In Harry Enfield's passenger seat, Paul Whitehouse is always at a purely physical disadvantage. Their double-acts often require them to play identical versions of the same intemperate character, but as he is less sheerly imposing than his partner, Whitehouse's subtler character- acting risks being blown away.

So there is something improbable about the sidekick getting his own series, which is what The Fast Show is, in all but name. Let us not forget that in the history of comedy the chapter entitled "The little guy from the double-act who went solo" is already littered with the corpses of Ernie Wise and Ronnie Corbett.

The start of the new series is much surer than the start of the old, in which there was an element of Ron Wood cutting an album without Keef to hold his hand. There is roughly a sketch a minute to The Fast Show, some of them tossed out with such abandon that the show looks like an ideas meeting in which wheat and chaff are unseparated. But where once you might have objected to sketches that missed the target, they're now almost a perverse badge of merit, an insurance that something funnier will be along in a minute, and maybe sooner.

Released from Enfield's orbit, Whitehouse and co-writer Charlie Higson enjoy an almost limitless creative space in which broad cartoon comedy rubs shoulders with jokes that only work by staying in the neighbourhood of reality. A fantastical offering from Channel 9, an Esperanto TV station somewhere hellish on the Med, preceded a stinging sketch in which a competitive father puts himself in to bat and mercilessly tonks his two young sons' bowling all over the park.

Some items can have taken no longer to write than to perform. If a sketch yields one punchline, no time is wasted mining for another. They even make a joke out of one scene's longueurs, when a clay-mation artist painstakingly explaining his methods excites a look of withering tedium from his interviewer. And yet The Fast Show is quite capable of matching animation, its polar opposite in production terms, in detail. The Return of the Unpronounceables got the period feel of gangsterdom just right, but wove in its own joke about the impenetrability of New York's Italo-Judaeo-Polish surnames. On current form, French and Saunders would have doubled the length of the sketch but halved its quota of laughs.

We might as well savour this brevity while it lasts, as the history of comedy also teaches that sketch technicians tire of doing things succinctly, and yearn to stretch themselves. What is often stretched is the viewers' patience. For the moment, Whitehouse's performances are a match for his writing, and his best are reserved for those when the script apportions him no words (his mute, gnarled yeoman) or makes them incomprehensible (his slurring QC). But it would have given the wrong impression to call it The Dumb Show.