What Is Alternative Comedy?

This is the question a friend of mine asked this woman last Sunday.

Both myself and my friend were just having a drink after watching some performers at Adam’s Brick Lane comedy club which was downstairs at Monty’s Bar and Lounge*

The organisers were just leaving. They were a couple, the guy was the MC and his partner, well, her job title must have been chief laugher. Even the poorest act that night was consoled by the fact that no matter how bad they were, her screech would pierce the room.

Anyway as they left I asked the screecher if there were any nights where I could perform, possibly an open mic and said that I was about to do my second gig at Gordon Ramsay’s gastropub, The Narrow.

She told me about one comedy night and she was very enthusiastic about the kind of performances that she had seen there and then she dropped the excited tone for a more disappointed one as she said: “But they only do alternative comedy there”


This is a woman who I had only just met. She sees this middle-aged fat South-East Londoner and must think “You must be more of the Jim Davidson style”

But then her face lights up as she then turns her face to my friend, a 20-something thin good-looking trendy guy with long dreads, and asks “Do you do comedy?”

The cheek.

Anyway fair play to my pal, he asks her to define Alternative Comedy. And she struggles, so he helps her “A bit abstract, a bit off-the-wall mebbe?”

“Yeah, something like that”

I felt like having a Jerry Sadowitz-style foul-mouthed rant at the woman.

 The only part of Sadowitz’s set that I could stomach back in the day was when he railed against the alternative scene, insisting that he was more alternative than the likes of Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, etc.

But I will come back to Sadowitz later because even though he seemed to have disappeared from the scene, the nature of his material certainly has a lot of  currency in mainstream comedy today.

So, back to the question. What is Alternative Comedy? Or to be more precise, what was alternative comedy and what was it an alternative to?

Well here’s my opinion on how Alternative Comedy developed and where the comedy scene is now.

The Comedians

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, pretty much every prime-time game-show host had been stand-ups that either did the Working Men’s Club circuit, the variety and musical halls (if they were a little older) or the more exclusive gentlemen’s clubs.

Probably the best-known was Bob Monkhouse, who almost had a monopoly on the lucrative TV game show host position:

From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Monkhouse was seen 52 weeks a year by 17 million people that tuned into the Golden Shot.

He followed that with countless shows he hosted on both commercial and BBC television, namely Celebrity Squares, Wipeout and Family Fortunes.

He was smarmy, with a plethora of one-liners and delivered the kind of material that you might expect from a huge showbiz celebrity that spoke in support of Margaret Thatcher at a Tory conference.

Monkhouse may have been the King of the early evening and weekend prime-time TV game-shows, but no doubt producers were looking for newer blood to front new game formats.

And they were not going to pluck them straight from a dingy working-men’s club stinking of piss and smoke. A circuit that was dying a death.

In 1971, Granada TV experimented by filming a number of the circuit comics live in front of an audience in Manchester. The comics would perform a 20 minute set and the show would be screened when it was edited down to 30 minutes.

So basically, the TV audience were treated to a non-stop barrage of  mainly sexist and racist jokes involving every single stereotype imaginable for half-an-hour every week.

And shamefully ( although it should be remembered also that in the same period the BBC flagship light entertainment show was The Black and White Minstrel Show which ran for 20 years), TV audiences loved it.

But it did launch the TV careers of Roy “Say what you see” Walker (Catchphrase), Tom “I’ll Name That Tune in Three” O’Connor, Mike “Runaround Now! and “Oh My Good Gawd, Pat” Reid, Russ “Madhouse” Abbot and the notoriety and non-TV career of the heavy and heavily offensive ex-nightclub owner Bernard Manning.

The Comedians ran for 11 series, three Christmas specials, spawned a best-selling LP and several sell-out nationwide tours.

 There are many schools of thought as to who first created or inspired the alternative to the muck served up by those whose ideas for material never went any further than poking fun at their mother-in-law, various sizes of mammary glands or the voices of West Indian bus conductors.

