Clear Presets – Canned Laughter Conundrum

At Life’s A Game, many things are looked at in a skeptical or comical light. Mostly Videogames. However, I wanted to try to do something a bit more serious. I have a massive love for comedy and writing, and I’m also really cynical and critical of things, so I thought I’d try to do it in a slightly more serious manner than I’m normally used to. This is Clear Presets. Every Clear Presets, I’ll look at something in writing or comedy (or maybe even other stuff) in a slightly more serious manner than comical and take a deeper look into it. There may still be the odd joke, but it should hopefully be able to give a larger discussion to something I want to talk about. If it’s any good, I’ll be able to chuck it into the other running things I do on Life’s A Game along with the “How To”s, “Detective Ed Adventures”, and “So, You’re Trapped Inside A Videogame” series.

So, let’s get to it, shall we?

Clear Presets: The Canned Laughter Conundrum.

I was talking to the wonderful people at www.gaminglives.com (seriously, I can never stop going on about how awesome they are, and for good reason), and somehow the topic went around to Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace. For those who don’t know, it’s a rejected 80’s horror show by Garth Merenghi: Writer, Actor and Dream-Weaver. Taking place in Darkplace Hospital, Garth Merenghi writes and stars as Dr Rick Dagless MD, a sensational Doctor who is an expert in the paranormal, which comes in handy as the hospital is beset upon by odd events and monsters. Upon watching it however, you realise something is amiss. The writing is terrible. The acting is hammy and subpar. The stories are beyond ridiculous, and none of them are scary. Then it hits you. It’s not a horror show at all, but it’s an amazing comedy masquerading as one. It’s a masterpiece of parody, and everything in the series is done horribly on purpose in order to poke fun and masterfully satirise. It’s the ultimate in “So-bad-its-good”. So I was then asked if I watched the Spiritual Spinoff “Man to Man with Dean Learner”, and I then set out to watch it all, seeing as it was easily available on Channel 4’s 4OD on Youtube. The premise of the show is as follows: Dean Learner, the director of the Darkplace series interviews his friends, companions and business partners in what is essentially a talk show. It’s essentially a bit hollow and shallow, with a variety of different characters played by the same actor attempting to parody aspects of Sci-Fi, Horror and even Motorsports. It doesn’t have much of the same spark, and at times it’s a lot worse. I considered giving up on watching it, not because I found it so terrible, because there were a lot of good moments in it buried amongst a lot of the schlockiness, but there was one overriding negative in it that bugged me horrendously, and almost stopped me from seeing the series to the end: Canned laughter.


Laughter in a Can. Now more popular than peanuts and snakes in a can for Comedians everywhere!

‘Canned Laughter’ is basically one of the most overused aspects of comedy, wherein a sound clip is played of an audience laughing. In some cases, it’s a live audience watching it as it’s actually performed. In the case of shows like How I Met Your Mother, it’s all filmed beforehand, then shown to a live audience whose laughs will be recorded and played alongside the show. But we’ll get onto those other kinds of canned laughter later. In any case, canned laughter is used to encourage people watching to laugh. It’s arguably playing on the group mentality in the sense that if the viewer hears a lot of other people laughing, they’ll then be more encouraged to find whats happening onscreen a lot funnier. After all, as they say, laughter is infectious. So if a bunch of people laugh, you’re probably a lot more likely to laugh yourself. Canned laughter basically encourages the viewer to laugh, and could be considered borderline exploitative in the way it tries to make the onscreen action more entertaining not by its own merits but by trickery outside of the show. I find it insulting to the shows themselves, as it implies that the shows aren’t funny enough to carry themselves without its use, and I find it more insulting to those watching; Canned Laughter assumes at a base level that everyone watching the show is an idiot who needs to be told what is funny and when to laugh. It’s considered an ancient, outdated technique, and I find it stupid, cheap and insulting in most cases.

