COMEDY / Not the funniest man in Britain

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The Independent Culture
A MAN dressed as a chicken sang 'I Will Survive' in Russian. A squadron of glove-puppet rabbits went through a formation-flying routine to the music of the Dambusters. In other words, a perfectly normal Paul Merton show.

On Have I Got News for You and Whose Line is it Anyway?, where he has to react spontaneously to a tub of lard or the posturing of John Sessions, Merton is effortlessly funny. When he has more time to think about

it, the surrealism seems forced. Most stand-ups need more preparation, he needs less.

Part of the problem lies in Merton's over-reliance on recycled television material. Almost his first joke was: 'You see on tombstones - 'Not dead, only sleeping'. (Pause.) That's a cruel trick to play on someone.' This raised a laugh on Paul Merton - The Series on 3 September, and a titter on Just for Laughs on 4 September. At the Oxford Apollo in October, it raised a weak smile.

Like Eeyore, Merton has the ability to make people laugh merely by not laughing himself. With a completely straight face, he delivers lines such as 'My hair's got a life of its own. I found it making an omelette in the kitchen last week.' If this was 'The Nation's Funniest Man' - as the London Evening Standard, among others, calls him - I'm a glove-puppet. .

Ben Elton is far more conventional. On a comedy circuit dominated by people decked out as train-spotters and history professors, you might even call his 'One Man and his Mike' approach old-fashioned. He is a graduate of the 'Have you ever noticed how . . . ?' school of comedy, and he still suffers from the Alternative affliction of bashing the audience round the head with a political manifesto. At the Swan Theatre in High Wycombe, his first spiel was a familiar rat-tat-tat rant about the Conservative Party conference. And which other comedian would casually throw in a reference to a debate about eco-diversity that took place at the Rio Earth Summit, or come up with the line 'Wee-wee is a feminist issue'?

He can still unleash a hurricane of neurotic energy which leaves you not so much winded as knocked flat. Even his digressions have digressions: one bewildering monologue encompassed Darwinism, vomiting and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The High Wycombe St John's Ambulance staff were clearly twitching as the show ticked towards the three-hour mark. But the advantage of firing so many shots is that, by the law of averages, some must hit the target. Many of Elton's routines were greeted with whoops and bursts of applause. Old Motormouth passed the comedy MOT: he made us laugh out loud.

Paul Merton and Ben Elton are both on nationwide tours.