Show people: In your funnybone rather than your face: Punt and Dennis

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The Independent Culture
HERE'S a pub-quiz trivia question for you: name the four members of The Mary Whitehouse Experience. 'Rob Newman and David Baddiel . . .' 'That's easy. And the other two were?' '. . . Oh, you know, one was shortish and the other was tallish, they used to do those sketches on Jasper Carrott. I can just picture their faces . . . It's on the tip of my tongue . . . OK, I give in, what were their names again?' Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis.

The irony of all this is that while the more famous N & B have gone off to spend more time with their novels and their Fantasy Football, P & D are about to have their own prime- time, pre-watershed programme, The Imaginatively Titled Punt and Dennis Show. What's more, it's on BBC1 - something the mean and moody N & B have yet to manage.

Relaxing between rehearsals in a bar at Television Centre, Punt and Dennis are under no illusions. Blockbusting BBC1 is a daunting prospect after the art-house haven of BBC2. 'It's the thought of Marcus Plantin sitting in the ITV Network Centre saying, 'Oh no, Punt and Dennis are on at 8.30. I'd better put on an extra episode of Coronation Street.' It seems so unfair,' complains Punt. 'It's just us with a few old gags and exploding pigeons. So, please, Marcus, give us a chance.'

After nearly 10 years in the business, P & D deserve the chance. Their humour is sharp but not show-off. They may make jokes about Titus Andronicus and Chaucer, but they also like a good fart gag. Indeed, the day we met, they had been involved in an exchange with the BBC authorities over the use of that particular F- word - 'one of the funniest words in the English language,' according to Punt. Theirs is a playful, amiable sort of comedy, not so much in-your-face as in-your-funnybone. As Punt puts it: 'There's an over-emphasis on shouting your one-liners these days, but if your persona isn't likeable, then it doesn't matter how good a script you've got.'

Punt (the shorter one, a ringer for early Eric Idle) and Dennis (the taller one, the voice of John Cole on Spitting Image) met at Cambridge University. In 1985, they started working the London comedy circuit as a duo. 'Double acts are a great tradition,' says Dennis. 'There's a lot of self-sacrifice involved - you can't be two competing egos. You have to say, 'Oh well, I know you're going to get a laugh and it will benefit both of us'.' They couldn't do it if they weren't close friends.

Their writing skills were honed on such radio shows as Loose Ends, Hey Radio] and The Cabaret Upstairs, as well as Central Office of Information films about the dangers of falling into canals. The Big Break came quickly, when in 1985 Jasper Carrott saw their double act at the Comedy Store and invited them on to Carrott Confidential.

It was not until 1989, however, that Punt and Dennis began to build up an alternative audience with Radio 1's The Mary Whitehouse Experience. After four series on R1, TMWE went the way of all good radio comedy - to telly, where after a disastrous beginning (the first episode coincided with the start of the Gulf war), it achieved a respectable audience of 3 million. But at the end of the second BBC2 series, the Fab Four split into two Dynamic Duos. Despite rumours of 'comical differences', the break-up was amicable. 'It was obvious there were two styles,' says Dennis.' We did 45 shows on the radio and 13 on the telly. We just decided we didn't want to do any more together. We still get on fine. I see a fair amount of Dave. I go out for curries with him and watch Fantasy Football. That's a really good show, but it's a bit alarming for us because Dave smiles. We're not quite sure what happened.'

TMWE conferred cult status on its participants. With its sexy stars, snappy editing, risque language and youthful audience, the show has to bear some of the responsibility for one of the most over-used lines in journalism: 'Comedy is the new rock'n'roll.'

Punt, 31, and Dennis, 32, find that tag more of a hindrance than a help. 'If comedy's the new rock'n'roll, then we're the Hollies,' Dennis laughs. 'I mean, do you think Wendy Craig's the new rock'n'roll?' You won't catch this pair performing to 12,000 screaming teenagers at the Wembley Arena, as their former colleagues did last year. 'No one will do it again, because they couldn't afford the telescopes for the audience,' says Dennis.

'I hate the idea of comedy as fashion,' Punt adds, warming to the theme. 'The crucial difference is that comedy is not about novelty. Rock'n'roll has always been about the latest thing, while comedy's about familiarity. The most successful comedians are the ones the audiences know and trust. As they go on, comedians acquire a patina of familiarity - you could not attack Morecambe and Wise now, because they're so loved and revered.'

Ah, yes, the M & W factor. Every double act since the 1970s has laboured under the description of 'the new Morecambe and Wise'. 'I don't think anyone will ever be like them,' says Punt. 'You're not changing your name then?' asks Dennis. 'Yes, I am actually. And growing the hairs on my legs,' Punt replies, quick as a flash. Like all the best double acts, they set up each other's punchlines.

Although they are of the alternative generation, Punt and Dennis are steeped in the traditions of comedy. Which should mean they land safely after making the leap from BBC2. BBC1 badly needs a hit sketch-show. But if this pressure has communicated itself to Punt and Dennis, they're not showing it. Punt lobs up the feedline - 'We've always secretly wanted to be on BBC1' - and Dennis taps away the punchline: 'In a wildlife programme.'

'The Imaginatively Titled Punt and Dennis Show': BBC1, Thurs, 8.30-9pm, for six weeks.

(Photograph omitted)