Comedy's hard, but some TV channels are just having a laugh

David Lister at the Golden Rose of Montreux television festival
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The Independent Online

There is an apocryphal story of the actor on his death-bed. Asked what it feels like to die, he whispers: "It's hard. But comedy's harder." He must have attended the Golden Rose of Montreux. The shows in competition continue to prove that there is no common ground in humour among different countries. If I say that under the genre Variety, Japan was offering a disturbing programme about biological weapons during the Gulf War and a subsequent game-show style panel discussion, you will begin to get the drift. It makes Russia's Hope You Enjoyed Your Bath, with humorists, artists and singers telling funny stories in a steam bath, look positively traditional.

Old Montreux hands advise going to the counter where you book out the videotapes, and taking a peek at the list to discover which are the most requested shows by the British TV stations. That's how you learn what ITV or BBC will be buying up and inflicting on us in a year's time. Well, if that's the case, God help us, because it's eyes down for Bingo. This game show from Austria was right at the top of the most requested items. And with interactive TV gaining ground, the idea of future Saturday nights seeing a quiz show in which the right answers enable those at home to fill in a bingo line, looks depressingly inevitable.

But why do we need to look abroad for a mixture of shock, titillation, a smidgeon of innovation and a dose of nonsense, when we have our own Dawn Airey? The Channel 5 director of programmes came to Montreux to announce highlights of her light-entertainment schedule at a grand luncheon by the lakeside. It was preceded by a highlight for media reporters, a private magic show by the channel's resident magician and comedian, Jerry Sadowitz. Ms Airey's sleight of hand strained credulity even more than Sadowitz. Yes, she was joking when she and her light entertainment head said they had booked sketches from Hannah Gordon, Reg Varney, John Alderton and Penelope Keith, called The Slow Show. But no, she wasn't joking when she announced Nudity Week with an all-nude game show to coincide with British Naturalism Day. And no, she wasn't joking when she said she had commissioned a series on the world's top bitches. Yes, she was joking (I hope) when she named a well-known media reporter as being near the top of the list, though the joke was on her when that media reporter entered the room a few seconds later. By the time she promised she would be trying to buy up Neighbours and The Bill, I wondered whether Sadowitz had sprinkled too much fairy dust on her.

Escaping for a boat ride, I encountered a familiar face in the queue: Dom Joly, whose Trigger Happy TV is competing for the Golden Rose. Joly used to be a lowly ITN reporter before becoming a cult comedian, thus proving there is life after death. He told me that former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman had reported him and Channel 4 to the Independent Television Commission and Broadcasting Standards Council. Joly had set Wyman up by pretending to punch and kick an innocent bystander during their interview. Wyman now says his young daughter was watching from a window and became frightened. "This guy played with the Stones at Altamont," spluttered Joly. "There was a murder and Hell's Angels running riot; and he gets upset by this. I guess the ITC doesn't have a code that covers Altamont."

Life is not easy for the up-and-coming TV comedian. Joly adds that his Big Mobile sketch means he is being pursued by Nokia and other mobile companies to star in their ads. "I'm not proud; but I am meant to be funny," he laments. "How can I bawl 'HELLO, it's me, guess what, I can download music and video clips with my new WAP phone.'" No wonder those engaged in comedy always look depressed.

As it happens, the most memorable comic moment came from ITV - though not in any of its programmes. The corporation held a special dinner at the festival, with guest of honour Michael Barrymore. It was at Buffet de la Gare at Caux, a swish restaurant up in the mountains. Unfortunately, some of the invitations wrongly said Buffet de la Gare, Montreux, which is the Montreux station cafeteria. The editor of Broadcast magazine, Lucy Rouse, was one of those who took it literally and dressed up to make an entrance at the station caff, where she had her own brief encounter with another person who took ITV at face value - Michael Barrymore.