A funny thing happened on TV...

Tired American sitcoms and re-runs were the order of the day when Paramount first spluttered into action as an entertainment channel in 1995, writes Jenny Madden. Since it relaunched as a comedy channel just a year ago, its knack for spotting raw talent means it is responsible for four new shows hitting terrestrial TV this month alone.

With last year's Armstrong & Millar (C4) and Comedy Store (C5) successes under their belts and more than 15 programmes across Channels Four - and Five and at ITV - scheduled for 1998, the mood at the cable company is positive. In 1997 each terrestrial channel gave over a day's worth of programming time every week to sitcoms, sketch shows, stand-up showcases and satire. This year, thanks to Paramount, the comedy schedules are set to explode.

It's important to note that the increase in quantity and the involvement of a cable channel in no way negates quality. Like pop music, comedy is something the British have always excelled at. The notable thing about the range of new faces and formats coming to our screens this year is not that they're talented, but that the support system for their talent is now strong enough to get them where they want to be: on our TV screens.

For 20 years comedy has been building up to this moment. The late Seventies/ early Eighties were the watershed. They signified the "alternative" new wave, so-called because it dealt in taboos and politics. What was more interesting, however, was the fact that every single one of those who had been spotted whilst doing stand-up had their own TV shows by the middle of the decade. Leading the way were Ben Elton, Ade Edmonson, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. In addition to their TV shows, all did sell-out tours, all made a lot of money, all were hilarious at the time and all are now utterly unamusing.

What was once fresh, radical and even anarchic is now mainstream. The comedians of the Eighties can now be found acting in Hollywood movies or doing adverts for gravy granules and building societies. But comedy, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and when Eighties comedians trotted off to speak lines found funny only by ad-men and Hollywood directors, a new generation quickly moved in.

Springing from the stand-up circuit and from talent shows such as Jonathan Ross's Zoo, a whole new range of comedians leapt in to plug the gap. There's a game called "five degrees of separation", played by LA movie buffs, in which two disparate actors are linked in five stages or fewer, via the movies they've made. The same game can be played with Eighties comedians - but only two stages are needed to link them to The Young Ones, the Masonic Lodge of alternative Eighties comedy.

The insatiable appetite for comedy in the Nineties has meant not just one stable of great comedy talent, but a proliferation. Reeves and Mortimer, The Day Today, Jack Dee, Brass Eye, Harry Hill, The Fast Show, Father Ted, Have I Got News For You, Mrs Merton, Jo Brand - the Nineties have been an undeniably great decade for comedy.

Recent developments have ensured that that will continue to be the case. The Nineties have seen the arrival of the stand-up format, ideal for maintaining a healthy circulation of fresh blood. New face showcases such as Gas and Comedy Laboratory (Channel 4), Comedy Store and Comedy Network (Channel 5) and Comedy Nation (BBC) are all going into their second series this year. Sketch shows, another crucial vehicle for new writers and comedians are also much in evidence. Thanks to the success of the prototype set in the early Nineties by Harry Enfield and more recently popularised by The Fast Show, we can now look out for Barking (Channel 4), the Morwena Banks Show (Channel 5) On the Town with a League of Gentlemen (BBC 2) and Mad for It (Granada).

The healthy smattering of bizarre new formats sweeping in from left field also does much to spice up the schedules. Jerry Sadowitz, erstwhile shock jock of the stand-up circuit, makes a comeback with The People vs Jerry Sadowitz (Channel 5), a chat show where the audience are the guests and their duty is to amuse and entertain, or be insulted and sent off stage by Sadowitz. From a chat show with the least personable presenter imaginable, to a sitcom like none seen before ... Boys in the Wood, (BBC 2) finds young comedians/ musicians Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt blurring the boundaries between comedy and music Nineties-style, and inhabiting a vaguely Teletubbies- style woodland setting enhanced by a cutting-edge drum 'n' bass soundtrack.

The surprising fact that this wealth of new talent doesn't mean that the oldies are left out (Lenny Henry, Alexei Sayle, Ruby Wax, Whose line Is It anyway?, Drop the Dead Donkey and Father Ted all return this year) may seem to pose the question "Where's all the cash coming from?" Quite simply, owing to the growth of the comedy cable channel Paramount, the laughs now come cheaper than ever before.

Cost-effective programme-making and a knack for spotting interesting new talent on the booming stand-up circuit means that Paramount has either sold or co-produced more than 10 new comedy programmes this year across Channels 4 and 5 and at ITV. A few years ago no cable company could have expected a terrestrial to go near them, but already 1998 sees Paramount in the confidence of Channels 4 and 5 after the success of such programmes as Armstrong and Millar (Channel 4) and Comedy Store (Channel 5), and it is currently in negotiations with ITV, a channel anxious to add a comedy string to its bow in an effort to lure in the 16-24-year-old age group that the current schedule evades.

All in all, the time would seem to be right for young comic talent to get itself an agent, land a spot on a stand-up show and make its mark. Unfortunately, making the leap into TV presents its own problems.

Earlier in the decade, Eddie Izzard identified the self-destruct mechanism implicit in the career development plan of a modern comedian, ie it's easy for the public to assume that comedians are naturally funny people who simply shamble on and amuse off the top of their heads. In fact, it can take months to come up with enough material to generate a few minutes of laughter, and though you can do the same act month in, month out at different venues, do it once on TV and it's dead material; the public can't throw rotten eggs at you, but they certainly won't be tuning in to watch you next week.

On realising that by going into TV he could be sowing the seeds of his own demise, the cross-dressing, surreal-monologue-delivering Eddie Izzard hatched a cunning plan to prolong the warm glow of attention. He would become the tv who didn't do TV. In order to make himself a household name, Izzard employed other media. Not only do his videos, T-shirts and books make the handiest of gifts, the press can't get enough of him. Articles in which he expounds his theories on any topic from lipstick to European harmonisation (thereby successfully avoiding telling any gags) have saturated newsagents' shelves all year.

But this eccentric way of circumventing the Catch-22 is not for all. Most comedians face a constant slog to hold on to an audience who are more demanding than ever because they are more spoiled for choice. While 15 minutes of fame is sweet enough, the comedy characters of 1998 could end up being developed in the dole queues rather than on screen.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

    Recruitment Genius: General Processor

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

    Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot