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Part Five: From South Park to Scrubs


By TJ Worthington

First published May 2003

One of the few present day performers to understand that the key to comic surrealism is to be original rather than to slavishly copy other people’s successful acts, Harry Hill had found only limited television exposure until his first headlining series on Channel 4 in 1997.

Framed by Hill’s insane observations on the world around him (“Chimpanzees – why the centre parting? They’re stuck in the 1920s!”), each episode of Harry Hill was a whirlwind tour of characters and events that peopled the imaginary world of the man with the huge collars; including his “Chief Scientist” Finsbury Park, loyal feline companion Stouffer, belt-obsessed brother Alan with his mute son little Alan, the permanently-troubled Badger Parade, and Harry’s pathological aversion to Savlon, which had the undesirable side effect of transforming him into an edition of Channel 4 News.

To those who appreciated his surrealist style and precise use of catchphrases (often inserted at the exact same point in the show each week), Harry Hill was a fantastic show and two further series ensued in 1998 and 1999, following which Hill moved to ITV where he strove hard to keep the format fresh by introducing new characters, most notably the “Controller of Channel 4″ – a gaudy ventriloquist dummy in a suit who was frequently found beating his brow and shouting “why do they stare?” Oddly, Harry Hill was invariably tucked away in a late night slot, despite the fact that its refreshingly “clean” humour was both eminently suitable for and well deserving of a wider family audience.

Far from suitable for a family audience, the hit American animation South Park made its debut on Channel 4 in 1998. Set in the fictitious town of the same name, South Park revolved around four school kids – Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny (who was killed off in every single episode) – and their alternately cynical and ignorant view of the world around them. South Park is something of a mixed bag, veering uneasily between tedious lavatorial humour and genuine social commentary with a satirical point to make, and while some episodes have been largely nondescript, others – notably the one in which Cartman spearheads a Civil War re-enactment that gets carried away with its own self-importance and turns into a genuine remounting of the Civil War – have been excellent. Although somewhat lacking when compared to the outright brilliance of Beavis and Butthead, South Park is nonetheless more often diverting and entertaining than not, and remains one of the few cult animations that Channel 4 have afforded a relatively stable timeslot.

Stand-up comedian Graham Norton had proved to be an unexpected success when standing in as host of Channel 5′s The Jack Docherty Show in 1997, and the following year he secured his own talk show slot with Channel 4. Initially at least, So Graham Norton tried to push past the usual parameters of the celebrity-driven talk show, incorporating interaction with eccentrics discovered on the internet, audience members volunteering to perform absurd tasks outside the studio, and the guests (which included big name Americans) being encouraged to take part in silly sketches. However, this soon became stale and formulaic, and although So Graham Norton (recently renamed V Graham Norton) continues to run to healthy viewing figures, it is still reliant on “innovations” that were introduced over four years ago and to which little thought appears to now be applied.

To be fair, the show is still capable of hitting the mark when Norton is lucky enough to be blessed with both a topical concern that he can really get to grips with and a guest that understands the format of the show and has a couple of decent anecdotes to tell. A notable example of this came in the 2002 show broadcast the night before the final of Big Brother 3 which featured a wonderfully entertaining Dustin Hoffman. The limitations, however, have been clear for a while now and it will be interesting to see if Norton senses the need to revamp the format for any future outings.

Some had voiced concern by this point that South Park and So Graham Norton represented a serious downturn in the quality of Channel 4′s comedy output and that for the first time ever they were pandering explicitly to the lowest common denominator. However, even these two shows , both occasionally entertaining in their own way, can not have been enough to prepare them for what was just around the corner. September 1998 saw the launch of The 11 O’clock Show, a thrice-weekly “news alternative” that was written and recorded on the day of transmission to ensure maximum topicality. Fronted by Fred Macauley and Brendon Burns, this largely unremarkable and inoffensive test run gave worrying hints of the severe limitations of the format, seemingly struggling to find enough decent material to fill each half-hour edition. When the second series arrived early in 1999, Macauley and Burns were gone, replaced by Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan, and the worst comedy show ever seen on Channel 4 was well underway.

