COMEDY / Killing jokes: Mark Wareham found Steve Coogan recycling old material

Never have there been so many comedians on the road. Steve Coogan, Eddie Izzard, Ben Elton, Paul Merton, Lenny Henry, George Best . . . all hawking their jokes over staggered dates round the same multiplexes.

So, if you like a laugh, there's never been a better time to live in Guildford or Reading. And with so many of them playing in such close proximity, it's of interest to compare their differing approaches to television. Not their viewing habits or their most hated ads (though you'll get plenty of that), but how exactly they go about avoiding over- exposure of their material.

What approach should comedians adopt before television's all- consuming hunger for their material? Eddie Izzard shuns TV more or less completely, allowing the audience tantalising glimpses in fleeting guest appearances. Paul Merton, the rehash maestro, shamelessly reworks his TV shows into his live set, while Ben Elton, perhaps most sensibly, uses the tour circuit as a testing ground for new routines for The Man from Auntie series. As a relative unknown, Steve Coogan's 'Bag o' Sh]*e' tour should have been able to draw on a wealth of new routines. Having won the Perrier Award at the 1992 Edinburgh Festival, Coogan could reasonably have been expected to have put pen to paper in the intervening year. And yet anyone who'd seen that Edinburgh show and a few of his appearances on Saturday Zoo would have been pushed to cobble together 15 minutes of fresh material from Monday night's show.

Reading had probably not gone to last year's Edinburgh Festival and so found itself enthralled by most of Coogan's brand of well- studied characters. By far the best of these is Paul Calf, the student- hating drunk with the 'Bag o' Shite' catchphrase. Tonight he sports a fetchingly mismatched sky- blue outfit with dark blue tie and rolled-up jacket sleeves. 'What d'you call a student satchel with a thesis in it?' 'Bag o' shite.' 'What d'you call The South Bank Show?' 'Bragg o' shite' etc, etc.

Paul's slag sister Pauline also uses the catchphrase approach - 'I've 'ad 'im' - to good effect. She tells us that her kid Arnie (short for Arndale Centre) was born in the back of a taxi. 'Nine pounds . . . It would have been cheaper in a minicab, but you want the best.'

Dependable enough but Coogan could have given his set the perfect topping had he chosen to parade his most famous alter ego, sports commentator Alan Partridge. But then he was probably worried about the risk of over-exposure.

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