If there is ever one phrase that kills a sitcom’s chance of success it is ‘studio audience laughter’. A lot of people see it as being told when to laugh, which they object to. In many cases I understand and agree with their sentiments. A lot of comedies that use the laughter from the audience I just don’t find funny – Mrs Brown’s Boys, Miranda and Citizen Khan all struggle to raise a smile from me. However, I can’t really blame the studio laughter if I’m honest – Friends and Father Ted both used it, and I find them funny from start to finish (by the way, notice how I am not using the phrase canned laughter – that is because the phrase is inaccurate). So it must be the writing and acting that turns a comedy from terrible to side-splitting.

Which brings me to Count Arthur Strong, the latest Graham Linehan project. Linehan is a comedy hero of mine, creating the aforementioned Father Ted, The IT Crowd, and one of my all-time favourites Black Books. All of these, as it happens, used laughter from a studio audience, and were none the worse for it. Likewise with Count Arthur Strong,  the tale of a fallen comedy idol who strikes up an odd friendship with the son of his former comedy partner. It is daft, sweet, and (of course) funny.

It is also old-fashioned. Not old-fashioned in a bad sense, as in where the set up is the nuclear family and everyone has a set role in it. I mean in a good way. For instance Count Arthur (Steve Delaney, also a co-writer) and Michael (Rory Kinnear) may be at the centre of the episodes, but there is a good ensemble around them. Their roles may only be minor, but the interplay between the whole cast is beautifully done, with no character wasted.  Also, it is safe to watch as a family. I know that shouldn’t be a huge priority, but it is good to see that Linehan and Delaney have written something for a broad audience that still has its intelligence intact.

Like so much of Linehan’s work, the joy comes in the more demented moments. The ice cream van Count Arthur uses as cover for his Jack the Ripper tours. His tale of the salmon in the toilet. And my personal favourite, the piece of ham used as a mask for his rendition of The Phantom of the Opera. Yet it is impossible not to see the debt paid to great sitcoms of the past, many of whom used studio laughter and didn’t get savaged for it. Perhaps the truth is that some sitcoms work better with a laughter track, even if the critics don’t like it. Not that they ever like much to begin with.

 

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