Any pretence of relevance to the week’s news seemingly flew out of the window, replaced by a nasty and sneering brand of humour that took aim at such thoroughly undeserving targets as the disabled, homosexuality, anorexia and even, in one particularly shameful moment, the death of Cilla Black’s husband – all in one long parade of shameful shock-tactic attention-seeking by writers and performers who were only in it to get their name noticed. Ideas were blatantly “borrowed” from Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Lee and Herring, Victor Lewis-Smith, Candid Camera, Clive James and countless others, seemingly without any understanding of what had driven the original comic invention in the first place, and infused with a casual and pointless cruelty that none of the above artists would ever have employed.

Momentary relief was provided by the spoof interviews by Sacha Baron-Cohen in the guise of Ali G, but even these soon became tiresome and repetitive, concentrating on the idea of getting the audience to laugh at “uncool” people in suits or those who were passionate about genuine causes. The team were soon joined by Ricky Gervais, who brought with him a routine based on “offensive material” that was both tedious because the audience were expecting him to say something “shocking”, and unconvincing as Donovan and Lee were forced to momentarily drop their own “nasty” personas to fit in with the idea of making Gervais look unpleasant and reprehensible. Amazingly, the series actually got worse as it progressed, reaching a nadir when Donovan saw out 1999 with a particularly nasty joke at the expense of Dudley Moore’s brave public admission that he was suffering from an incurable brain disease. An attempt was made in 2000 to dig The 11 O’clock Show out of the hole that it so thoroughly deserved to be in, roping in Jon Holmes and Sarah Alexander as new presenters and bringing in a new team of writers that were urged to avoid the unpleasant excesses of earlier series. The basic fundamental flaws of the format, however, still proved insurmountable and by the end of 2000 The 11 O’clock Show was mercifully gone for good.

However, the legacy of the series was to linger on unpleasantly in a series of spin-offs featuring the “stars”, which seemed to plumb ever increasing depths of uselessness and banality. Da Ali G Show saw Baron-Cohen stretch everything that had ever been interesting about the character far beyond breaking point, Meet Ricky Gervais was billed as a provocative chat show that asked the questions of celebrities that no-one else would dare ask but in fact was nothing of the sort (and, despite what the mindset that has emerged in the wake of Gervais’ BBC sitcom success The Office might have you believe, went virtually unnoticed at the time and was generally dismissed by those who saw it), and Donovan’s twin vehicles Does Doug Know? and Daisy Daisy which were essentially her dismal contributions from the earlier series stretched out over a half-hour slot. Ironically, it was only Iain Lee – by far the most offensively bad of the regular performers on The 11 O’clock Show – who managed to avoid this trap. Realizing where his true abilities lay, he switched to presenting celebrity scandal documentaries and video game review shows, which are far better suited to his abilities and have allowed him to become a competent and relatively likeable performer.

But even in the throes of The 11 O’clock Show at its most pathetic and reprehensible, there was other more interesting fare on offer, including the unexpected return of The Comic Strip to Channel 4. Their last BBC production had aired in 1993, and many had assumed that the project had been unofficially brought to a conclusion. However, early in 1998, Richardson, Planer, Edmondson, Mayall, French and Saunders reunited for a one-off special entitled “Four Men and a Car”. Although reactions to the new production were mixed and it certainly did not reach quite the same heights as the best of the original shows, “Four Men and a Car” was certainly at the very least watchable and entertaining fare, and was well received enough to lead to a sequel, “Four Men and a Plane”, in 2000.

Surprisingly, it had taken until 1999 for Channel 4 to air their first all-female sketch show, but Smack the Pony was well worth the wait. Featuring Fiona Allen, Doon MacKichan and the remarkably versatile Sally Phillips – all of whom had spent much of the previous decade as hugely underrated supporting players in some fantastic shows – the series avoided stereotypical “female humour” as much as possible, casting the trio in odd sketches that ranged from psychotic marriage proposals to the three of them doing showgirl dancing in front of moving traffic for no obvious reason whatsoever, and concluding with spot-on pastiches of various popular musical acts of the moment, from chart stars like B*Witched and Natalie Imbruglia to relatively obscure indie outfits like Kenickie and Velocette.

Blasted by some for supposedly trading on the looks of the lead players, Smack the Pony was actually a show with a sense of depth and substance that was missing from most other comedies of the time. Two further series followed in 2000 and 2001, and although the inevitable diversification of the cast into other projects makes a fourth series seem unlikely, Smack the Pony is certainly still popular enough to warrant one.

