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”
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.
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.
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.