One of the questions I’ve had to answer in conducting my PhD research is how I’m going to define what I’m looking at when I research British Television Comedy. More specifically, because I’m conducting interviews with ‘comedy professionals’, how will I know to whom it will be pertinent for me to speak. While I had some intuitive understanding of the comedy workers it would be more relevant to speak to, I’ve tried to investigate how those who work in the industry itself define what comedy is. With respect to my case study of Channel 4, it was useful to ask why the Comedy Departments deal with certain types of “scripted comedy” as opposed to other manifestations of funniness that might be broadcast. As interviews have gone on, what seemed at first a methodological issue to resolve in advance of the research interviews, has become a central question for the research itself to interrogate: How do the distinctions between what is and isn’t “Channel 4 Comedy”, as defined by the broadcaster itself, tell us about how different types of comedy are constructed within the institution?
This question presented itself as a result of the potential to study a variety of productions under the banner of creativity in comedy at Channel 4. So many fulfil some semblance of comedic criteria or signification and are produced or scripted in ways that signal comic pleasures: Four Lions; 8 Out of 10 Cats; Drifters; Friends; Peep Show; Shameless; Ali G; The Big Bang Theory; Fresh Meat; Brasseye; Father Ted; Gogglebox; Peter Kay: Live at the Manchester Arena; Anna and Katy; Alan Carr: Chatty Man; Made in Chelsea (well, I think MiC is funny and I don’t think anyone would argue that that isn’t deliberate). All of these productions contain a vast array of sitcom traits, joking and comic play that we as audiences are invited to laugh at. But while many of them appear in the “Comedy” section on the 4od website they are not all regarded as “television comedy”. That is, not all are necessarily “Channel 4 Comedy” by virtue of the fact that they are not all overseen by the Comedy Department. These distinctions seem obvious to the Channel 4 comedy workers I’ve spoken to at commissioning level, but, being obsessed with what counts as “funny”, and in this case what counts as Comedy with a capital “C”, I wanted to look at how these distinctions are made within the industry. How is the decision made as to what is included in the slate of the Channel 4 Comedy Department and what can be homed elsewhere?
Take US imports, a staple part of the C4 comedy output. Channel 4 has a clear brand and a clear remit to provide a certain type of television service. As the flagship channel’s viewers have recently been reminded by the “Born Risky” campaign, Channel 4 has a specific job in being alternative, challenging and experimental. Whether we believe How I Met Your Mother or Friends are any of those things is a judgement for another conversation (that sounds sarcastic, I’m not being sarcastic – I genuinely mean that’s just not the question I’m asking). But in acquiring these or any other US sitcom it’s fair to assume that there is something “Channel 4” enough about these comedy programmes that broadcasting them doesn’t compromise Channel 4’s remit; they are part of how C4 chooses to serve its purpose and they are part of the brand. Channel 4 doesn’t advertise them as CBS or NBC programmes that they’ve brought to the British television audience. So, to again use the broadcaster’s name as an adjective in a way I do find sort of irksome, if they are “Channel 4” and they are “Comedy”, why aren’t they Channel 4 Comedy? Audiences seem to think they are.
When I met with Shane Allen at the BBC for a retrospective look at his time at Channel 4 he said that he often heard from people praising Channel 4 Comedy’s past output and remembering its “halcyon days”.
“That was the weird thing, about my time at Channel 4…because people would say ‘I used to really like Channel 4 but it’s gone downhill’. And you’d go ‘well, what did you like?’ and they go ‘I remember I used to watch Friends, Frasier and South Park…’, and you go ‘yeah, all the imports then?’”.
When asked about his own understanding of Channel 4 comedy and what iconic shows define it, it’s “Ali G, Brasseye…Father Ted”.
The distinction between US imports and original British comedy is not a surprising one for the former Head of Comedy at Channel 4 to make: like any purchased import where the rights to show the programme initially belong to somebody else, they’re dealt with by the Acquisitions Department, not the Comedy Department at all. The fact that people were remembering the two kinds of programmes together, however, side by side and even comparing them was “frustrating” not least because imports “were cheaper than making original British comedy and they did better”. Challenged by audiences to live up to American sitcoms’ “glamorous and aspirational” styles he felt they misunderstood what he was meant to be doing; mimicking American sitcom wasn’t Channel 4’s Comedy Department made when C4 were broadcasting Friends or Frasier and it wasn’t what they were making when Shane was in charge.
But Channel 4 doesn’t make any of its programmes itself per se – it publishes independent production companies’ programmes, it’s not a producer of content in the same way the BBC is. So how is this acquisition process that dissimilar to the work done by the Comedy Department in commissioning a new sitcom? What’s happening in the Comedy Department that is more than just ‘acquiring’ a programme?
