Comedians now have the power to make or break TV channels, ad campaigns, book launches, even West End shows. Plotting their ascent is an army of fixers that most of us never see - writers, agents, producers, commissioning editors. In the first of a week of articles about the funny business, James Rampton looks at the thre e big players behind the TV shows
Stan Dup, 29, is an aspiring comedian. At Middle England Grammar School, he found he had a talent for making people laugh - and enjoyed it. He was the star of the the Cambridge Footlights company. On graduating, he took his satirical revue, And He re is The News, to the Edinburgh Festival, where he won rave notices in the Scotsman and won the Fizzy Water Award for Most Promising Comedian. He was picked up by an agent and started plying the London stand-up circuit. A successful spot at the Comedy S tore led to regular bookings there and guest appearances on late-night Channel 4 stand-up showcases. Suddenly, Stan is "hot". There is a buzz about him. The magic words "his own television programme" start to be whispered.

He's good, sure, but his talent is only one part of the equation. He is about to become the subject of a battle royal between television comedy's kingmakers, in which ratings potential rather than jokes will be the currency.

The three wise men who pull the comic strings at the TV channels are David Liddiment, the BBC's head of entertainment; Vernon Lawrence, controller of drama and entertainment at the ITV network centre; and Seamus Cassidy, Channel 4's commissioning editor for comedy. Along with their channel controllers, they are responsible for plastering the schedules with funny men and women. More and more, they are turning to comedy to boost ratings. Last autumn Have I Got News For You on BBC2 touched the 8 million mark - the station's highest figure of the year behind Olympic Grandstand. It's the sort of figure commissioning editors kill for. What's more, comedy shows come at a cheap price: an hour of BBC light entertainment costs an average £249,000, compared with £512,000 for drama.

Comedy is the beating heart of a channel: just look at the Friday schedules on BBC2 and C4. From 9pm they are fighting with almost uninterrupted comedy. "Comedy is of vital importance to television because you can hang a schedule around it," says Vernon Lawrence. "Look what the BBC have got out of One Foot in the Grave on Sunday nights. Last Sunday, they tried to build the whole evening towards that one show in the hope that it would crucify the opposition."

Comedians are all over the telly. They are even annexing neighbouring territories: at the BBC Dawn French plays a murderous nurse in a straight drama; on ITV Robbie Coltrane does a travelogue driving across America in a Cadillac, and plays a brooding criminal psychologist. Comedians are replacing Australian soaps as the standard schedule-filler.

It is almost impossible for a comedy series to be "green-lighted" without a big name attached. Months of person-hours are consumed simply devising vehicles for comedy personalities. "How about if we send Angus to the moon?'' - that sort of thing.

With the ubiquitousness has come money - lots of it. In May 1993, French and Saunders were signed up on a five-year deal with the BBC for £2m. Rowan Atkinson is estimated to trouser more than £1m a year, and can command £200,000 for a TV series. No wonder he can afford to own a stable of expensive sports cars and indulge his hobby of motor racing. Last summer, Angus Deayton reportedly struck a deal for £13,750 per episode of Have I Got News For You - which works out at £412.50 for every minute.

The people who have propelled comedians to this position are those who run the independent production companies. They too have become seriously rich in their efforts to make us laugh. Hat Trick Productions, producers of Have I Got News For You among others, has grown from a small company set up three by friends - Denise O'Donoghue, Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath - in 1985 to a major production house with a turnover of more than £10m a year.

In making programmes such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Drop the Dead Donkey, Hat Trick has developed a reputation for shrewd business. A neat, dynamic woman, O'Donoghue is at its heart. Harry Thompson, series producer on Have I Got News For You, recalls seeing BBC corporate types reduced to gibbering wrecks after budget meetings with her.

Talk Back, set up in 1982 by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones to make radio ads, is another leading player and trendier at the moment, having produced two of the most original comedies of recent years: the spoof news show The Day Today, and the spoof chat show Knowing Me Knowing You, both showcasing the skills of Steve Coogan. Last, there's Rowan Atkinson's company, Tiger Aspect, which has produced broader comedies, such as Mr Bean and Harry Enfield and Chums.

It's a small, incestuous and often jealous world. All these independents work out of offices with smart addresses in Soho. They all lunch at the same eateries (the Soho Brasserie, the Ivy), and attend the same functions. Most will be members of the Groucho Club, although the more discerning may have joined Black's across the road, so discreet it doesn't allow mobile phones. Many were at university together (the writer Richard Curtis, Atkinson and Deayton, for example), and many play cricket for Thompson's team, the Captain Scott XI. Stephen Fry was Rowan Atkinson's best man.

There's no getting away from the word clique. There is even a conspiracy theorists' nickname - coined by Lise Mayer, Deayton's girlfriend - for this loosely intertwined nest of predominantly male, predominantly ex-Oxbridge talent: the Snake Pit.

The commissioning editors ignore these companies at their peril. They will always return the phone calls of, say, Harry Thompson. As Vernon Lawrence puts it: "We are only able to pick from what producers send us." Not all the offers they receive, however, are shiningly original. "In the wake of One Foot in the Grave, we got a lot of proposals for sitcoms about disgruntled pensioners," Liddiment says. "We also seem to get an awful lot of three people in a flat."

What they're after, according to Lawrence is "off-the-wall, left-field" ideas. "Who'd have thought that shows about a fat, uninteresting man in an enclosed setting - Porridge - or rag and bone men - Steptoe and Son - would be hits? Nobody can legislate for what will be a success."

Once a success has been established, it may become the object of fierce rivalry between channels. Like Premiership football teams vying for a star striker, all three networks can find themselves scrapping over a comedian, the latest example, it appears, having been Jack Dee.

Of the big three commissioning editors, Lawrence is the bluff populist who earned his spurs at Yorkshire Television with such sitcoms as The New Statesman and Rising Damp. He spends 17 per cent of ITV's total annual budget on entertainment. "We're alwayspoaching off each other," he laughs. "BBC1 has BBC2, but we have no nursery slopes at all. We have to let what you might call alternative comedians develop at Channel 4 and then pay through the nose for them. It's very easy for Seamus to say, `I'll havea crack at this or that.' That's his remit. We have to wait till people like Jack Dee are more boring, then we can use them."

Liddiment, a precise man who made his name with Coronation Street and You've Been Framed, has an annual budget of more than £100m - 19 per cent of BBC Network TV's budget. This fills only 8 per cent of the hours produced, but, boy, are they important hours. "We're living in a very rich time,'' he says. "With the arrival of the comedy circuit, we have a whole new generation of aspiring comedians. I'm 42, and when I was young I wanted to be a rock'n'roll star, playing a guitar. Now making your mates laughis what the young aspire to."

Sudden popularity brings its own problems, though. Cassidy - a genial Irishman who was oncea researcher for the comic Keith Allen - says he only has a tenth of his rivals' budgets to work with. "Two years ago, you were dealing with people for £50 in a room above a pub. Suddenly, you're dealing with Robin Williams."

The TV comedy boom shows no sign of abating. The commissioning editors claim that there is no more comedy on TV now than there was, say, 10 years ago. Maybe so. But as David Baddiel and Frank Skinner appear on Match of The Day and Jack Dee adorns fashionable magazine covers, and TV comedians' private lives are becoming as interesting to the tabloids as footballers', the impression is that the comedians are taking over television. And those promoting them are making Lottery jackpots in the process.

Tomorrow: the new video nasties - comics who make their fortunes from swearing.