Sexy stand-ups? What a joke]

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When I want to know what's going on in the real world I take a look at teenage girls' magazines. This is by its nature a furtive occupation. Rifling through them on the newsagent's shelves earns you a look far more withering than if you were displaying an apparently healthier interest in the soft porn on the shelf above.

Try reading them on the train if you're male and past the first flush. People tend not to sit next to you - which is another good reason for reading them.

It is in these journals, away from the world of leadership contests, single and multi-track Europes, that you discover the real concerns, anxieties and icons of the next generation. In the main, they are refreshingly unchanged. My fix this week was Company magazine, which featured on its cover such hardy or even monthly annuals as 'Great date . . . but will he call again?', though there is a gesture towards the more relationship-centred Nineties with 'The Orgasm Work-Out' and 'What Leads A Father To Murder His Daughter?', a feature I could happily write most months.

Inside, though, there was rather more disturbing fare. Under the heading 'Lusting For Laughter', impressionable young girls were informed: 'They may not look that great, but today's comedians are the sex symbols of the Nineties.' It got worse. The likes of Ben Elton and Vic Reeves are apparently dating some of the world's prettiest women. Jack Dee is 'seriously cool and sexy' even when he's talking about widgets; Rob Newman and David Baddiel are 'blessed with looks to rival any rock star's'; 'Who could resist Rowan Atkinson's rubber-faced charm?'

Come back Tom Cruise, all is forgiven. For a while now I have felt a growing irritation with the current crop of comedians but couldn't put my finger on why. But this is it. Not only are they being touted as sex symbols, which is bad enough, but they are beginning to believe their own publicity. When Paul Merton's wife, the actress Caroline Quentin, says: 'We wake up laughing and go to sleep laughing,' I begin to think you can have too much of a good thing.

A sense of humour has always been a sexual turn-on, as many physically challenged chaps with the ability to remember a joke know to their eternal gratification. It's always spoken of as a way for men to win women, though I believe the attraction of a female with a nice ad lib and good timing is much underrated.

But professional comedians should beware of getting the girl too often, and certainly beware of becoming sex symbols, even worse of revelling in it. It may be many things - from ego-boosting to lucrative, to extremely enjoyable - but it just ain't funny.

One of the reasons Bob Hope

was funnier than Bing Crosby in the Road films was that, unlike Bing, he never scored and, when he did, Dorothy Lamour produced children who had a remarkably Crosby-esque visage. Norman Wisdom and Jerry Lewis sometimes got the girl but usually out of sympathy.

Peter Sellers was hilarious in his years when he played the decidedly unsexy Bluebottle, and less funny when he went to Hollywood and became a wretched sex symbol. Likewise Dudley Moore, who entertained girls out of the public eye in his dressing room before many a performance of Beyond The Fringe, but again lost that vital comic ingredient of the little man against the world when he went to California.

Comedians who have lost their sense of place might find that they lose their sense of humour with it. I rarely go to a first night in the West End without seeing supposedly alternative comedians among the glam and the glitzy. Would Marty Feldman have posed on the Shaftesbury

Avenue pavement with a girl on his arm? I doubt it. He would have inveigled his way past the stage doorman and then been thrown out of the starlet's dressing room with a cheeky grin and rolling eyeballs.

For some reason comedians no longer look or act the part. They are more square-jawed than before (it's hard to imagine lusting after Les Dawson), wear designer clothes and appear in oh so many commercials. There seems to be, awful thought as it is, a politically correct look for comedians.

And it's not just the chaps. For years I told anyone who listened that Jennifer Saunders had the best comic timing around. She and Dawn French were a marvellous cult taste and quietly and surreptitiously fanciable. Now they're inclined to fancy themselves. French poses for fashion magazines; Saunders aims for the pop charts. And they both made the mistake of appearing in a BBC promotional film for its own licence fee, saying how wonderful the Beeb's artists - and by implication they themselves - were.

As Bob Hope, still treading the boards at 91, will no doubt show in his London performance, comedians need to have a persona that is flawed, uncertain and ever-careering towards disaster.

A vulnerable persona, though, is attractive as well as amusing. Comedians should keep out of the youth and fashion mags. Never pose, never dress up, never date pretty women. It's great fun, but it's not funny.

Maggie Brown is on holiday.