Meanwhile, having found considerable success with his earlier BBC2 series TV Nation, the provocative American filmmaker Michael Moore made a long-awaited return to British television in 1999 with the Channel 4 series Michael Moore – The Awful Truth. Like Mark Thomas, while Moore’s shows are broadly comic in intent, they strive to tackle serious points and expose unsavoury behaviour in the business and political worlds. Michael Moore – The Awful Truth did not disappoint in the latter respect, but there was something not quite right about the production as a whole – the pacing seemed strangely stilted, and each show was bookended by what virtually amounted to stand-up performances from Moore, something with which he seemed decidedly ill-at-ease. Overall, Michael Moore – The Awful Truth was a promising and worthwhile venture that fell strangely short of expectations, and while Moore has been concentrating on other projects (including his recent book Stupid White Men), a second series has not been forthcoming.

Spaced, a sitcom written and created by lead players Simon Pegg and Jessica Stephenson, made its first appearance on Channel 4 in the autumn of 1999. The series revolves around two idle twentysomething flatmates – immature skateboarding would-be comic artist Tim Bisley, and moody, responsibility-shy writer Daisy Steiner – and their self-induced lack of success in employment, relationships and life in general. Filmed in a fast-moving, rapidly-edited visual style, Spaced was let down somewhat by constant self-conscious allusions to “trendy” facets of popular culture, hype that proclaimed it to be “groundbreaking” when in fact it was nothing of the sort, and above all an irritating and thoroughly distracting insistence on awkwardly crowbarring in references to films and television programmes in a manner that was practically impenetrable to anyone who was not familiar with the original source material.

Yet despite all this, at heart Spaced is a well-intentioned, immensely likeable and above average sitcom, a victim of its own hype and unashamed audience-baiting tactics perhaps but with far stronger potential lurking just beyond these. While the series was good enough with these elements in place, it’s worth pondering on how it might have turned out if the cast and crew had managed to look past such shortcomings. A second series of Spaced appeared in 2001 and a third series is currently under consideration.

As the end of the 20th century approached, Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, created his own vision of the future in a new series. Somewhat more directly adult-orientated than his more famous creation, Futurama followed the experiences of Fry, a lazy and unkempt 20th century Earthman who had accidentally been put into suspended animation and was revived several millennia in the future, taking up residence with his nearest living descendant – an ancient professor – and his oddball assortment of staff.

With the quality of The Simpsons having dipped somewhat in recent years, Futurama benefited enormously from Groening’s obvious enthusiasm for a fresh project, and while it’s hardly constructive to compare and contrast the two shows as they adopt very different approaches, Futurama consistently achieved highs that were worthy of The Simpsons at its best. Having missed out on The Simpsons, Channel 4 were quick to buy up Futurama, but unfortunately they seemed unsure of what to do with it. Early episodes were given a consistent early evening timeslot, but were often heavily edited to remove material judged unsuitable for a younger audience. After this, they seemingly gave up completely, dropping the series into the schedules at random,without warning and in ridiculously inappropriate timeslots (including, at one point, Saturday mornings), while the already loyal fanbase looked on with dismay as yet another strong American import floundered in the face of dismal scheduling policy.

Early in 2000, the first edition of Trigger Happy TV was broadcast on Channel 4. Created by Dom Joly, formerly political adviser for BBC2′s topical satire shows The Saturday Night Armistice and The Friday Night Armistice, the hidden camera show had begun as a series of inserts produced for the cable television station Paramount Comedy, before a pilot was made as part of Channel 4′s Comedy Lab tryout series and duly developed into a series in its own right. Backed by excerpts from guitar pop records, Joly’s stunts were occasionally reasonably inventive, but for the most part unimaginative and highly repetitive (most notoriously his “answering a giant mobile phone” gag, which was already starting to wear thin by the third week).

Nonetheless, the series became an enormous success – not least because many of the running gags were easily imitated and the proliferation of what were effectively “catchphrases”. A second series appeared in 2001 along with a handful of specials and the baffling Being Dom Joly. Another Joly-fronted series, 100 Things To Do Before You Die, was abandoned during production and Joly later moved on from Channel 4 altogether, signing a deal with the BBC to present a chat show (which recently debuted on BBC3‘s launch night).

