The ultimate comics' trip

Stand-up comedians are taking over our screens and newspapers - and they're not always telling jokes.
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YOU CAN'T open a newspaper, switch on the telly, go to the cinema or tune in your radio these days without finding some stand-up comedian there, chatting away about this, that and the other. They're not even telling jokes, for heaven's sake. They're being proper presenters, or columnists, or DJs or even actors. They're running the media and we didn't even notice it happening.

The old life-cycle of hauling your gags round the stand-up circuit for years and years, popping up on one or two chat shows and then maybe bagging a sketch show series for BBC2 has long gone as far as most comedians are concerned. Harry Enfield writes a column for the Daily Telegraph and appears in numerous ads; Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy both have columns in the Guardian; Patrick Kielty gets to present The Lottery Big Ticket; Alan Davies is a serious actor in Jonathan Creek; Skinner and Baddiel write about football and, in case you hadn't noticed, are presenting World Cup Fantasy Football on ITV throughout the tournament. The list goes on: Stephen Fry, Jack Dee, Les Keene, Simon Fanshawe, Dennis Leary, Steve Coogan, Hugh Laurie, Steve Punt, Griff Rhys Jones, Caroline Aherne, Billy Connolly and Rowan Atkinson are all writing columns, hosting radio programmes or appearing in ads as you read this.

In one sense this is nothing fundamentally new. In the late Seventies, the Tarbies and Brucies of this world dreamed of a light entertainment show or a decent ad contract. Tarby himself even hosted a few FA Cup finals for ITV. These were people who were old enough to have seen the BBC gradually roll from London to cover most of the country. Bruce Forsyth, for instance, was 22 when the BBC began its post-war television broadcasts, 30 when ITV began spreading out of London and 54 when Channel 4 launched. He had begun his quest for fame in the dying years of what barely passed for Vaudeville in the British seaside theatres and working men's clubs. For him, and his generation, television was an incredible opportunity. They did what they were told, faced the camera and said the words they had to say then went home thanking God for a life away from the drunken mayhem of live performance.

They may have taken all the shillings they could, but the harder, grittier and nastier comedians who followed them stood aloof. Even though some of the Comic Strip cronies have fallen by the wayside there are still some names who stick to comedy in the face of all inducements. Jo Brand and Harry Hill have yet to shift but most of the new wave of stand-up comedians want a career path that goes: couple of south London pubs, a quick Perrier First then, six months later, sign a nice juicy contract that gets you out of the nightmare of writing gags.

Graham Norton, who still does a lot of stand-up, starts presenting his own chat show on Channel 4 on Friday nights from 3 July. He says what he's doing now is what he always wanted to do. "Stand-up doesn't really give you any training for the media," he says. "If I'd been me in the pub I'd have been just as qualified to present this show as if I'd done all my stand-up. The thing is, no one would have spotted me in the pub, would they? That's where being a stand-up is really useful. People know who you are. Unfortunately, it also means they have preconceptions about what you can do and that includes thinking you can act. I don't think that's true, now is it?"

As Norton says, much of this demand for stand-ups is to do with visibility. The Edinburgh Festival has become a key recruiting ground for TV producers and commissioning editors. The other reason is the constant need for opinion in the media. As news organisations merge and the pictures from one front line tend to be identical from newspaper to 24-hour news channel, the only point of difference most media outlets have is their opinion - and that's basically what stand-up comedy is. It's an opinion from someone with such a big point of view that they'll stand on a stage and yell it out.

The penetration of comedians into ad-land goes one step further than simply expressing their opinion. The comedian's opinion becomes a huge advertising message. "Whoever it was who said comedy was the rock'n'roll of the 1990s had it right, I suppose," says Jay Pond Jones, at Bates Dorland, the man behind both the recent Jack Dee and Dennis Leary campaigns for John Smith's and Holsten Pils. "Comedians these days have the public ear in a way that rock stars used to have and they have values that can coincide with the values you are trying to attribute to the brand. Jack Dee's image is cynical and no-nonsense and John Smith's bitter has always been about that sort of solid, unfancy approach. When I worked on John Smith's with him, Jack Dee helped us to put the ads together and get that genuine feel."

The difference between the new school and the old school of TV comedians is the level of control they seek. Three months ago Neil Morrissey, who began his career in comedy, set up a production company with the Men Behaving Badly co-star Caroline Quentin (called Quentin Morrissey). It makes ads, has a sit-com in development with Channel 4 and is working on a number of drama and feature film ideas.

"One of the reasons you find that we've been able to get so much done in such a short time is the absence of creative people in middle management at the broadcasters," says Morrissey. "The BBC has so many people with so little talent that they rely on ideas from the outside. Comedians tend to have a better chance of coming up with a range of ideas because great comedy is so near tragedy that you find comedians are able to work on both."

Morrissey's move is possibly the most interesting, particularly if it becomes a trend. So far, comedians have been content to appear in the media, either writing, presenting, speaking or even telling jokes. Morrissey clearly enjoys getting behind the camera and, once that happens, it's only a matter of time before - like Chris Evans - he thinks about running part of the media himself. Where he goes, other comedians will surely follow, as owning the rights to a production is the only sure way to a decent buck in the multi- media future. I'm telling you, it's no laughing matter.