“You See That Sign Flashing There? It Says…Applesauce.”


There’s been a lot of talk recently of canned laughter.  Surely no-one denies that canned laughter exists – the wonderfully spooky phrase “the laughter of the dead” refers specifically to laughter captured so long ago that the audience is no longer even with us – but clearly the idea of laughs on cue is taboo in modern comedy. Mention the phrase on Twitter, for example, and you’re as likely as not to find the size twelves of the local comedy constabulary on your neck, requesting that you re-think the phrase and maybe buy a DVD in penance. We here at MostlyFilm, however, are not subject to the laws of Tweet-land and can more freely question the idea that every laugh at every joke on the soundtrack to every comedy was recorded right at the moment the punchline dropped.

After the jump, Sarah Slade shares her memories of being in an audience for a comedy show that didn’t quite get the laughing part of their job right. It’s certainly enough to pose the reasonable question – if not canned, then what? Ethically sourced and packaged in a protective atmosphere for later use?

Peter, discovering some private photos David left lying around.
Peter, discovering some private photos David left lying around.

Does anybody here remember laughter?

There was a time when, just before they started cracking wise on the more superior class of sitcom, a perky little voice, sometimes one of the leads, sometimes a presenternator type, would announce that Cheers/Friends is filmed in front of a live audience. The implication was clear: this is no assembly-line, comedy-by-numbers affair, with gags so feeble, they wither and die on the actors’ lips, forcing producers to insert a laugh track, or ‘canned laughter’, at key points in the script. These jokes are real, living, organic, thrown into a room of real people and…hear them laugh!  And whoop, and scream, and come over all unnecessary while the chief gag-teller/megastar cameo pauses and mugs in faux modesty at all the fuss they’ve caused.

The lot of a live audience member is a difficult one. You can’t really complain, because it’s a free night out, and the chance to watch a megastar or even an up and coming star at work doesn’t come around that often. If it’s a popular show, then you will have battled for months with super fans and insiders to get your hands on a ticket, so a good time is almost mandatory. You cheerfully endure being herded down corridors,and into hoarding pens, while young women in black frown at you over their clipboards, pointing out forbidden zones, and exhorting you to ignore the cameras and HAVE FUN.

The warm-up comedian talks you through the rules, and asks the audience to laugh uproariously a couple of times “for levels”. If the laughter isn’t uproarious enough. The producers ask you to laugh again. And again. Come transmission time, you can guarantee that some of those tests will reappear when you least expect them.

Finally the show starts, and it’s all motoring along until the first fluffed line. We giggle, we shrug, and the scene starts again. This time it’s a missed cue, or worse, the audience missed the gag. At one recording of the Armando Iannucci vehicle, Friday  Night Armistice, we had several goes at a piece on the late Mo Mowlam’s effectiveness as a negotiator in the notoriously tricky Good Friday agreement, but nobody could work up enough scorn to laugh at the setup, let alone the gag, and it was quietly dropped before transmission. Actually the Armistice ended up feeling more like a detention, as we were kept back after recording the main show to re-record the bits that the producers felt that we didn’t sufficiently appreciate, and I remember dashing for the last tube out of White City, convinced that we were being pursued by an angry woman with a clipboard, telling us to come back and laugh at David Schneider properly.

No wonder Armando Iannucci reverted to the faux fly-on-the-wall format for The Thick Of It, live audiences are ungrateful buggers.

Do you have an experiences like this? Or the other way round? Please share them in the comments!

About Sarah Slade

Middle-aged, middle-sized and reluctantly middle-class Learning designer, based in London. Wife to Mr Perfect, Mother of Little Miss Perfect. I write a lot of learningy businessy stuff for a living, and as a consequence am very lazy about writing for myself. I occasionally write my own blog about living in London and sometimes I’ll find something interesting to say about my professional life. I sew a bit, paint a bit and I sing very averagely and play a terrible game of badminton.

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