TELEVISION / Tears of a clown: James Rampton on oddball documentary and screwball comedy

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FORGET the chat show, forget the comedy show; what Jonathan Ross does best is the freak show. Ever since he introduced the world to the man who made his living eating bicycles and aeroplanes, Ross seems to have had more fun swimming in the bywaters than the mainstream of society.

This can only be achieved with a first-rate research team, which, despite Ross's quick-wittedness, was the real star of the first part of Americana (Saturday C4). They managed to track down the sort of oddballs guaranteed to elict the reaction 'only in America'; people like the butcher who does a nice line in Moose Patties, or the man who cooks salmon steaks on his car engine. The researchers also happened upon a cooking-pot which spins yarns about Colonel Saunders at the Kentucky Fried Chicken Museum and a priceless period advert of the Colonel being subjected to a polygraph test for his secret recipe.

Woss the Wacky makes exceedingly good television. Carlton obviously agree; for the spring, they have commissioned a 13-week run of Fantastic Facts], in which Ross will introduce items on electric underpants and incendiary bats.

No such frivolity intruded on Performance: Six Characters in Search of an Author (Saturday BBC2). Michael Hastings had moved the action of Pirandello's play from the theatre into an austere black-and-white film set in the 1940s. The production caught the air of scarcely controlled chaos that film-makers seem to thrive on. Brian Glover, a Floor Manager in a tight tank-top, stormed around, tapping his wrist-watch. He even got to say the line 'It's a wrap.'

The new setting gave director Bill Bryden the opportunity to play with the idea of voyeurism - his camera filming the Director's camera filming the Characters in distress. It also facilitated a grandiose entrance for the Characters - silhouetted against a huge open door - that would not have looked out of place in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Nicholas Craig has queered the pitch for actors in dramas about drama. When the Director demonstrated an entrance to a cast- member - 'You see, surprise, anxiety, satisfaction' - the word Masterclass unavoidably sprang to mind. Despite such associations and having to wear a pair of spectacles obviously left in the studio by Joe 90, Brian Cox was a formidable presence as the Director. If there is one criticism of him as an actor, it is that he tends to blow away his co-stars with the force of his personality. But, there again, what other performer could play Hannibal Lecter and the Archdeacon of Birmingham with equal conviction?

For all the skill of the acting and the adaptation, however, the work is inescapably a stage-play. On telly, they couldn't help looking like Six Characters in Search of an Auditorium.

For a show that gives a lot of pleasure, Roseanne seems to be made with a great deal of pain. From the moment on Funny Business (Sunday BBC2) when you saw one of the writers swigging Pepto-Bismol like Pepsi-Cola, you were aware that at any moment they could be swept away by Hurricane Roseanne.

At one particularly bruising script conference she asked, 'Am I speaking English?' in a voice that would have curdled milk at 50 paces. And, as the Queen Bee lived it up at a stand-up comedy club, the documentary cut to her drone-like writers burning the midnight oil on re-writes back at the studio/factory. Close to cracking-up, they were reduced to dancing in the corridor to a whistled version of 'Consider Yourself' from Oliver]

Nadia Haggar's direction often exhibited more of a sense of humour than Roseanne. The Head Writer talked about his lack of job security as rejected draft-scripts were piled on top of a rubbish dump. The sound of monstrous cackling was superimposed overshots of Roseanne laughing, and cash registers tinkled through the end-credits.

In the middle of one tantrum, the star (in an understated sweatshirt depicting her and her husband kissing) attempted to schmooze with the cameras: 'I think that everyone has such good humour on this show that nobody gets scared and thinks I really mean it.' Try telling that to the writer so frazzled she burst into tears at the very thought of having to conjure up fresh jokes.

Much better comedy was to be found on The South Bank Show (Sunday ITV), where Jeff Koons furrowed his brow with such sincerity you almost believed his line that only Picasso and Duchamp from this century can stand comparison with him as an artist.

Tony Knox's enjoyable film played up to the image of Koons as the King of Kitsch. He described his wife, a former porn star, as 'one of the greatest artists in the world'. This is the woman who once volunteered to sleep with Saddam Hussein if he released the hostages.

Sometimes the facade cracked - as when Koons could not resist becoming the fourth member in a line-up of three model puppies sticking out their tongues. But, in the main, he possessed the key to any great comedy act: keeping a straight face while delivering a joke. He earnestly relayed his hope that 'Made in Heaven', a larger-than-life sculpture of him and his wife making love, would end up in the Vatican. Give that man a sitcom.

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