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Channel 4 Comedy

How the fourth channel made us laugh, and defined its remit at the same time

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Though covering a wide range of programming (from one-offs to series, sketch shows to sitcoms, new talent to big names, experimentation to ratings winners and marketable brands), Channel 4's comedy output has altered the broadcasting landscape, while at its inventive, provocative or controversial best, comedy has in turn helped to define the channel's identity.

Associations with 'alternative' comedy began with the opening night's screening of 'Five Go Mad in Dorset' (tx. 2/11/1982). This was the first production from The Comic Strip Presents... (C4/BBC2, 1982-2005), a strand of self-contained films from 'alternative' figures including Adrian Edmonson, Rik Mayall, Peter Richardson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. The BBC debuted Strip regulars on Boom Boom... Out Go the Lights (BBC, 1980-81) and initiated The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84), but were hastened by the Strip. Widely variant in genre and style, The Comic Strip Presents' classics included 'The Strike' (tx. 20/1/1988), the satirical tale of Hollywood appropriating British history, and 'Mr Jolly Lives Next Door' (tx. 5/3/1988), a relentlessly violent, grubby distillation of the Mayall/Edmonson double-act.

Another high-profile 'alternative' platform was Saturday Live/Friday Night Live (1985-88). Stand-up, character monologues and sketches combined to break stars including Jo Brand, Julian Clary, Ben Elton, Harry Enfield, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. New talent emerged in The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross (1987-90) and Saturday Zoo (1993), not least host Ross, while less-remembered platforms included Anglo-American sketch show Assaulted Nuts (1985), stand-up vehicle The Entertainers (1983), and Packet of Three/Packing Them In (1991-92) featuring Frank Skinner. Who Dares Wins (1983-88) was a vital late-night sketch show from a team including Rory McGrath, Jimmy Mulville and Tony Robinson. Combining topicality with provocative breaches of taste, the series was censured by the channel after an advert parody of Christ on the cross accepting a certain brand of cigar. Controversy has followed many major Channel 4 comedies.

However, the channel has never just been an 'alternative' platform. Older comics appeared alongside newer ones, from Frankie Howerd on Saturday Live to Spike Milligan on The Last Laugh Before TV-am (tx. 2/12/1985). Mainstream sitcoms included Relative Strangers (1984-85), Father's Day (1983-84) and the escalating chaos of Chance in a Million (1984-86). 'Traditional' sitcom still broke ground: the women's refuge experiences woven into The Refuge (1987-88), or the mainstream multiculturalism of No Problem! (1983-85), Tandoori Nights (1985-87) and the vibrant Desmond's (1988-94).

Overseas comedy plays a vital role. American comedians including Emo Phillips, Rita Rudner and Steven Wright illuminated Saturday Live; Channel 4 filmed Bill Hicks and commissioned home-grown series such as The Unpleasant World of Penn and Teller (1994). Bought-in comedies in the channel's early days included the controversial broadcast of the 1979 Richard Pryor Live in Concert (tx. 5/11/1983) and, less fashionably but successfully, Australian archival imports such as The Paul Hogan Show (1973-82) and The Norman Gunston Show (1975-79) whose inept (in-character) interviews with major figures pre-empt Ali G and Borat. Hugely successful imported sitcoms included Cheers (US, 1982-93), Frasier (US, 1993-2004), The Golden Girls (US, 1985-92), The Cosby Show (US, 1984-92) and Roseanne (US, 1988-97). More conventional offerings such as Friends (US, 1994-2004) and Will and Grace (US, 1998-2006) were balanced by the less mainstream Dream On (US, 1990-96) and South Park (US, 1997-), and the cost of acquiring The Simpsons (US, 1989-) demonstrated the importance of big imports.

Home-grown and overseas talent united in Whose Line Is It Anyway? (1988-98), which reflected the growth of improvisational comedy and spawned an American version. A channel-defining hit brand, elements of its format were re-used by creators Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson in Mock the Week (BBC, 2005-). The makers of Whose Line..., Hat Trick (set up by Who Dares Wins cast members Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath with Denise O'Donoghue) showed the impact of Channel 4's 'publisher' remit, becoming a major independent production company. Their output included Roman Britain-set sitcom Chelmsford 123 (1988-90), inventive sketch show Paul Merton - The Series (1991-93), journalism parody This Is David Lander/This Is David Harper (1988-90) and the hit newsroom sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey (1990-98). Idiosyncratic classics from the turn of the 1990s included Absolutely (1989-93), Vic Reeves' Big Night Out (1990-91) and Paul Makin's undervalued Nightingales (1990-93).

Despite the risqué success of So Graham Norton (1998-2002) today's Channel 4 lacks an entertainment format akin to Saturday Live: there is instead the predictable Friday Night Project (2005-) or the restriction of stand-ups in ubiquitous panel shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats (2005-). Topical, political satire has varied from the consistently tough Bremner, Bird and Fortune (1999-) and The Mark Thomas Comedy Product (1996-2002) through Armando Iannucci's muted Gash (2003) to the critically hated 11 O' Clock Show (1998-2000), although that produced the headline-grabbing Da Ali G Show (2000). Comedy-drama landmarks include Green Wing (2004-06) and Teachers (2001-04). Pilot strands remain crucial in developing new shows: where A Bunch of Five (1992) produced Frank Skinner's agreeably filthy 'Blue Heaven' (tx. 10/6/1992) and Comedy Lab (1998-) the start of That Peter Kay Thing (1999-2000), the recent Comedy Showcase (2007-) has already yielded commissions for series of Plus One and The Kevin Bishop Show.

C4 remains a source of inventive sketch comedy, including The Armando Iannucci Shows (2001), The Adam and Joe Show (1996-2001), Smack the Pony (1999-2003) and Chris Morris's work: the acidic, ultra-controversial media satire Brass Eye (1997, 2001) and hallucinogenic Jaaaaam (2000), a remix of Jam (2000). Sitcom has been invigorated by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews' Father Ted, Black Books (2000-04), Spaced (1999-2001), Peep Show (2003-) and Peter Kay's phenomenon Phoenix Nights (2001-02), which spawned the spin-off Max and Paddy's Road to Nowhere (2004). Linehan's The I.T. Crowd (2006-) is a welcome addition, rejecting the post-Office tendency for docu-embarrassment-sitcom in favour of a traditional (though neatly skewed) approach.

Channel 4's restatement of its remit in 2007 included renewed investment in comedy. This reflects the degree to which its comedy output helps the channel to deliver the combination of experimentation, subversion and commercial success that are signposted by its difficult remit and critical reputation.

Dave Rolinson

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