Back to Man to Man with Dean Learner, the canned laughter was actually used in a suitable context, in the sense that since it’s an interview show, there’d presumably be a live audience who would find the events unfolding to be funny. However, it actually destroyed the show piece by piece until I found it unbearable to watch. The ‘audience’ would laugh at everything. Nearly every line, most actions and events would be punctuated by laughter, and it actually got to the point where the laughter would come in during the middle of people’s sentences, sometimes before the joke had even been finished. This was a thing that actually happened. It ruined a lot of the pacing and dialogue of the show, and as I realised when writing this, it made what was effectively a much smarter show effectively brainless and unsubtle. Upon further reflection, the canned laughter destroyed the soul of the show. The show was played straight just as Darkplace was. It was permeated with the same kind of jokes and satirical stances just as Darkplace was. It was the same actors and writers as Darkplace, too, so what went wrong? The canned laughter. Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace was such a wonderful piece of “So-bad-its-good” because it was so clearly satirising the heck out of everything it touched by having the appearance of a stupid, terrible show, and actually being a brilliantly written comedy which provided so many laughs through bizarre events and even more bizarre acting. But the masterstroke was that it was all played straight. The introductions, the interviews in the middles of the show, the show itself was all played straight. All of the characters were completely serious. A single piece of canned laughter could have destroyed the entire structure they put into place. A single sound effect laugh could have ruined the entire illusion that they had built, and changed the entire tone and appearance of one of the more brilliant comedies of recent times. Man to Man ended up being so terrible because despite the actors and the show playing itself perfectly straight, the canned laughter destroyed that illusion. It was almost as if you were watching a performance with the actors onstage moving jerkily and awkwardly pretending to be puppets, and someone pointed out to you every time they moved that they weren’t puppets because there were no strings. Then every time the actors onstage tried to bring you back to that illusion of them being puppets, you were reminded they weren’t every single time. Instead of taking in everything you’re supposed to, the movements, the subtle jokes and the illusion, you’re forced to watch the strings.


If you watch a puppet show, and you’re only looking at the strings, then you’re a freak!

Take Brass Eye. Brass Eye is one of the most brilliant satirical works around, satirising media exaggeration and hysteria. Every episode, Chris Morris would look at something that the media would go hysterical over, and satirise their reactions to an insane degree, invent a fake scandal and convince celebrities to get involved. The beauty was that everything in it was played beautifully straight, with it left up to the viewer to realise what it was all about while the celebrities would talk out about these fictional horrors which would be punctuated with hints that they were part of a bigger punchline, rather than actually making a difference. If there was a single piece of canned laughter, the entire premise of the show, the show in itself would have been completely and utterly destroyed. There was no way the show could keep its integrity if canned laughter was put in there, and it’s a good sign that most shows nowadays can get away with not having canned laughter in them. It soon becomes a way to instill laughs in things that aren’t so funny, or again, assumes that the show itself isn’t as funny without other people encouraging you to laugh. In some cases though, I feel that the use of it also means that the pacing of the show can be negatively affected. Dialogues have to be slower and punctuated with pauses in order to accommodate for people laughing, it can ruin what would otherwise be a better, bigger joke, it can sometimes take away the tension of the onscreen action, and it can sometimes negatively compromise the acting, as the actors then have to make their own concessions in order to accommodate the laughter. It can also in some cases mean less jokes, as the pauses to allow for the laughter can add up to amounts of time that could have been better invested in putting more jokes in the episode. In rare cases, the canned laughter doesn’t actually change much about the overall show, and so while this is an ideal situation for canned laughter, as it’s not negatively impacting, it’s also not positively impacting the show, and thus becomes unnecessary. The best example I can think of for this is The IT Crowd. It manages to combine all the awkward pauses between lines as effective character reactions, and the way the characters interact fits well with canned laughter in the sense that you’re not really given the impression that the canned laughter is taking anything away. However, it’s not adding anything to the formula either, and would be better off not there.

As mentioned earlier, some methods of canned laughter take place as a live audience laughing as its performed to them live, or the audience being shown the full product, and their laughs when watching are added to the show in editing. I don’t feel the second method is as effective as production companies would to believe, because it’s still the same issue as just using a generic laughter as a sound effect, and can still open itself up to the same kind of overuse trickery that other shows are punctuated with. One difference that I guess is possible is that the laughter will then sound more different throughout the show and be more appropriate for the kind of laugh that’s being aimed for, and the humour of the joke can be more effectively measured by how much they actually laugh, rather than the same level of laughter for every joke, which is normally the case otherwise. It’s a much better use of canned laughter, and if anything, it’s a much better case scenario, but it’s still not ideal. We don’t need the audience laughter, and what’s the point of adding it on afterwards once it’s already been filmed? It wouldn’t take much effort to change the shows to work without the laughter and could end up being better products, and it makes me worry that the shows are being negatively impacted due to studio meddling to add in something that’s outdated, patronising to the audience, and insulting to the show itself.

