What makes people laugh? James Rampton meets PAULINE MCLYNN and other stars of the C4 Sitcom Festival
The actress Pauline McLynn is thinking of starting an official range of tea items endorsed by Mrs Doyle, her alter ego from Channel 4's impossibly culty sitcom about three priests and a tea lady, Father Ted. There's obviously a market for it. She's already seen pirate tea-cups in her native Ireland bearing Mrs Doyle's catchphrase, "ah, go on".

Sitting in a west London pub, McLynn eschews tea for a pint of cider. That is not her only point of difference from the deranged housekeeper at the Craggy Island parochial-house. McLynn wears blue jeans and a black T-shirt instead of a pre-War house-coat and cardy, has shiny black hair rather than the drab grey pre-set, and there is no sign whatsoever of Mrs Doyle's unsightly upper-lip mole. Also, at the age of 35, McLynn is at least a quarter of a century younger than her screen incarnation.

All the same, she had an instant affinity with the character. "I read Mrs Doyle and thought, `I know what's going on here'. From the time I left college and went into rep, I've always got older ladies. There was always someone prettier and blonder. They'd say, `raddled old hag? Pauline'll do that'."

There is, she argues, a Mrs Doyle in all our lives. "We avoid the word stereotype, but she is the archetypal auntie-nanny-mad-granny pressing tea on you. She reminds me of my granny. I once asked her, `Are you always right?', and she replied, `Yes I am, and if I'm not, I make myself right.' In an argument, she can slalom on a sixpence. You're in a no-win situation."

Mrs Doyle is featured in the Craggy Island Observer, the Father Ted Website. "The writers [Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews] tapped into it and didn't understand half of it," McLynn recalls. "They thought, `These people are madder than we are'. Fans really get into the details of the show - like they do with Spinal Tap."

McLynn is also a target for some of the world's most demanding autograph- hunters: "When I sign, I have to write `Will you have a cup of tea?' and `Ah, go on'," she recounts. "At the end of it all, I feel like I've written a whole episode myself."

The writers of the nine new works being showcased at the third annual Channel 4 Sitcom Festival would give their laptops for such instantly recognisable characters. Father Ted is a holy grail for them: an unsolicited script that has become an award-winning hit. Over the next three weeks at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, these new sitcoms (four of which star McLynn) will be leaping up and down in a desperate attempt to catch our eyes - and, more importantly, those of the undercover TV execs in the audience.

As their scripts are given the full theatrical works at the Festival, the writers will all be hoping they one day develop into the new Hancock's Half Hour, or failing that, the new Terry and June - both of which were recorded at the Riverside. Already two shows that featured in last year's festival - In Exile by Tunde Babalola and Tim Dynevor's Slap! - are being readied for broadcast on Channel 4 this autumn.

The Festival is the brainchild of William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of the Riverside, and Seamus Cassidy, head of comedy at Channel 4. "We wanted to create an environment in which to introduce new writers," explains Burdett-Coutts. "Over the three years, every writer has come away thinking they've gained from it. If you really want to understand the writing, it's a much better way than just doing a reading. Also, Seamus and I had both got fed up with hearing canned laughter. The sense of fun had gone out of sitcoms. At the Festival, audiences do or don't laugh. It's a good test of a sitcom's mettle."

But does the world really need more sitcoms? Aren't there enough examples of the form bunging up great swathes of primetime? Not in the opinion of Owen O'Neill, the stand-up comedian who has contributed a sitcom called No Place Like Home to the Festival. "People are always deriding sitcoms," he sighs, sipping a cup of coffee in the Riverside bar between rehearsals, "but I don't agree with the carpers. The comedy department is always the poor relation of drama. But we have to take comedy more seriously. People think that laughter demeans things, but I take the opposite view. You can laugh at things like death without belittling them. It's a challenge for any writer, but it's up to the TV suits to put those things on."

McLynn agrees that sitcoms have been suffering from a bad press. "People think it's easy to make people laugh. Everyone in Ireland thinks they're a comedian. They say, `I'm funny sitting around in a pub. Why should I pay to see someone else being funny?' It's not seen as a high art-form. If you're not making people cry, then it's not thought of as serious.

"Maybe the critics have no sense of humour," she surmises. "One priest came out against Father Ted in the papers, saying that we were making fun of the Catholic Church. All we could say was `lighten up'. Our standard answer is `They could be three firemen in a fire station with a dotty tea lady'. They just happen to be priests. It's a convenient way of getting them all into the same house. They have a shaky grasp of religion. Father Dougal collected Green Shield Stamps to become a priest."

For all these sturdy defences of the genre, however, we should probably not expect to be too dazzled by the sparkling originality of these new offerings at the Festival. The sitcom remains the hardest of all television forms to get right.

And besides, all the world's jokes have already been told. "There are no new jokes," McLynn admits, with a laugh. "The Fast Show does the same joke every week, but it's a good joke so it bears repetition. People feel safe with a joke they know. A joke is like an umbrella. It just gets passed around; no one ever actually buys a new one."

The Channel 4 Sitcom Festival, Riverside Studios, London, W6 (0181- 741 2255) from 9 to 26 July