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Worst on 4

Posted By Steve Williams On Monday, April 13, 2009 @ 3:33 pm In blog | Comments Disabled

When’s the last time you watched comedy on Channel 4?

There was some excitement the other day when it was revealed E4 sitcom The Inbetweeners had managed to beat The Graham Norton Show on BBC2 in the ratings. To be honest, it’s not that surprising – Norton’s show is vaguely amusing but it’s the same format as So Graham Norton a decade ago, the guests on that episode were dull and BBC2 aren’t helping scheduling it after serious documentaries that are hardly the most suitable lead-in. The big question, though, is that if E4 can pull in huge (for them) audiences for comedy, where the hell is the comedy on C4?

How many home-grown comedy shows are being screened on prime time C4 this week? The answer is… none. Unless you count Chris Moyles’ Quiz Night. Which we won’t. That’s even less than ITV1. In fact with three months of the year gone, I can only think of three they’ve screened – the Peep Show-by-numbers Plus One, the irritating and unfunny¬†Free Agents and the millionth series of The Sunday Night Project.

That’s hopeless, especially as C4′s Friday night used to be the stuff of legend. A decade or so ago you’d see US behemoths like Friends and Frasier and top British series like Father Ted. Okay, so some of it didn’t work (and I recall, for all the acclaim Spaced received, it was beaten by Ruth Rendell repeats on Channel 5 at the time), but the point was they were committed to comedy. Now look at Friday nights – at 9pm there’s Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA. Okay, so Ramsay is a big name for C4, but do we have to see all 13 episodes of this? Surely it’s of little relevance to the British audience? Show a couple as a novelty, maybe, but not the whole thing. Then at 10pm it’s a series of crap films like Date Movie. It’s as if they’ve just given up.

In fact C4 comedy, and Friday nights in particular, have been very poor for a while now. Andrew Newman, C4′s Head of Comedy, has just announced the axing of Tonightly, and with good grace is blaming “bloggers” for its failure. Definitely not because it wasn’t any good and was just a dreadful piece of satire-by-numbers, oh no. But even if Tonightly had been a hit and encouraged new talent, what would the channel have done with it?

Last year on Friday nights, C4 ran a series called New Heroes of Comedy, which in itself shows how poor the evening has got if they can run clip shows there (and they had the cheek to bill them as “Original comedy sponsored by Grolsch”). The idea, presumably, was to illustrate how the huge comedy stars of today have C4 to thank for their big break, but it felt more like an admission they didn’t become properly famous until they switched channels. Lucas and Walliams, for example, did stuff for iffy sketch shows like Barking for C4 but owe almost all their success to the Beeb (and they were doing Sir Bernard’s Stately Homes on BBC2 in 1999, a demeted series that nobody else would have risked) while Ricky Gervais is an even clearer cut case. All C4 found for him was a crap spoof chat show, so he went to the Beeb and made The Office.

The same is true of the current breed of comedy stars. Simon Amstell was on C4 for five years on Popworld but, other than a few derisory efforts on T4, they didn’t sem very interested in finding him anything else. Instead he quit, went to the BBC and is now a big star. Then there’s Harry Hill, of course, flung out at 11pm on C4 and now a prime time staple on ITV.

You could argue, though, that C4 shouldn’t be so concerned about that as their remit is to always look for the next big thing. Yet if that’s the case, how come they’re still allowing Peter Kay the opportunity to churn out his self-indulgent stuff, including devoting an hour to the making of the Amarillo video… four years later? Which was for the BBC anyway. How does Kay’s stuff fit in with their desire to innovate? And how come their big comedy name at the moment appears to be Jason Manford – basically, Peter Kay II?

In 2002, TJ Worthingon reviewed the first two decades of C4′s comedy and suggested, “the channel has always undergone peaks and troughs in comedy, and while this trough is worryingly deeper than any that it has undergone previously, hopefully the next peak will be just around the corner”. Six and a half years on, we’re still waiting.

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