Some say the Alexei Sayle-hosted  Comedy Store in Soho in the late 1970s, others cite Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel Club in South-East London and there is a strong case to be made for the Marxist playwright Trevor Griffiths.

Of course, in terms of alternative forms of comedy that were incredibly influential, mention must be made of the Monty Python team, the Frost Report, Tony Hancock, Peter Cook and so many others that I have probably omitted.

For my money, in terms of stand-up, the alternative was already being screened on BBC in the form of a young Dubliner, the son of the Managing Editor of the Irish Times, Dave Allen.

As you can see from this clip, Allen is a storyteller. But more than that, his tall stories, jokes and anecdotes gave the audience an insight into themes such as religion (particularly the Catholic faith that he was born into), sex and death.

The Traitor Distrusts Truth

Another not splitting his sides at Manning et al’s performances on The Comedians was Trevor Griffiths.

The Mancunian dramatist delivered a beautiful riposte with his play, Comedians.

Comedians is set in a place that did not exist in the 1970s. A evening class in Manchester for aspiring comics. In 2011, there are dozens of comedy courses  just in London.

The students at the evening class are all working class, desperate to escape the drudgery of their shitty jobs. Maybe they could make it to the Palladium and TV, but paid gigs on the Working Men’s Club circuit would suffice for now.

Their teacher is the retired comic Eddie Waters. He teaches his class that truth is at the heart of comedy. His former rival on the circuit, Bert Challeoner is now a promoter and will offer one of Eddie’s  students a contract, if they resist Eddie’s instruction and play for cheap laughs (ie – the kind provided by Manning et al) as they make their debut performances in a grotty club on bingo night.

A number of current comics said that Griffiths play inspired them, including Jo Brand.

And indeed, the production I saw in the early 1990s starring Tim McInnerny (best-known as Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth) is a remarkable piece of theatre and a superb commentary on comedy and its uses and abuses.

The Rise of the Alternative Comedy Scene

In terms of a real movement that developed that challenged and ousted the established comedy kings from the mainstream and a mass TV audience, it did come from the group of writers and performers that created The Young Ones and The Comic Strip.

The alternative comedy scene seemed to flow out of the punk scene.

Punk was the device that exploded inside the banally cosy pop world at a time in the mid-1970s when millions of people were being thrown on the dole and youngsters had no future. That youth eschewed their former idols that had been turned into Gods that gave them nothing and created their own rough fashion and roughly played music.

Poorly-produced fanzines, such as Sniffin’ Glue  engaged and demanded that their peers formed bands even if they couldn’t play or sing a note. The famous front page of one fanzine sums up the punk attitude:

And so it was for the new punks of comedy.

Alexei Sayle epitomised that spirit, I’ll save what I have to say about Sayle and the Alternative circuit for a later post.

The Alternative Scene seemed to take Griffiths points on board, in terms of content, there was no room for the racism and sexism that dominated the mainstream.

In terms of style, the likes of Sayle, Rik Mayall, etc rejected the standard set-up and punchline formula.

An American stand-up, Patton Oswalt described Alternative Comedy thus:

“comedy where the audience has no pre-set expectations about the crowd, and vice versa. In comedy clubs, there tends to be a certain vibe—alternative comedy explores different types of material”

Indeed, and in a later post I want to explore whether the new “punk” comedy establishment that came to the fore in the mid to late Eighties really did transform the comedy that we see today.  And I hope to answer the question: How did Jerry Sadowitz morph into Frankie Boyle?

*By the way a word of warning. Make sure that if you order a short at Montys and you don’t want to be charged six squid for a double, clearly state that you are ordering a single. Otherwise, when the guy tells you that its £9 for a rum and coke and a bottle of lager, and you complain that you did not want a double – he just points at this small sign on the bar:  “All spirits are served in double measures unless a single is requested”. What possible reason could be for this policy. Were bar staff suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury from too many punters asking: “Oh go on, stick another shot in there”. Only one rationale for this cheeky behaviour and that is the money-grabbing attitude of the people that run the establishment. My pal was astounded. I was just gutted, it was my round.