Channel 4 has also aired the pathetic and staggeringly immature Jackass, essentially an American equivalent of Trigger Happy TV featuring dangerous and utterly pointless stunts, which isn’t really worth dwelling on. Trigger Happy TV itself was the first real manifestation of a malaise that has dogged much of Channel 4′s home-grown comedy over the last couple of years: namely the promotion and elevation of decidedly average shows as somehow innovative and groundbreaking, and seeming to value the interest generated by publicity above any that might be generated by the actual quality of the content. The better shows to have suffered from this have been weighed down by the initial hype, and the worse examples have caused viewers to question why they even bothered tuning in on the recommendation of a few quotes copied from a press release in the first place. And over the next couple of years, there was much worse than Trigger Happy TV to come – including such below par and inexplicably talked-up fare as Small Potatoes, The Book Group, Los Dos Bros, This Week Only and The Estate Agents.

Following the controversy over Brass Eye, Chris Morris had returned to Radio 1 to create the late-night show Blue Jam, an intriguing and forward thinking combination of ambient music and fragmentary, surreal snatches of monologue and conversation, that ran to low listening figures but widespread acclaim for three series between 1997 and 1999. Moves to produce a television version actually began in 1998, but the series did not make it to air until early in 2000. jam, as it was renamed for television, appeared to have the odds stacked against it from the outset as it was an attempt to visualize a very non-visual form of comedy, and many expressed doubts that it could actually be successfully translated in any way. As it turned out, the series was far from the unworkable disaster that some had anticipated, but all the same it paled next to Blue Jam.

For a start the structure was very different, eschewing the radio series’ tactic of separating sketches with full-length ambient music tracks and simply presenting them straight after one another. Similarly, while much of the sketch material was lifted directly from the original radio episodes, there was a tendency towards that with a high “shock” humour quotient whereas the originals had combined these with equal measures of whimsy and downright inexplicable weirdness. The material was generally presented as a straightforward visual enactment, utilizing the same team that had appeared in the radio version, but the key strength of jam was that is was little short of visually arresting, reshaping the onscreen action through disorientating screen filters and image manipulation. In fact, an even wilder edit of the series with far denser visual distortion was prepared, and duly transmitted in the small hours of Sunday morning under the title Jaaaaam.

Although never less than fascinating viewing, jam was good rather than great, and it’s telling that the majority of sketches that worked well had been written specifically for television and had never appeared in the radio version. Given a wholly inappropriate timeslot – sandwiched between Drop the Dead Donkey and The 11 O’clock Show and transmitted without a commercial break – the “shock” humour in jam inevitably upset some viewers, and eventually the Broadcasting Standards Council ruled that the series had indeed gone beyond the accepted boundaries of taste and decency. With fans less excited than they had been post-Brass Eye, and reputedly even Morris himself considering the series to have been an experiment that failed, jam was quietly set aside and to date a second series has not been forthcoming. If nothing else, though, jam did at least prove that Channel 4 was still keen to support challenging and decidedly off-kilter comedy.

Channel 4′s new digital television service, E4, was launched in 2000. Initial hopes that the station might prove to be an outlet for new comedy projects were dashed when it became apparent that it exists mainly to provide additional showings of programmes that will eventually appear on the main channel anyway. As well as playing host to the premiere showing of new episodes of various American imports, E4 also presented debut showings for a number of comedy series that would later make it onto Channel 4 itself to varying degrees of success.

One example was Banzai, an absurd cod-Japanese “betting” show that saw viewers invited to place bets on the length of time that celebrities would keep shaking hands with a reporter or remain standing in front of a microphone wielded by a silent interviewer. Other bets tested the ability of celebrities to perform unlikely tasks (Tony Hart undertaking a DJ-ing assignment at retirement home is perhaps the best example of the sheer ridiculousness at work), or invited viewers to try and guess which person in an identity parade was a member of the public with some strange eccentricity. The programme quickly transferred to Channel 4 to considerable success.

Although some original web-based comedy has appeared on the E4 website, to date the only E4 comedy programme not to make it onto Channel 4 in any form has been Show Me the Funny, a sketch show that supposedly had its running order compiled from votes cast by users of the website.

