CHANNEL 4'S FUNNY FORTNIGHT
Days and times vary, Channel 4
Growing up in the '80s and '90s, I wasn't alone in regarding Channel 4 as home to some of the best and most innovative British comedy. Few, I'm sure, would argue with the likes of The Comic Strip Presents, Saturday/Friday Night Live, Absolutely, Vic Reeves Big Night Out, Father Ted and Brass Eye.
But C4's noble pedigree has, with the honourable exception of the long-running Peep Show, been badly damaged in the last decade. Comedy on 4 is now epitomised by the charmless likes of Jimmy Carr, Alan Carr, Micky Flanagan and Frankie Boyle. And any channel that allows the insufferable Noel Fielding to flourish should be regarded with deep suspicion.
The deterioration of its comedy output is indicative of an overall slide in standards at C4, a sorry state of affairs that its Funny Fortnight season inadvertently illustrates. Boasting over 30 hours of new pilots, one-off specials and numerous repeats of former glories, it does at least offer some glimmers of hope, while at the same time neatly encapsulating everything that's wrong with C4 these days.
The worst offender by far is I'M SPAZTICUS (Sunday to Wednesday, 10:10pm, 10:30pm and 10:35pm), a jaw-droppingly witless and misconceived hidden prank show in which disabled performers humiliate able-bodied members of the public.
Its title – taken from an Ian Dury protest song, but shorn of its original context for maximum shock value – is the least offensive thing about this disaster. What point is it trying to make exactly? That disabled people can be involved in woefully uninspired prank shows too, especially ones that define them solely by their disability? Wow, what a heartening message. Or, seeing as its flustered “victims” are well-meaning innocents, is it saying that able-bodied people will go out of their way to help disabled people no matter how absurd the situation? Well, that's good isn't it?
Only one prank – a spoof vox pops in which members of the public are asked to choose which disability they'd least like to have - could reasonably be taken as pointed satire, although all it really proves is that dim people will partake in any old crock if there's a camera involved. But hasn't Chris Morris already made that point, albeit in a more imaginative way?
This is what C4, hosts of the 2012 Paralympics, regards as inclusiveness: a comedy show starring disabled people in which they're reduced to comedy props. The producers would doubtless pull a Gervais – an unfortunate phrase, but let's not dwell – and argue that it isn't problematic as they're willing participants and in on the joke. But all that proves is that some disabled actors are as desperate for work as able-bodied actors.
Actually, maybe that's the hidden genius of I'm Spazticus. Maybe it's a cleverly subversive comment on how C4 will exploit anyone for profit, whatever their physical ability. And that, when you think about it, actually makes them the most trailblazing equal-opportunities employer in television. All hail C4, defender of minorities!
Still, it's not all thoroughly horrendous. THE FUNCTION ROOM (Sunday, 10:40pm) is a cheerfully traditional and often very funny studio sitcom set in a pub, and starring a host of familiar comedy actors including The Vicar of Dibley's James Fleet, The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith, The Inbetweeners' Blake Harrison, The Fast Show's Simon Day (once again playing a pub know-it-all) and every-comedy-of-the-last-twenty-years' Kevin Eldon.
The sort of uproariously gag-heavy sitcom that encourages deserved rounds of applause from its studio audience, it's definitely a step in the right direction for C4, and if they have any sense – which they don't – they'll commission a series.
We really are through the looking glass here, as TOAST OF LONDON (Monday, 10pm) is yet another promising sitcom pilot. Co-written with Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews, it's a winningly silly vehicle for Matt Berry from The IT Crowd , and follows a farcical day in the life of a successful West End stage actor.
Yes, it finds the one-note Berry delivering the only performance he can – a bombastic, bawdy, swaggering ham with a voice like vintage brandy - but I can't deny that, with a busily gag-strewn script such as this, he exploits his limited strengths to the full. Not to be outdone, the whole cast – including the great Geoffrey McGivern, last seen in Dead Boss – deliver similarly broad performances, and the whole thing is so relentlessly daft it's hard to resist its rambling charms. More please, C4!
Considerably less impressive is CHANNEL 4 COMEDY PRESENTS: THEM FROM THAT THING (Tuesday and Wednesday, 10pm) an almost entirely mirthless sketch show that wastes a core cast of able comic performers such as Sally Phillips and Fonejacker's Kayvan Novak on weak, strained material (some of which was apparently written by the usually reliable Charlie Brooker).
Its gimmick, such as it is, is casting straight actors such as Bill Paterson and Sean Pertwee in comic roles, but that just comes across as a desperate attempt to give it some identity. This is committee-formed comedy, lacking in singular vision.
Still, at least this season proves that C4 comedy isn't completely dead in the water. It just needs some careful resuscitation.