Scroungers and More Scroungers

If you want to know what the filthy rich, the rich and many middle-class and small business people think of the poor then tune into Saints and Scroungers on BBC1 on a Monday night. BBC bias? And just as David Cameron told us that there was some good immigration but he wanted to put a stop to mass immigration, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13083781, the impression given by the programme is that there a very few saints on welfare, but most of us are at best work-shy or malingerers or at worst fraudsters. And the show is incredibly adept at doing what the Sun, the Daily Mail and Express have been doing for donkeys: finding the most extreme examples of benefit fraud.

But to the rich, every £65 per week paid out of their taxes to the unemployed is a liberty.

In actual fact any taxes not spent on making them richer is a liberty.

They’d rather pay fortunes to accountants and tax lawyers rather than have to pay their share towards our National Health Service, education, social and other vital public services.

Vodafone are not the only major corporation to make squillions and fail to cough up what’s due.

The activities; the protests and the bank and retail sit-ins organised  UK Uncut have played a fantastic role in exposing many corporations

as nothing more than bandits and vandals.

A professor from Glasgow, Greg Philo has also made a fantastic contribution to this debate:

“The total personal wealth in the UK is £9,000bn, a sum that dwarfs the national debt. It is mostly concentrated at the top, so the richest 10% own £4,000bn, with an average per household of £4m. The bottom half of our society own just 9%. ..A one-off tax of just 20% on the wealth of this group would pay the national debt and dramatically reduce the deficit, since interest payments on the debt are a large part of government spending. “

Civil servants union, the PCS have published “Welfare – An Alternative Vision”, which sets out how the poorest and most vulnerable in out society could get the support they require.

David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society is one that widens the massive gap that already exists between rich and poor.

The unemployed work for their dole, effectively abolishing the meagre National Minimum Wage. Those in work are less secure as their living standards are slashed as prices rise and pay rates continue to plummet.

Putting the system on trial

But the Big Society gimmick is the veil that the ConDems are drawing over the massive social problems that their vicious cuts will cause.

Blissfully unaware, the real fraudsters, the real scroungers will continue to enjoy the kind of party that the rest of us can only gawp at.

And the BBC have ensured that we have had a chance to see how the real scroungers and fraudsters live it up at our expense.

Not with Saints and Scroungers, but with the minute-by-minute coverage of the Royal Wedding.

Singing The Blues

“There’s this boy who comes around 

Who picks you up and then he lets you down

You give him your best and then

Lord above!

You wish you’d never 

Cos he’s in love

With slashing grants 

And closing schools

Broken homes

And long dole queues

He likes to cut 

And I’d like to vote

One more cut – Cameron’s throat”

Most Things Taste Better Without Sugar

Karl Marx once described the capitalist class as a “band of hostile brothers”.

Watching the supposed up-and-coming movers and shakers from the business world battle it out for top dog of the seventh series of The Apprentice,

http://www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice/

not much has changed in the 150 years or so since Marx analysed the intense competition that charactises the system.

Maybe a bit more hostlity and bit less brother/sister-hood.

For instance last night’s episode saw trained actress and entrepreneur Felicity Jackson fired for her indecisiveness and poor buying strategy once she had come to a decision.

On the face of it, Ms Jackson seemed to be one of the most pleasant of a bunch of middle-class and posh chancers who speak so highly of themselves that they make David Brent seem like the epitomy of self-deprecation.

For instance, Melody Hossani, founder and director of the Global Youth Consultancy and “Woman of the Future” award-winner treated the millions watching the first episode to this profound nugget:

“Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the Moon.”

Felicity took charge of her team in week four with all the best intentions of making it democractic and inclusive.

Sat in the boardroom alongside her team-mates, the revelation that the team’s strategy had meant that they had made a loss on the beauty products and massage services they had bought in, it was no more “Ms Nice-Girl”.

Once she had chosen Natasha and Ellie, the knives were out.

Democracy, accountability and the positivity all made a sharp exit as Felicity turned the blame on her team-mates to save her own place in the contest.