Following the success of Father Ted, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews had enjoyed mixed fortunes, and many felt that they had not quite managed to live up to the promise of their earlier hit. Their BBC2 sketch show Big Train was patchy and veered between moments of greatness and run-of-the-mill whimsy by numbers, and their unfairly maligned sitcom Hippies polarized audience opinion wildly. In 2000, Linehan alone returned to Channel 4 to co-write the sitcom Black Books with Dylan Moran.

Black Books starred Moran as Bernard Black, a foul-tempered layabout who despite hating books and the people who read them had somehow ended up owning a bookshop. Alongside him there was Tamsin Grieg as Fran, the eccentric owner of the shop next door, and Bill Bailey as Manny, a former accountant who had been forced to seek work in the bookshop after losing his job as the result of a run-in with Bernard. Black Books once again failed to fully recapture the excellence and sheer joy of Father Ted, but the combination of Moran’s startling portrayal of the sulky bookseller and the ridiculous storylines (which took in everything from Fran learning piano from a blind teacher to Manny falling under the spell of a sleazy photographer, and Bernard’s inexplicable desire to have his legs broken) made it a well above average offering and certainly one of the stronger and more consistent comedy series seen on Channel 4 in recent years. A second run appeared early in 2002, and at the time of writing a third set is currently in production.

Black Books was good, but the real evidence that, even in the face of the ubiquity of career-surfing graduates of The 11 O’clock Show, Channel 4 is still committed to original and distinctive comedy has come from the promising work of Peter Kay. Younger than many of his contemporaries, Kay had found only relatively low key television work before being offered the chance to make his own series for Channel 4. Unusually for such a newcomer to television, Kay was keen to write, direct and appear in any future television projects, and following a well received contribution to Comedy Lab in 1999, Channel 4 were so convinced of his abilities that they afforded him the opportunity to do this.

That Peter Kay Thing in 2000 was essentially a series of pilots, each showcasing various characters and scenarios that Kay had developed, in a mock documentary format with Andrew Sachs providing the narrative voice-over. One of these, set in a dismal working men’s club that suffers from an escalating but thoroughly deserved run of bad luck, was considered strong enough to sustain a series in its own right, and with some reworking Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights made its debut in 2001.

Headed by the wheelchair-bound Brian Potter (a virtuoso performance by Kay), the staff of the Phoenix Club are a miserable shower with ambitions and aspirations far above their own level of intelligence and competence, and over the course of the series their doomed attempts at providing something resembling entertainment eventually lead to the club being gutted by fire, courtesy of shifty local rival Den Perry (Ted Robbins). Undaunted, Potter rounded up his loyal but useless staff for a second series in 2002, determined to get one over on Perry with the aid of refurbished premises, a few fraudulently obtained licenses and certificates, and a lot of Japanese beer. Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights is a consistent and acutely observed series decorated with occasional flashes of outright brilliance, and Kay’s devotion to being involved in all aspects of production is both admirable and compelling. Watching the series, there is a sense that he has yet to fully hit his stride, and the viewer is left with a sense of curiosity about how he will next apply his clearly developing talents.

A long-awaited repeat run of Brass Eye in 2001 prompted Chris Morris to return to the studio to make a new episode, a one-off special dealing with the subject of paedophilia. Great things were both expected and promised of Morris tackling the subject, not least in the face of recent tabloid hysteria about the subject and associated mob violence on the streets. Unfortunately the end product failed to deliver. The Brass Eye special was an enormous comedown after the original series (which, it should be noted, still seemed as hard hitting on its repeat run), mostly consisting of inconclusive sketch material that lacked the drive that had been so evident in the original series, and the inferior repackaging of jokes that had appeared prominently in his earlier projects. Broadcast after the ratings-topping penultimate edition of Big Brother 2, the special provoked as much notoriety and controversy as Channel 4 and Morris presumably hoped it would. But while those who missed the point and labeled it “offensive” rowed furiously with those who were prepared to defend it to the last as “an important piece of media satire that had to be made”, many less excitable viewers were simply left staring with disinterest and disillusionment.

By way of total contrast, one of Morris’ close collaborators was about to stage an impressive return to form. Having produced such genuinely groundbreaking radio and television comedy series as On the Hour, Knowing Me, Knowing You and the near-perfect current affairs parody The Day Today for the BBC in the early 1990s, Iannucci had returned to his roots as a performer for the topical satire series The Saturday Night Armistice (later The Friday Night Armistice), which ran for several series between 1995 and 1999. Following the final series, Iannucci had fallen out badly with the BBC, and secured a deal with Channel 4 to develop a new series.

