I was pleased that Outnumbered did so well at the 2009 British Comedy Awards – with that faintly mysterious sense of triumph that treats really liking a comedy show as being somehow the same as having played a part in its creation. It's preposterous, of course, but it still can't entirely be suppressed - partly, I guess, because you automatically take the award as a recognition that your own funny bone is aligned in the right direction – whatever "right" happens to be. And in the case of Outnumbered I felt that a cause had been vindicated – the cause of inventive, observational and un-laugh-tracked comedy... the latter detail being a particular marker of modernity in television sitcom.
The writer David Baddiel was complaining about this in print the other day – his protest having two prongs. Prong one was the assumption (just exemplified by me) that anything with a laugh track was necessarily old-fashioned and slightly vulgar. He's absolutely right about this. I really liked Harry and Paul and The IT Crowd as well – which also won awards on Sunday night – and in both cases those programmes employed laugh tracks without in any way undermining the sense that they were fresh and self-confident. It helped, naturally, that Harry and Paul was a sketch show (where soundtrack laughter is almost always used) and that The IT Crowd is zanily broad and un-documentary in style. But even so their success was a reminder that no one really minds laugh tracks in good comedies – often because they're laughing at the same time themselves and barely notice.
The second prong of Baddiel's complaint was about the term "canned laughter" itself. His point, as far as I could grasp it, being that the term made no discrimination between the artificial addition of synthetic laughter to a programme (an American atrocity which only rarely happens in this country) and the preservation of laughter which was – at the time of recording – entirely natural and unforced. (Curiously, Americans – who leave nothing to chance – sometimes employ professional laughers to chortle throughout rehearsals for their studio-recorded shows, so that performers can get the timing right for the final take.)
I can't see myself, though, why "canned laughter" is an improper term for recorded laughter, which is, after all, bottled and preserved for later use, and thus slightly different in flavour to its fresh equivalent. In some cases, indeed, it is even more muted. I know of at least one popular BBC comedy where the studio audience – self-selected from a slavishly devoted fanbase – was so disproportionately hysterical that the laughter had to be turned down in the final mix, because it was screwing with the comedy dynamic for home viewers.
And that sums up one of the problems with laugh tracks that Baddiel doesn't quite address. Watching a recording of Harry Hill's TV Burp (another award winner) you know that the format is designed to be played off against a live audience – and accept that the recording is a relay of an event you would ideally have liked to be present at but are more than happy to watch at second hand. Such a show without a laugh track would be like an FA Cup final without a crowd.
With many sitcoms, though, the action occupies an imaginary immediacy. It's not happening some time earlier. It's happening now and you are who it is principally aimed at – not the 300 people who managed to get tickets for the night of the recording. So you can justifiably feel piqued if they loom too large in your experience. Worse than that, their laughter seems to be giving you instructions about when you should laugh – and, in all too many cases, making that less likely to happen out of sheer contrariness. It's an entirely good thing that we're slowly being weaned off our dependency on this pre-packaged reaction. The best comedies make you grow your own.
Religious fervour is not admirable
It didn't take long for the Rt Rev Dr Stephen Venner, right, the new bishop to the armed forces, to do a reverse-ferret on his comments about the Taliban – apologising if anyone had been offended and claiming that his words had been "taken out of context" by The Daily Telegraph. But I'm not sure what context you could add to the suggestion that "the Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other" that would make it sound less naïve and wrong-headed.
There are things which even soldiers on the ground might admire the Taliban for: combatants often do acquire a grudging respect for their opponents' courage or powers of endurance. But the Taliban's religious fervour is the last thing that should be on a list of positive virtues since it is the very thing that makes them impervious to the kind of reasoned dialogue the bishop was advocating. His remark is a fine example of the deep misapprehension of many religious people that they have more in common with other believers – however violent and cruel their interpretation of the faith – than they do with non-believing liberals.
The Taliban would probably feel fully entitled to kill Dr Venner if they came across him in the wrong circumstances – for any number of nugatory doctrinal differences. I, on the other hand, would defend his right to say silly things – reserving only the right to contradict him.
Don't vote for X Factor politics
The suggestion that Simon Cowell might be expanding the X Factor format to cover political issues, made in a Newsnight interview, is distinctly unnerving – but not unsurprising.
The idea seemed to be that hot-button issues such as knife crime, capital punishment and immigration would provide the raw material for studio debates (complete, one assumes, with audience supporters waving foam-rubber hands and home-made "Hang 'Em" posters). There would be viewer call-ins to decide the issue and even, Cowell proposed, a red telephone in the studio so that politicians could ring up to curry favour with the mob.
The red telephone reminded me of Noel Edmonds, who also took on hot political issues in his series Noel's HQ – and occasionally seemed to get carried away by the idea that he was Tribune for the Plebeians, promoting "ordinary decent common sense" (rarely decent or sensible) against a Patrician Them.
Perhaps Cowell has succumbed to the same delusion, that entertainment celebrity can be traded for demagoguery. Perhaps he's not remotely interested in politics per se and simply wants to expand the franchise to promising new territory. But nothing good can come of the thing either way.
Should he carry out his threat it will become a civic duty for us to watch the damn programmes, in order to counter the activism of single-issue nutters. As Edmund Burke certainly didn't say, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men don't bother to phone-vote".