"In this game," came the tagline, "it's not enough to be funny – you've got to be fearless." Ah! No sooner had we begun to mourn the passing of The Apprentice, than Show Me the Funny – Stand-up Showdown comes along, promising equivalent levels of hubris and humiliation.
It's far scarier, of course, for them. Stand-up comedy? Trying to be funny, in front of a crowd? Give me a meeting with Surallen any day. It's almost impossible to fully enjoy the humiliation, since the premise of what they're doing is that much more admirable. As with Junior Apprentice, it feels cruel to laugh.
Or at least, it does until someone like Ignacio makes an appearance. "I'm feeling incredibly confident," he observed. Half Welsh, half Spanish, he likes to play the "handsome Spanish" and tells jokes like, "If you don't already have my phone number, just ask the lady on your left." Shudder. They're not all like him, thank goodness. Ellie, the former model who did her first comedy gig 18 months ago, looked so nervous she might throw up; when single dad Cole heard he was going to be the first on, he seemed minded to flee the room. I don't blame them, honestly.
The idea is that each week our would-be hopefuls are escorted off to a different part of the country, where they'll be tasked with doing a different kind of gig. Last night it was ladies in Liverpool: an all-female audience in the town that gave us John Bishop and Les Dennis. They're given a couple of days to prepare, part of which is spent in pairs, carrying out various tasks – this week, posing with women called Michelle, visiting various landmarks – and part of which is devoted to writing. At the end of it all, they stand up, deliver five minutes of brand new material, and either soak up the applause or do their best to avoid elimination.
Like all these shows, there's a panel waiting to pass judgement. Alan Davies is the rather unlikely Simon Cowell, critic Kate Copstick his nastier sidekick. Jimmy Tarbuck made a one-off appearance, as Liverpool's guest judge. The prize is a national tour, a DVD deal and £100,000 spending money, which, when you're a part-time comedian attempting to break into the mainstream, sounds like rather a good deal.
Unless your name is Prince and you've just quit your job as a teacher. Quite what, in the absence of any comedic talents, prompted him to take that step is quite mysterious. And quite what, apart from his sheer car-crashability, propelled him through the initial auditions (if there were some), is even less possible to fathom. It must have been just that, since he showed little sign, in any of the introductory interviews, of being even in the slightest bit funny; rather, he maintained a curious sullenness, declaring everything in London "better" and cutting anyone who said otherwise quite dead. Presumably, it was all meant as a kind of running punchline, though it was so very unsophisticated, so very smart-arse 12-year-old tries to be funny, that it wasn't entirely clear. "We're all about customer service," gushed Herbert of the Herbert of Liverpool hair salon. "Well, your service can't be better than in London," came Prince's mysterious riposte.
In a rather joyous bit of partnering, Prince was teamed with Ignacio for the initial, task-based, stage. The coalition must have given them both the impression (mistakenly) that they stood a hope in hell – a helpful delusion since, if they'd had even the slightest inkling of how bad it could (and would) be, they surely would have run a mile. In the event, it was Ellie who came off best, closely followed by "professional" comic and one-time circus school pupil Stuart; both were summoned for a congratulatory meeting with the judges. I liked Dan, the beardy former undertaker who came on asking whether there were any women in the room, and Alfie, a policeman from Scunthorpe, too. Prince and Ignacio were head-in-hands awful. It was a gratifyingly squirmy experience watching both egos deflate before a stoney crowd of women. Particularly so Ignacio, whose opening gambit was, "So some of you may not have seen me naked." He was the first to go, Prince's skin saved by the fact that he didn't really tell any bad jokes – just no jokes at all.
Standing up before an audience of entertainment-seeking women or valuing breakables – I know which I'd rather do, particularly seeing as Antiques Master looks like rather a lot of fun. In truth, I couldn't value a loaf of bread if it came with the price tag on display, though I'm not sure ability is necessarily a prerequisite. Or at least, not judging by last night's contestants. Charlotte from Wiltshire knew her stuff (specialism: antique jewellery); the others less so. Jim was a geography teacher with an interest in snuffboxes, while Agyness from Sheffield was more into Derby porcelain. Or so she claimed. When it came to the test she didn't seem able to recognise any.
In the same way as Come Dine with Me, I can see this catching on at home. At any rate, it's all rather encouraging. Just get a couple of friends round to yours and try to arrange the ornaments in order of age, making random statements that sound authoritative. If you're lucky, you might even win. It's got to be better than stand-up comedy.