Just why are comedy audiences so sad? That question will have to wait for another week. For tonight, Paul Merton is the 'first comedian of his generation' to take up residence at the Palladium, and two interesting things are happening. First, Merton - like Jack Dee and Reeves and Mortimer - is clambering over the class and age barriers erected around comedy in the 'alternative' era. Second, he is cocking a snook at the sense of social inferiority which has always been near the heart of his act - right down to his stage name, taken from the defiantly unfashionable London borough from which he originates.
Early on, the tone - set by the earnest 'shhh' that goes up when the lights go down - is rather too reverent. Merton is at his best when not tied to a script: on Just a Minute or Have I Got News for You, setting up funny little antipathies and then pursuing them to the ends of the earth. Here, his stand-up stuff labours a bit: some of the jokes have been round the block too many times, and their deliveryman seems nervous. His sidekicks Richard Vranch, 'the bloke who plays the piano on Whose Line Is It Anyway?', and Lee Simpson, Julian Clary's flatmate in Terry and Julian, work hard to bring him out of himself - even to the point of pulling 'Hey]-What-a-crazy- guy'-type faces - but they can't quite manage it.
The turning point comes early in the second half. A pair of particularly aggressive and unfunny front-row hecklers have been struggling throughout to impair everyone's enjoyment. When the standard reproaches - 'What paper are you reviewing this for, Exchange & Mart?' - fail to secure their silence, Paul Merton suddenly and unexpectedly loses his temper, telling them in no uncertain terms to get out of his face. They leave with the crowd's jeers ringing in their ears. Merton is plainly embarrassed by his outburst, speaking shamefacedly of 'having created a marvellous mood for comedy'; but the hecklers' witlessness has given him something to define himself against, and the show never looks back.
There are flashes of real verbal inspiration - a man whose eyebrows float several feet above his head walks under a railway bridge, with the result that the brows get caught on the front of a train and make it look like it's frowning - but the best moments are, surprisingly, bits of visual comedy, using the scale and opulence of the venue. When Merton descends from above on a podium that won't stop descending, or pirouettes on a revolving stage in an inspired Torvill and Dean spoof, or contrives an awe-inspiring reconstruction of the Dam Busters using just six fluffy rabbits, the spirits of Eric and Ernie look on and laugh.
Back at comedy base camp, the Comedy Store has now settled into its new, college-bar- style premises on the other side of Leicester Square. Going there is a bit like going to the Cavern three years after the Beatles left, except the old stars still turn up to perform at the drop of a benefit-collecting hat. And the sense of being part of a living heritage attraction is not dispelled by the discovery that half the front row are students from Middlesex University completing their comedy module.
It is sometimes hard to avoid the feeling that the waters of the London comedy scene have been over-fished, but two of Thursday night's six acts have got something special, and that is not a bad ratio. Open-mike contender Ardal O'Hanlon has come equal first in the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year contest, and it's easy to see why. Where some Store regulars seem to be going through the motions, he is polished and graceful and makes every one of his 10 minutes count. There is just the right amount of otherworldliness in his reminiscences of a dad who spent all his money on the horses - 'He bought them cars and jewels and everything' - and his old job making stickers for the backs of ships - 'If you're close enough to read this, you're a dolphin'.
Harry Hill is a little further down the conveyor belt, with one Radio 4 series behind him and a series of short films coming up on BBC2. He's got a distinctive look: rosy cheeks, milk- bottle specs, and huge shirt collars sprouting out of the top of his jacket, giving him the appearance of a man with no neck. His act has a lovely rhythm to it. He sets up a series of riffs - Queen lyrics, ways of coping with the lack of services on the M40, his father depriving him of the best cuts of meat by saying they were poisonous - and flits between them with blinking eyes and darting tongue. There is a hint of lizard, as well as Izzard, in this man's demeanour.
Paul Merton: London Palladium, W1 (071-494 5020) to 2 Apr.Reuse content