To take another kind of programme that might make us laugh, I asked Shane about panel and quiz shows and how they contributed to the comedy slate, either in his current position as Head of Comedy at the BBC or in his time at Channel 4. Surely that’s part of Channel 4 Comedy? There’s a live studio audience, audibly laughing and an array of sparring comedians with identifiable Channel 4 comedy talent, such as Jimmy Carr, David Mitchell or Adam Hills, front and centre. “Well that’s more of an entertainment thing than a scripted comedy thing”.
True enough, 8 Out of 10 Cats or The Last Leg might rely on comic content and joke telling for their pleasures, and might even be sponsored by Fosters lager under the slogan “Original Comedy on 4”, but they belong to the Entertainment Department. The hashtag #fostersfunny might also suggest the ‘fostering of comedy talent’ of which the Comedy Department is said to be in charge. As current Deputy Head of Comedy at C4 Nerys Evans stated, the broadcaster has a responsibility to “develop talent”. Panel shows are good, as Shane put it “for getting new blood through…they’re useful breeding grounds”. So arguably there is a talent development process happening in 8 Out of 10 Cats or The Last Leg that brings comedians to a wider audience and fulfils a role of championing new comedy talent. In terms of whether or not these shows are “scripted”, links, games and jokes that provide a lot of the comedy are often written in advance, so it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a kind of scriptwriting talent happening as well.
So these programmes are comedy, there are comedians present, they are scripted and there is arguably talent development going on, but this isn’t “scripted comedy” because it doesn’t allow itself to be seen as scripted. Ultimately panel and quiz shows, no matter how comic, aren’t where sitcom or sketch show talent is fostered, so it isn’t Comedy with a capital ‘C’.
The concern is then, what happens when audiences lump all that stuff together, like the 4od web site does. What happens when audiences are happy with laughing only at comedy that’s being provided by the Acquisitions Department and not that which is being commissioned through the Comedy Department? And why does there need to be a separate commissioning process for this specific television comedy format? It’s the remit not just of Channel 4 but its Comedy Department specifically that means that something is happening when Channel 4 broadcast Peep Show which isn’t happening when it broadcasts The Big Bang Theory or 8 Out of 10 Cats. And that isn’t to do with the extent to which the programme uses comedy to engage its viewers or the extent to which the dialogue is scripted.
What this tells us is that the development of new comedy talent is a specific job at Channel 4 and that it is those working in scripted comedy, sitcom and sketch comedy, that need special attention in their own department.
The aim is finding a way of making a programme that will work for that emerging performer fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe or the writing team with a promising sitcom draft. Nerys sees her role also as “making connections between people”, introducing those new to the industry to location managers, production companies, script editors or the directors that will help realise their creative ideas. She referred specifically to helping recent sitcom newcomers London Irish writer Lisa McGee and Drifterswriter Jessica Knapett make those kinds of connections. So commissioning within the Comedy Department is specific to developing a specific type of comedy. This isn’t to say that talent development and creativity doesn’t go on in other departments; again, this is a part of Channel 4’s remit across the board. But what it means to develop new creativity in comedy is to champion those who ascribe to this understanding of “scripted” comedy.
While it would be presumptuous and careless to suggest that no creative consideration is taken in the process of choosing which sitcoms to import from foreign producers, the Acquisitions Department is not responsible for the process of developing talent nor does it play into that part of Channel 4’s remit which enlists the broadcaster as a place for experiment with new British talent.
In terms of how Channel 4 differentiates between the British funny stuff it commissions that needs special attention and that which can be commissioned elsewhere under the Entertainment Department, perhaps there is a familiar distinction being made here: between ‘difficult’ art that needs time and investment in order to achieve its potential and that which can rely on personalities, those of stand ups and bigger name presenters for example, to attract popularity. The Entertainment Department’s commissioning page says it’s looking for material with a “broad appeal”, a statement quite at odds with Nerys’s enthusiasm to commission comedy that appeals in a big way to a small audience or that is “divisive”.
Ultimately, Channel 4, through its departmental structure, makes a statement about the kind of comedy that needs help and the kind of comedy that doesn’t. Though these lines are often blurred by online categorisation and sponsorship slogans, there is a distinction too about what counts as Channel 4’s Comedy with a big ‘C’. Now if only audiences were to make the same distinction…
Erica Horton began studying comedy during a year abroad at San Francisco State University, for her BA in Film and American Studies with the University of East Anglia. This interest was pursued in her Masters dissertation, ‘No Girls Allowed: Gender Politics in the Contemporary Film Comedy of Judd Apatow and the Frat Pack’. During time away from academia, Erica writes sketch comedy and produces a podcast as part of writing duo Bad Jacket. Returning to UEA, Erica is working towards an academic career, researching comedy performance, agency and creative processes in film and television studies.