COMEDY / The joke's on us: Comedy is more popular than ever, but exposure has its dangers. Ben Thompson explains

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The Independent Culture
WHAT MUST it feel like to be a comedian on national television telling a joke which you know that not all, but a good proportion of, the audience will have heard before? Not just because it's an old joke - after all, jokes, like tunes, are something there can only be a certain number of - but because you yourself told it on a different show a couple of weeks before. Maybe twice.

Paul Merton, on whose passport next to 'occupation' it probably now says 'funniest man on TV', is on Des O'Connor's couch. For many comics Des is the perfect foil - not so much a sympathetic interrogator as a craven one - but the antagonism upon which Merton thrives is not a part of his repertoire. So Merton is telling the joke about someone going into a newsagent's and asking if they've got a copy of Psychic News. The punchline - 'You tell me' - has already been a palpable hit on Have I Got News for You, on Merton's own television show, and throughout his successful live tour. But this evening Merton doesn't look to have the stomach for the delivery. Trying to say the line as if it's just come to him seems to be making him miserable. Not showbiz Paul Merton miserable - grouchy, curmudgeonly and all those other '-ly's' that make him such an entertaining character - just plain miserable. He forces the punchline out eventually, but his body seems to be trying to stop him. The message in his eyes reads: 'Why me?'

This might not have been quite what William Hazlitt, the 19th-century stand-up and essayist, meant when he wrote: 'Comedy naturally wears itself out - destroys the very food on which it lives,' but the point still stands. When the occupation of 'joke-teller' was on a par with, say, 'juggler' or 'chiropodist' in terms of social significance, the issue was simple: the only imperative in the recycling of your own or other people's material was not to get caught. (And, for the 'My Irish mother-in-law's so fat . . .' club warriors of The Comedians Christmas Cracker, it probably still is.) For the new breed of television career-driven, magazine cover, advert-icon comedians which has emerged in recent years, things are much more complicated - the same medium that brings them success changes the very nature of their calling.

Everybody thinks of comedy as essentially a 'live' phenomenon, but all too often seeing favourite performers in the flesh is now less of an experience than seeing them on television. You've seen the show, you've heard the jokes; now pay out to experience them all over again without being able to make yourself a cup of tea. And then buy the live video.

An unprecedentedly large phalanx of big-name, alternative- gone-mainstream funnymen set off around the Civics and Regals of the land last autumn. In Paul Merton's footsteps followed Steve Coogan, Lenny Henry, Rik Mayall & Ade Edmonson, Ben Elton, Jack Dee, Newman & Baddiel. All had to face the recycling dilemma, and some disgruntled reviews revealed that many had taken the easy way out. It's not entirely the comedians' fault. They are only human, after all: new material takes months to write; and comedy agents are renowned for their heroic efforts to make boxing promoters look scrupulous - forcing wet-behind-the-ears comedy novices out on 200-date tours before they've had a chance to drink their Perrier Awards.

The mass live audience which television brings makes different demands anyway; if you don't recycle your greatest hits on stage, you might get Kenny Lynched. It must be a bizarre feeling for those who learnt their trade fighting for survival on small stages in front of demanding crowds, to find themselves in front of several thousand people and able to do no wrong. There is currently an air of unreality about many large-scale live comedy events. It stems from the fact that a large section of the crowd will have come not to see the performer push back the outer envelope of his art (it nearly always is his art: the preponderance of university-educated white males in the higher echelons of comedy is greater than in any other occupation bar the judiciary), as to pay tribute to an established television persona.

Jack Dee is one of the sharpest British comics to emerge in years. His television show is a stylish distillation of an idealised live comedy experience. On an actual tour, though, it's a different matter. Dee himself is fine - a tidy bundle of compressed malice - but the Hammersmith Apollo, a venue so cavernous that many a 17-piece soul orchestra has looked lost in it, is not the best place to see him. The experience of well-ordered mass sniggering is a fundamentally depressing one. As if in acknowledgement of this, the crowd's biggest laugh is reserved for some witless heckler's oh-so-amusing reference to Dee's role in a current television advertising campaign. Jack's contempt for this runs deeper even than usual. He seems almost, well, bitter.

Newman & Baddiel's much-pontificated-upon Wembley Arena show at least endeavoured to make a virtue of its bigness, but the future it pointed to was not one of unbridled creativity. What will Sean Hughes and Reeves & Mortimer come up with on their forthcoming treks? As comedians are forced by our appetite for them along an ever quicker production line, there is less and less time for them to do anything new and different. 'Comedy has ceased to be a challenge to the mental processes. It has become a therapy of relaxation, a kind of tranquillising drug.' James Thurber wrote that in 1961, and it is beginning to look as if he may have had a point.-

(Photographs omitted)