During the disorientating early days of lockdown, a horrible realisation dawned. Despite the impossibility of either a studio audience being present or the panellists all being in the same room, the BBC was going to persevere with Have I Got News for You?. Ian Hislop, Paul Merton and co would ignore the deathly two seconds of silence during which perfectly presentable quips plunged into the vast, empty chasm of an unstable Zoom connection and press on with their jaunty, topical comedy. This turned out to be toe-curlingly awkward – a graphic illustration of how intrinsic audiences were to the success of certain shows.
And yet, as suboptimal as the situation was, really HIGNFY had no choice but to carry on. What else was there? Were the Friday schedules to be filled with yet more out-of-date repeats of Have I Got More News for You? Surely not. Also, weren’t we trying to get our heads round one of the most profound crises of our lifetimes? How were we supposed to process the situation without topical humour? As with many of the dilemmas posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was lose-lose. But was a solution staring us in the face all along?
The laughter track has become one of TV’s great taboos. It is often assumed to be in regular use, even though canned laughter has been effectively off-limits for decades now (people confuse it with the inauthentic-sounding but still real “studio audience” laughter heard on shows such as The Big Bang Theory). It’s considered, at best, cheesy and, at worst, outright fakery. But the pandemic is causing us to re-examine many assumptions, so why not throw one more into the mix? On 2 August, Richard Osman took to Twitter and did exactly that. “Would you object,” he asked his followers, “to [the] noise of [a] small audience being boosted in the edit, if you were made aware of it?”
Admittedly, Osman is not proposing the return of canned laughter, but rather a “Bubble Audience” – punters socially distanced within a studio with groups drawn from people already in isolation together. It’s also worth pointing out that Osman himself is among the best arguments against manipulated audience sound – his early evening quizzer House of Games is a perfect example of a show already thriving without a studio audience. Osman is the don of teatime TV urbanity: using sidelong glances to camera and direct addresses to the audience at home to make them feel as if they are participants as well as observers. Like Ant and Dec’s early lockdown shows, House of Games makes use of “crew laughter”, which can feel more convincing than a hyped crowd reaction – the crew are working, not waiting to be entertained, so their amusement feels genuine.
But why are we so suspicious of artifice? Much as it came to be seen as a signifier of inauthenticity, the laugh track (or Laff Box as it became known) was a surprisingly sophisticated creation, devised to enhance the viewing experience. Invented in the early 1950s by US engineer Charley Douglass, the device was a 3ft-tall box containing 32 tape reels that could hold 10 laughs each. Tracks could be mixed separately for nuance or played all at once for impact. Laughter could possess distinct character – a roar of surprise, a scattering of sniggers as audience members responded to a joke at different moments. It’s no exaggeration to compare it to a musical instrument. Much as it’s regarded as a cynical ploy for leading a mindless living room audience by the nose, couldn’t the Laff Box alternatively be seen as a versatile creator and enhancer of atmosphere?
As the medium of television became established, feelings towards the Laff Box changed. In 1955, David Niven described the laugh track as “the single greatest affront to public intelligence I know of”. But did David Niven ever have to watch a repeat of a 2015 episode of Would I Lie to You? for the fourth time during a global pandemic? He did not. What the Laff Box did ultimately isn’t all that different from the crowd noise used as a sound-bed during lockdown football matches. It orientated viewers who were struggling with a strange new reality.
Back in the 1950s, the idea of consuming entertainment at home rather than in a live setting, with all the immediacy and intimacy that implies, must have seemed new and alienating. But aren’t we in a similar situation today? What we’re now consuming is familiarly formatted entertainment but characterised by distance. From TV to gigs to comedy, we’re having to think laterally in search of workarounds – from communal watching using video conferencing technology to social media viewing and listening parties. Why shouldn’t tastefully assembled laughter tracks be a part of that? It seems we’re in this for the long haul. So perhaps we should enjoy something at least vaguely resembling The Before Times. If we can’t cheat now, when can we?