When did we become so snobby about the studio audience sitcom?

People complaining about the studio audience laughter track is something that keeps coming up with each new studio sitcom that has been broadcast in recent years, and as a comedy enthusiast and lover of the studio audience sitcom, here’s why I think live studio audience laughter is so important:

Ben Elton introduces the cast of Upstart Crow to the studio audience

British Comedy finds its roots in music hall theatre, which in the early days would mainly have been daft comedy songs performed to an audience in the early 1900s. When BBC radio was becoming established, radio comedy came into being with Bandwaggon! Arthur Askey & Richard “Stinker” Murdoch were responsible for the first ever “sort of” sitcom broadcast with an audience in 1938. The first TV sitcom surprisingly wasn’t Hancock’s Half Hour! It was actually Pinwright’s Progress in 1947! Broadcast live every 2 weeks from Alexandra Palace. Sadly, the only surviving remains of that sitcom are some photographs, but I’m diverting from the point… and that point is that right from the beginning comedy had an audience!

Whether we’re talking about Morecombe and Wise or Monty Python, The Young Ones or The Good Life, Fawlty Towers or Blackadder they all had audience laughter. In fact, you could count the number of sitcoms without laughter on one hand-compared to the hundreds of shows that have it. So that lead me to ask where did this idea of hating studio audience laughter even come from?

The Office is often credited and widely considered to be the sitcom that brought about what is dubbed the single-camera sitcom. The Office is used as shorthand for what people dub “the revolution of comedy without a laughter track” when it was first broadcast in 2001. However , it was actually The Royal Family in 1998 that was the first popular sitcom in the UK not to have a laugh track and a wave of surreal comedy without it was appearing throughout the 90s with shows like ‘The Day Today’ in 1994. If you want to go back further and look across the pond, it was The Simpsons back in 1989 that was the first mainstream success without a laughter track, and they may have happened upon this by accident! The Flintstones proved before it how odd it was to add a laughter track to animation. The Flintstones was famous for popularising the term ‘canned laughter’ although surprisingly a lot of Hanna-Barbera’s early material started out with a genuine audience laughter. Have a look at this expert from the Hanna-Barbera Wikipedia page:

Capture Laugh track

People cottoned onto the laughter not being genuine, noticing the laughs were rather clumsily added and that the sound was oddly compressed – It was canned laughter in every sense of the word!

But I’ll tell you what isn’t canned laughter, and that’s every other sitcom you can think of. Yes, canned laughter is not a real thing that is ever used in British sitcom. Okay look, I can’t say that with 100% certainty but I’ve been to enough recordings of TV and Radio shows and I’ve seen, heard, read and talked to enough people who have been in the audiences for classic sitcoms to know that there would never be a time when a UK sitcom is made in a studio without an audience with the laughter added from the BBC’s sound effects vault and mixed in later, it just would never happen!

A TV show has to factor the studio audience into its budget. I recall reading at the time of Red Dwarf’s first return to TV with ‘Back To Earth’ that there was no budget for a studio audience and it missed that. Similarly, if you watch one of The feature length Only Fools and Horses episodes without the laughter they do lack a certain added something. Why would sitcoms want to take a chunk out of their budget for an audience? Because they matter – actors bounce off the audience. Imagine a stand up routine without an audience, it would be impossible – the studio sitcom is the extension of that. When Film and TV came along and brought plays such as Shakespeare’s into people’s living rooms nobody started saying uggh I hate these plays with their audiences! It’s so much better now that dramas can be made without them. Get rid of the audiences and live plays in theatres, we don’t need them anymore, that would obviously be mad. However, when people say they hate ‘canned laughter’ and studio sitcoms they’re saying a very similar thing.

The sad thing about all this is the people saying this have never been in a sitcom audience. A live TV comedy audience is unlike anything else, it has an intimacy, a warmth and holds the incredible excitement of real television being made before your very eyes and most importantly it’s really funny.

The best sitcom recordings I have ever seen are that of Upstart Crow. The entire cast are fabulous, the atmosphere is electric with excitement and David Mitchell is the perfect Bard. As you’ve probably guessed it’s Upstart Crow and the totally unfair criticism it has occasionally faced just for its laughter in an otherwise brilliant reception for the show that moved me to write this little piece. Even from publications that should know better, such as The Radio Times (who unhelpfully branded the studio audience ‘wildly annoying’).

I was lucky enough to be at a few Upstart recordings this year, and at every recording the audience collectively decided to boo Greene. A few times the scene was reset and the audience were politely asked not to boo – but sometimes the audience just couldn’t resist . It amused me to hear Greene’s boos mixed down in Upstart’s debut episode, just audible enough so you could hear the edge of it if you were listening for it. I was at a Count Arthur Strong recording and much the same thing happened with ‘ohhs’ and ‘ahhs’ for an on-screen kiss. Yes, that’s right, they’re not turning the audience reaction up in the edit, they’re turning it down!

Comparing newly mixed laughter in the digital age to the days of old, the only difference I really notice is a bit of coughing in the mix of the classic sitcoms, which presumably these days can be isolated and removed.

As far as I understand it, the laughter is mixed live… producers, directors and a whole team of people involved in production, sit in what’s known as ‘The box’ and there they put the show together as it’s happening. Some sitcoms were even broadcast the same week as the filming, I believe that The IT Crowd is the most recent example of that practice.

All sitcoms and actually pretty much all TV shows have a warm up comedian: The lovely Laura Lexx is Upstart Crow’s and Mark Olver is another brilliant stand up you will definitely see often if you go to a TV recordings. They do routines to fill the gaps in between scenes or re-takes. Every scene is always recorded twice in a sitcom and scenes that were filmed on location or in another set that couldn’t fit into the studio are shown on monitors – it’s just like watching the TV at home, except your laughter is being recorded and of course every scene is filmed in order. At Upstart Crow the brilliant Ben Elton loves to chat to the audience about the show and even does a bit of warm up himself, sometimes Harry Enfield joins in! And coming back to Count Arthur Strong, Graham Linehan was also keen on receiving audience feedback – yes they care about it.

I’m a fan of all types of comedy and I love the single-camera sitcom. Back, Peep Show, The Mighty Boosh, The Office, you couldn’t add audience laughter to them, and you wouldn’t want to. But my point is we should respect all genres of comedy, particularly the main one: The studio audience sitcom, because comedy, whether it’s happening before your eyes or it’s broadcast on your living room TV, whether it has a laughter track or not, whether you’re watching it with your family, or you’re just one person catching up on the iplayer – a comedy show is nothing without its audience to laugh at it!


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