Comics with a talent for raking in the rewards

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE comedy double act Newman and Baddiel played Wembley Arena in 1993, we were told that comedy was "the new rock'n'roll". After Frank Skinner's pay demand this week, it seems Britain's comics now want to be paid like rock stars as well.

Already the basic pay of a headline BBC1 star such as Harry Enfield or Jennifer Saunders exceeds pounds 1m a year. These are the people who have programmes built around them, the stars whom ITV, Channel 4 and now Sky - which this week signed David Baddiel for pounds 5.5m for a new sitcom - fight over. It is the struggle between increasing numbers of channels to secure the headline names that is turning a generation of comics into millionaires.

"The biggest stars of comedy are very valuable to television stations," says Paul Jackson, the head of BBC entertainment, and the man who has to deal with stars' pay claims. "Not only because of ratings, but because there are a few stars who stations like to see themselves defined by. "For the BBC, they are an important part of the licence fee proposal. When people are asked why the BBC is good value they usually name comedy and then drama before they get around to mentioning Panorama. We may be valued for news and current affairs, but we are loved for our entertainment and drama."

For commercial television, young and usually male comics are even more important. Television audiences tend to be more female than male and older than the national average. But comedians bring in the highly valued, young male audience to whom advertisers want to sell cars and beer.

The pounds 20m demanded by Skinner's agent and production company, Avalon, included the cost of making the programme for five years. Skinner's share was likely to be no more than pounds 1.5m a year, the norm for top-rated comedy stars. David Baddiel's pounds 5.5m contract with Sky is also a deal for writing, starring in and making his sitcom.

Part of a comic's wealth in the Nineties comes from the fact that he is multi-talented and either owns or has a share in a production company - for example, Rowan Atkinson owns a share in Tiger Aspect. Not only are they more than just performers, often they take a fee as a producer and a writer.

Yet the money demanded by Skinner's agents is less than half of what he can expect to earn in the multi-media world of 1999. "Television is the shop window for the rest of their career," says Andrew Zein, commercial director of Tiger Aspect Television. "It is easier to do chat shows and then do something else than it is to go away on location and shoot a drama for six months. Once your six half-hour chat shows are out of the way, you can do your stage shows, advertising voice-overs, videos and novels."

This is why on any list of millionaire comedians you will find comics such as Roy Chubby Brown and Bernard Manning. They may be too offensive for television, but they have a lucrative parallel career on video or in clubs they own.

And, just like rock'n'roll bands, much of the money comes from exploiting yourself as a brand: "The Bottom and the Fast Show tours made more money for their stars from T-shirt sales than their television contracts," says Mr Jackson. "It's not that comedians are now better capitalists. It's just that the opportunities outside TV can dwarf what they earn on screen."

The Big Earners

JENNIFER SAUNDERS:

pounds 1m a year

Money made from writing and starring in Absolutely Fabulous and associated merchandising and video deal. Also co-owns a production company with double-act partner Dawn French.

STEVE COOGAN

pounds 1.2m a year

Coogan's money comes from live performances. He also did well with the video Four Fights and a Wedding, which was a big seller. Now the money comes from Alan Partridge audio tapes and videos.

VICTORIA WOOD

pounds 1.3m a year

Wood is Britain's highest-paid female comic, despite doing relatively little television until writing and starring in her Dinner Ladies sitcom. Her money comes from sell-out tours.

BEN ELTON

pounds 2m a year

Earns more from his pen than his performances, with a pounds 1.5m advance for his next two books. All his books are bestsellers and he also writes plays, screenplays and comedy series.

ROWAN ATKINSON

pounds 2m a year, plus millions from the `Mr Bean' films

Atkinson owns a chunk of his own production company and chose not to be paid by ITV so he could hold on to the rights to Mr Bean - the film version grossed over pounds 200m.

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