The first instance is one of the few examples when canned laughter isn’t an issue, as if the show is performed in front of an actual audience, then there is less of an issue, because the laughs are more organic and natural. You can’t take away audience laughter from something that had a live audience watching it, after all. That’d make it horribly awkward and inorganic. It’s a slight disadvantage as there is more of a need for the action to pause, but it means the pauses are better timed as they’re able to know more effectively when to come in, and while it’s still not entirely ideal, it’s a better case scenario if the laughter comes from a live audience, as like I said, it does come off as more organic and gives the impression that the laughs are more genuine. However, they’re still as susceptible to the same kind of trickery that any other show that uses laughter does. The main example I can think of here is the BBC Show “The Bubble”. Three people are locked up in a house without any phones or means of communicating with the outside world and then are taken straight to a studio after a few days and made to guess which stories in the news are genuine out of a series of implausible stories. The quiz show aspect of the show takes place in front of a live audience, and so the laughter that arises comes from those audience members. After one episode, there was a complaint from someone who attended the filming who claimed that the BBC moved laughter from earlier parts in the show to put audience laughter into parts when nobody laughed at the jokes to trick viewers into thinking the audience found the jokes funny. It’s a shame such a good show employed such a tactic, and its thus reasonable to assume it’s not the only show that has done such a thing in the past. It’s a shame when even the most natural form of canned laughter is basically exploited and used against you.

It’s not that canned laughter is the most terrible thing ever, but I do hate it. I think in most cases, it’s as I’ve said before in this. It’s insulting to the viewer, because it assumes you’re stupid and need to know when someone is telling a joke and when it’s funny, like you’re an idiot and you need your hand held. You don’t get it for any other form of emotion on Television. You don’t get audience screaming when something is scary, crying when something emotional and sad happens, and if they ever employed it, it’d never work and would act as a massive detriment to the product as a whole. It’d take all of the emotion out of a Drama, it’d take all the scariness out of a Horror show, so why isn’t it assumed to logically follow that adding laughter to something funny will do anything but lessen the impact of the jokes? Laughter is one of the greatest and most natural reactions, so why is there such a need to force it? You can’t get rid of canned laughter entirely, granted, because its such a mainstay to Comedy and Television as a whole, and who knows? Maybe the jokes are funnier because of the background laughter. I wouldn’t ever consider that to be a truth without having some concrete proof, like watching a show without canned laughter, then with. Then I’d probably find out that the fact other people laugh at it does make me laugh more, because at a base level, I’m probably affected by the sheep mentality just like they think I am. But I’d like to think that we’re at the point of Comedy in Television that we’re now better than this. We don’t need to tell the audience when to laugh. They should be given the product themselves, and be told what to make of it themselves, to gain their own conclusions about what is and isn’t funny without canned laughter telling them what to think and laugh at. Let the shows speak for themselves. Don’t let their illusions and setups be ruined by canned laughter. Give the shows, the writers and the actors as well as everyone else involved a lot more credit, don’t ruin their efforts by assuming the audience won’t get the jokes and assuming the show isn’t good enough to carry itself. Give comedy the respect it deserves, let it prove itself. Please.

And this outdated, patronising idea of adding in laughter? It should be canned.





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2 thoughts on “Clear Presets – Canned Laughter Conundrum

  1. I’m not sure, although I can see what you are saying I don’t think canned laughter is necessarily such a bad thing – in a way I think the mentality can be that when you hear laughter it’s also acceptable for you to laugh – and not feel so silly for laughing on your own, whilst also giving a light-hearted tone to the show.

    The reason I say this is because of Red Dwarf – arguably one of my favourite series, used canned laughter for the first six series’, laughter filmed as they recorded the show in front of a live audience. Now, I definitely find the jokes funny, and the canned laughter didn’t even occur to me until it disappeared – but although I loved series VII, the sudden absence of laughter meant the show had a different feel to it, much colder and quieter. I enjoyed the episodes just as much, but they felt as though they had a different tone to them.

    I do find canned laughter annoying at times – especially with cheesy American sitcoms, but I think sometimes it can work :)

    • See, I can tell where you’re coming from, and you do actually make a great point in terms of what the laughter can also bring in terms of the tone of the show. It’s interesting that they dumped it later on in the series’ lifespan, though.

      Sometimes it may work, but I think there’s a lot more cases where it doesn’t, but there’s only a few times when it does so well. I haven’t seen Red Dwarf, so sadly I can’t agree or disagree with you there :(

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