More than two years in the making, The Armando Iannucci Shows were carefully and meticulously crafted as a step away from the news-based humour for which he was best known up to that point. While the Armistice shows were often weighed down by the demands of their format and moments of outright genius frequently became lost among lesser material, The Armando Iannucci Shows returned to the whimsical, laid-back approach of his earlier radio series In Excess, and centred around peculiar observations on life and society rather than current affairs. The resultant series was one of the best television comedies witnessed since Iannucci’s early 1990s heyday, packed with superb extended sketches (most memorably a rueful and vitriolic routine about the phrase that had haunted his childhood: “… except for viewers in Scotland”) that succeeded in recapturing the drive of his humour that had fallen somewhat by the wayside during the Armistice years. At the time of going to publication, Iannucci has seemed to revert back to his topical humour with a news revue show, Gash.

While recent years have seen the channel’s Stateside imports often swamped by strip scheduling and constant repeats of established viewer favourites, not to mention the ludicrously disproportionate promotion and elevation of such bland fare as Will and Grace in the quest to find a new Friends, worthwhile imports are still finding their way onto the air and there is no better example of this than Scrubs.

An unusual mixture of sitcom elements, acidic dialogue, first person narration, slapstick and surreal visual humour, Scrubs details the hectic working life of medical intern JD Dorian (Zach Braff) as he tries to adjust to the demands of his profession. And that isn’t easy in the company of a roommate that he’s gradually growing apart from, a pretty but scatty and na├»ve working partner, a patronizing and officious chief medic, a paranoid mentor and a porter who, for no tangible reason, hates him with a vengeance. Scrubs is without question the strongest and most distinctive Stateside comedy import to appear on Channel 4 since Friends, and although presently hampered by a frustratingly late timeslot, there is every chance that the series could take off over here in the same way as it has done in America.

As Channel 4 celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s interesting to look back over the history of the channel’s comedy output. A certain sense of downturn does appear to have set in over the last couple of years, not least with the arrival of such woeful fare as the tiresome Bo Selecta, which appears to have turned the pursuit of the lowest common denominator into an art form and seems a long way from “Five Go Mad in Dorset” both in terms of style and quality. On the other hand, though, there is the fact that there are now more hours to fill (when the channel was first launched, it was on air for literally only about six or seven hours a day; now it operates a 24 hour service with little or no same-day repeats), and while bad television is still bad television whatever the circumstances, it should be noted that the channel still continues to turn out shows like Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights and The Armando Iannucci Shows. Admittedly these should be getting more attention than their all-hype-and-no-substance contemporaries, but the mere fact that they exist is encouragement enough in a sea of post-11 O’clock Show twaddle. A quick glance through broadcasting history will reveal that 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.

The lack of repeats or retrospectives to tie in with the 20th anniversary last year was a disappointment, considering the fantastic comedic legacy of the channel. Consider the sheer volume of successes that have appeared between 1982 and 2002; from the obvious huge hits like The Comic Strip Presents …, Cheers and Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out, through shows like The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, The Kids in the Hall and Sean’s Show that found their own small but devoted regular audience, right the way down to the wonderful obscurities and oddities that are remembered by few but treasured by those who do (any list of these would have to include The Curious Case of Santa Claus, No Problem!, The Optimist, The Kit Curran Radio Show, Relative Strangers, The National Theatre of Brent Presents …, The Giftie, Dick Spanner: Private Investigator, Buygones/Up Your Arts, Xerxes, The Groovy Fellers, Snakes and Ladders, Norbert Smith – A Life, Set of Six, Nightingales, Blue Heaven, The Weekenders and Zig and Zag – Entertainment Cops, to name but a handful!)

If they felt so inclined, Channel 4 could easily fill a dedicated repeat channel with hours and hours of sterling comedy without having to resort to showing the same five popular programmes over and over again, and perhaps this diversity, volume and overall high quality is their greatest achievement to date. But as well as celebrating the past, it’s also worth looking to the future. As long as the future does not contain anything resembling The 11 O’clock Show.

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