goldbergs, and Modern Family. And catching up with Parks and Recreation on DVD. Plus Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Which has an audience. That laugh. Out loud. A lot. And the blisteringly funny Newswipe with Charlie Brooker. Which doesn't. I like both. Because you can. (I also co-wrote episodes of Miranda which does. And episodes of Bluestone 42. Which doesn't. Which is fine).

What are the most watched shows on TV at the moment? The ones on BBC1 probably aren’t aimed at metropolitan TV critics so we can pass over those if you like. (Even though the biggest sitcom on TV this year is Still Open All Hours. Which has that awful sound of enjoyment on it. Urgh. And Birds of a Feather on ITV is no different. Yawn.)

What about funky and groovy BBC2 and Channel 4? Here’s a fun fact for you. The most watched sitcom on those two channels is a repeat of Dad’s Army. Every week. Almost without fail. Check the ratings. Seriously. Every week. Ah, but that’s nostalgic, you may argue. Or it's a classic. But are we just putting up with the noise of humans enjoying themselves because we love the characters? Or is it all of a piece? A genre that some people happen not to like. Which is fine.

Look on the other channels and you’ll see reruns of audience sitcoms like Yes Prime Minister, Miranda, Men Behavingly Badly, My Family and Ab Fab. UK Gold wouldn’t be showing these TV shows if they didn’t rate. Dave has been making Red Dwarf again. And again. And you know what? They found it worked way better in front of an audience.

What TV shows are the BBC remaking? Porridge, Keeping Up Appearances and Are You Being Served? Shows with audience laughter.

Are all of these shows just nostalgic? Maybe. But, hey what's the biggest sitcom in the world right now? An audience show called Big Bang Theory. A show insanely popular with younger audiences who’ve never seen The Rag Trade or In Loving Memory. But they have also watched a ton of episodes of Friends. They're fine with laughter.

There’s not much point going on giving further examples. Sitcoms work with audiences. Some are better without. To say it’s “much better without” is plain dumb.

That was a long first point. But here's the second:

It's Not A Contest
There’s something else at the heart of this – and why I think comedy criticism is so odd, dysfunctional and out of touch with people who just like laughing at funny things on TV. (Hey, it’s not just Westminster that has elites that have no idea what the people that pay their wages actually want or think!) Wollaston says:
“It’s not about telling the viewer when to laugh, the laughter advocate will say; it’s about creating an atmosphere in the studio for the recording. Fine – if you’re in the studio. I’m not though, I’m in my living room; I’m judging it from here, where – yes – I want to decide for myself, and am more likely to laugh without being nudged hard in the ribs.”
Here’s the nub. Wollaston is a critic. I get that. He’s judging comedy. But he needs to read some CS Lewis. Not just a writer of stories about big Christ-like Lions, but an expert in English Language and literature. He wrote a superb book called An Experiment in Criticism. A tough read, but highly recommended. In it, he writes this:
“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”
Essentially, give it a chance. Allow yourself to be entertained. For that’s what a sitcom is. Art, masquerading as entertainment. You can’t possibly judge it on its own terms if all you can do is sit over it. You have to sit under it. Or at least next to it. A laugh isn't something you 'make up your own mind about'. It's a normal human reaction. Why should it be anything else?

The reason I mentioned stand-up snobbery earlier was also because of how some people view magic. Which I also mentioned earlier. (There was method in my droning madness.) People can be very negative or weird about magic because they say it’s all just a trick. And yet, it’s not just a trick. It is a trick. And you can call it a trick if you want, which may or may not fool you. Or you can call it magic and allow it to entertain you. Your choice.

Do keep on going, Mr Gill
Magic, for some, seems to be a battle of wits, as if the only question is whether the magician can put one over on me, and make the impossible appear to happen without my working out how it’s done. If the magicians wins, then well done them. Slow hand clap. You’ve outwitted me. You were probably bullied at school, weren’t you and only got into magic so people would like you? Loser.

You don’t like magic. Fine. I could take it or leave it.

But this is how some people seem to be about comedy. Wollaston’s comments about comedy belie this bizarrely adversarial attitude towards sitcoms especially which seems to be quite common among critics of comedy and those who like what they write. There is an arms-folded, straight-faced, ‘go-on-then-monkey-boy-make-me-laugh’ vibe going on, as if a joke is a comedy trick that you didn’t see coming and can’t quite work out, and then deeply resent when it hits you. Or maybe you did see it coming, and now you despise the comedian or writer for trying to outsmart you and failing.

Is this any way to watch a comedy show? I don't think it is. It only leads to misery, frustration and snobbery, which is the lot of the stand up comedian who thinks that people are cheating the audience with impressions, songs or a cup and balls routine.

As in most things in life, I'm with CS Lewis. Not Sam Wollaston.


  1. Great as ever, of course. If I have one caveat, it is that thing about how people invest so much more into comedy than any other form. So if they're not liking the show, they hate it doubly if they can hear a bunch of idiots braying at it.

  2. I agree with Dave. I only even tend to notice an audience laughing if they appear to be enjoying the show much more than I am. (At which point I have no longer surrendered.) Similarly, watching a comedy in a theatre, others' laughter only grates when you're not enjoying the show. So do we conclude that Wollaston just doesn't like comedy?

  3. As the owner of a recently-turned-5-year-old, I've just figured out a separate use for canned laughter: she seems to be using it to ask why things are funny, and developing her sense of humour.

    'Friends' is on a lot in our house (it being the best sitcom ever and one of the few things Mrs Dan and I can watch together) and she's sat there and watched it (voluntarily, I might add, despite us offering to turn over to 'PJ Masks', her demanding 'Friends' stays on).

    Obviously, there are some (ie a lot) of more adult, and quite a few risque, jokes that she doesn't understand, but the laughtrack is informing her that it's funny. Indeed, there is a thoughtful face at these times and she's obviously trying to figure out why it is funny.

    So, there you are, audience laughter is a humour training device!