Jokers in cyberspace

surf's up; The Web is a playground for comedians - but even comics can fall victim to pranksters ...

His recent Channel 4 series may be just a painful memory for the various MPs, Ministers and multinational corporations it lampooned, but the comedian Mark Thomas's mission to irritate continues apace on the Internet.

The series, which among other things found Thomas offering Yorkshire Water a tanker full of H20 as a gift from the people of Ethiopia, generated controversy as well as complaints to Channel 4. The Clapham comedian's Web page is likely to stir up more trouble.

Thomas isn't the first comedian to venture into cyberspace. Stephen Fry claimed to have found solace there after he dropped out of sight last year, following his departure from the West End play Cell Mates. And the American funny man Rodney Dangerfield's Web page has proved to be such a hit that the comedian - catchphrase, "I don't get no respect" - has made Websight magazine's list of the "100 Most Influential People on the Web".

While Fry found a little sympathy and Dangerfield finally got some respect, Mark Thomas seems to have tapped into the rich vein of anti-Establishment sentiment that flows through the Internet. Thomas's Web site, Scum City, consists mainly of a recap of his television stunts. However, it's the mailing list that's generating the most interest. It has allowed Thomas to enlist the support of like-minded souls who are fed up with political hypocrisy and corporate greed.

Through the mailing list, he and his partners in prank are able to exchange ideas on potential targets and discuss strategies for creating maximum mischief. E-mail debates are raging over the best ways to get under the skin of chief executives at companies such as McDonald's, Nestle and Camelot. Thomas has been impressed by the response. "It is quite surprising that people would subscribe to a comedy mailing list and churn up all the ideas and arguments that it has," he says. "The list is a really good place for ideas and knocking them about. It may also be an effective way of organising. It is also fun."

One such bit of organising involves Thomas's annoying army's plan to descend on Sotheby's London showrooms later this month to view a buffet table owned by Sir Nicholas Soames MP, who has had to arrange the special showing or risk losing an exemption from inheritance tax on the table.

Towards the end of his Channel 4 series, as his mischief-making reputation grew, Thomas found it increasingly difficult to carry out his pranks. He may soon find that his Internet operation will only compound the problem.

For it's not hard to imagine a legion of corporate lawyers surreptitiously signing up to his mailing list. Thomas is aware of the potential problems. "The bigger scams that involve work which relies totally on surprise will not be put up [on the mailing list]," he says.

Stephen Fry, meanwhile, seems to have lost all interest in his own home page, which he admits was undertaken more for therapeutic purposes. And Rodney Dangerfield's page itself has fallen victim to pranksters. Last November, a group of hackers called Chaos Merchants managed to hijack it and alter its content.

Mark Thomas and his e-mail mates at Scum City should be on their guard. And so too should the nation's politicians and corporate fat cats.

8 To join Mark Thomas's mailing list, send an e-mail with the word "subscribe" in the subject field to markthomas-request @venus.co.uk. An archive of the list can be found at http://alt.venus.co.uk/hypermail/markthomas. His home page is at http://alt.venus.co.uk/markthomas/Welcome.html. Stephen Fry's home page: http://www.gbnet.net/stephenf. Rodney Dangerfield's home page: http://www.rodney.com.

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