And there we see how the competitive dynamic at the heart of capitalism can turn the nice into the nasty.

Far too often, some of the best workers are identified by their employers (too many have been trade union reps) and offered a promotion to cut them off from their workmates.

The former trade unionist thinks: “I would have a better management style, I would not bully my pals, etc”

Until he is faced with the fact that his job is to implement the kind of nasty changes that he would have opposed only a few weeks before.

Many workplaces now, particularly call-centres, are introducing performance management models that deliver quotas of 10% exceptional staff, 80% where performance is either above adequate or adequate and 10% where performance is below the standard required.

At the Communication Workers Union conference recently, Professor Phil Taylor from Strathclyde University likened the system to how officers during the First World War selected a group of soldiers to shoot and how this encouraged others to go “over the top” of the trenches to be slain.

http://www.cwu.org/performance-management-means-managing-by-stress.html

Lord Sugar loves being Sir Lord Nasty, though.

He really enjoys the deference he is showered with from the smarmy contestants  on the show that are in awe of him.

His position as Britain’s leading businessman is unchallenged throughout the show and throughout any TV show he appears on.

This Baron of Clapton was appointed by Gordon Brown and the previous New Labour government as their Enterprise Tsar.

And as each title is bestowed, so increases the man’s arrogance.

Sugar’s pen picture on the official BBC website succinctly promotes the idea that with sufficient hard work and the nose for a good deal, we can all make it from rags to riches:

“After leaving school aged 16, Lord Sugar’s first business venture was selling electrical goods out of a van he bought for £50. In 1968, he founded Amstrad and now has an estimated worth of £730 million. “

Indeed the BBC very kindly commissioned the peer to put his business acumen to propose solutions to the massive debt crisis in football.

Aptly the programme was entitled  “Lord Sugar Tackles Football”.

Whilst Sugar laid into top players and their agents for being too greedy, not caring about the game and only caring about making barrow-loads of money in “typically forthright fashion”,

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0113f7h  he was surprisingly revealing about his own role in opening up the goldmine for the top clubs and a certain satellite broadcasting company in the early 1990s.

Britain's most popular businessman

At the meeting of chairmen of the 22 clubs that would form the new Premier League and negotiate new TV rights, at which Sugar attended as the supremo of Tottenham Hotspur, Sugar described how there was a “ridiculous hoo-hah” where a number of chairmen questioned whether his attendance constituted a “conflict of interests”.

And so it would seem.

Sugar’s own company at the time, Amstrad (Alan Michael Sugar Trading) had been manufacturing dishes and set-top boxes for Sky since the launch of Rupert Murdoch’s satellite TV company. This was at a time when Amstrad’s other product lines in home computers, portable computers and game consoles were a commercial failure.

However, sufficient club chairmen were convinced that Sugar’s involvement in the negotiations as a football club chairman selling the TV rights and his position as the boss of the sole manufacturer of key components for Sky, one of the companies bidding for exclusive rights to screen live Premier League matches, was not a conflict of interests.

Sugar then described his anger on learning that Greg Dyke, then boss of ITV had made a late bid.

Absolutely unashamedly and quite proudly he told us all that he alerted the chief negotiator at Sky of Dyke’s move and pleaded with him to up Sky’s bid.

And so Murdoch’s empire grew. And so Sugar was saved and became the bombastic bully that we know him for.

And so to this day, football fans have been priced out of their grounds, seen their clubs pushed to extinction and millions have been denied the chance to watch a live Premier match on TV unless they can afford the extortionate subscriptions charged by Sky or as many pints as it takes to down in an hour-and-a-half to two hours in a crowded pub.

For the Apprentices and wannabees watching that want to “get on” or “progress” , the lesson is clear.  Like so many of those from the working class and those near enough to be seen looking down on them only too happy to push their way to the greasy pole, The Baron of Clapton has paved his way to success by sucking up to his emperor, bullying and cheating those around and below him.

The Con-Dems want us all like that – sucking up to the suits and sniping at your mates.

Expect to see more of these creatures running the company or the public service that you work for or use.