A PAIN IN THE ARTS

Time was when comedians earned their living by telling jokes...
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The Independent Culture
It all started with Comic Relief in the late Eighties: Billy Connolly and other worthies jumping on planes to Africa to bring touching reports of starving orphans surviving against the odds in war-torn Mozambique. All for a good cause, but it happens to have spawned a monster.

Ever since that first, fateful, comic flight out, increasingly desperate programme-makers have taken it into their heads that if you persuade a comedian to front up a documentary or any kind of dry factual series, that's where the creative thinking can come to a stop. Line up a funnyman and that's another one in the can.

Wildlife research leads us to believe that there's not a single dolphin to be found in any of the seven seas that hasn't yet been given its own documentary. So what's a nature doc director to do? But wait: if Robin Williams could just be persuaded to splash around with a few friendly flippers, that would be a ratings catch and no mistake. You net the dolphin- friendly viewer and you land the Robin Williams legions, because the programme is all about Williams and his ability to crack a one-liner before the viewer's remote finger starts to twitch.

It's the same sub-text with boring old books. Stick Griff Rhys Jones in front of a shelf-full and it might make something watchable. Then there's the game show. Limitless hours of daytime TV can be filled by that one- man game-show disposal unit, Tony "I'll do it" Slattery. And if it's a travel show, send Greg Proops to the States, Sean Hughes to Dublin, Arthur Smith to Balham.

So how long before Jo Brand gets her own food programme? And Eddie Izzard becomes the new Jeff Banks? Or Angus Deayton turns up as our very own Dr Ruth? Then there's Frank Skinner as Terry Wogan, Rob Newman as Melvyn Bragg, David Baddiel as Esther Rantzen. All these and more are coming to your small screen just as soon as another programmer runs out of ideas. There's one thing you'll be seeing comedians doing less of, on the other hand, and that's telling jokes.

Mark Wareham

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