Did it start with a Puppet Show..? What is Alternative Comedy, and is it anyway?

What is alternative comedy?
Does such a thing exist anymore and, if so, does it require a new label.
As a child, or parasitic growth, of the age of alternative comedy, I wonder what defines it.

When I first saw it, I noticed it was loud and energetic. Bruce Forsyth was also loud and energetic, but the energy of Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall seemed different, there was a militancy, sometimes a sneer, both real and self parodying. Was it asking mainstream light entertainment out for a fight by the elm tree where Stan Boardman propped his push bike?

I didn’t notice the politics in the first few TV versions I saw. It was the manic intensity that shone through, there was no leaning at jaunty angle on the microphone stand to be seen here. It was slapstick and absurd, this before the next rise of observational comedy. The best observational comedians were of a slightly older generation, the urbane and incisive Dave Allen, and the excitingly sweary Billy Connolly amongst them. (here he is swearing from the outset, Wreck on Tour was one of my favourite cassettes of comedy) .

After the violent slapstick and swearing, I started to realise that alternative comedy was political too. This was part of my political education. I wouldn’t need too much nuance until later on in my life. Margaret Thatcher was the despot, surrounded by drooling henchmen and unlickworthy lickspittles. Alternative comedy was connected to striking miners’ benefits and Red Wedge tours. It would be a few years before the “alternative comedians” would be performing at the Royal Variety performance or in the Queen’s back garden. Entertainment would never be the same again…until it was.

Finally, somewhere in the laughter breaks, I realised that the alternative comedian was the author of their own words. Their routines were not necessarily their own experience, but the oddities and spoutings were the product of their own mind. It was their world view, even if it was sometimes not the material world we knew, this could be a planet of their own making.

In the minds of many, alternative comedy was non-sexist, non-racist, self-written, sometimes with a rebel yell. Often, the non-sexist, non-racist element was unspoken, as Rik slammed Ade’s penis in a piano.

Alternative comedy is a term still bandied around, but which performers are alternative and which are mainstream. Does the term offer any real information to a prospective audience member? With so much comedy available, does it need more tags, something akin to the sub sections in a record shop?

“I am looking for some easy listening comedy. Something for my husband and I to relax to while drinking red wine. Have you got a comedian that goes well with Merlot?”

During the Edinburgh Fringe, there seemed to be a new division. There were complaints that, of late, comedy has become about things, and has themes and purpose, and this angered some who wondered what happened to jokes. What happened to jokes was that those people had stopped looking for the tellers so they could create a fictional reality that they could be cross about. There are plenty of joke tellers, plenty of storytellers, some people who want to try and offer the audience alternative ways of thinking, and others who want to do nothing more than make you laugh by any means necessary.

Is this one of the divisions – the beloved entertainers versus the humorous sociology lecturers? If you stand on stage, is your only desire to make the audience laugh, or are you limited by wishing to make them laugh on your terms? If the audience aren’t going with you, is there a limit to what you can turn to in your box of tricks and confetti?

A couple of months ago, a comedian asked me what was more important for me, “getting an idea across or getting big laughs”, but I hope not to sacrifice one for the other. My plan, sometimes thwarted, is to find a way to talk about the reptilian brain or Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms or the speed of light, and get big laughs. I hope I am not ridiculous in vain.

So, what is alternative comedy? Whatever vestiges are left of the original idea, a media hook for a burgeoning scene, or a Malcolm Hardee poster for an absurd puppet show with Martin Soan, I wonder if it is authorship and the limits of your comedic language being the limits of the world you want to share, unforced by preconceptions or audience demands.

The need to fail when common ground is untreadable with your comedy ethics?

Is alternative comedy what you don’t find funny, if so, then everyone is an alternative comedian to someone (though if you don’t find Laurel and Hardy funny then it is definitely your fault)

Over to you.

I am gabbling across the UK and beyond (US and Australia next year) – from Goole to Cardiff, Dublin to Sheffield, Leicester to Cambridge and on and on. Dates HERE

My three hour “alternative?” comedy DVD is HERE

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One Response to Did it start with a Puppet Show..? What is Alternative Comedy, and is it anyway?

  1. Was giving this further thought in the shower. Could it be that what we defined as “Alternative” in 1979 was in fact traditional, and what it was rebelling against, ie the bow-tied sexist and racist comedians of Granada’s The Comedians was in fact much more of a variation from the norm? The Comedians followed in the tradition of front-of-curtain men but their objectionable forays into blatant racism and overt sexism had only developed as a result of the Sexual Liberation of the late 1960s, in the same way that that era’s change in social acceptibilties had changed the course of the Carry On Films and Benny Hill into territory that didn’t resemble their early 60s heights. Whereas Not The Nine O Clock News, The Young Ones and The Comic Strip were the product of public school and University graduates, which, whether doing satire or knockabout comedy, had been the staple of television since its origins, going back beyond Beyond The Fringe to Jimmy Edwards and Stinker Murdoch.
    If, by Alternative, we mean the Alternative stand-up that grew from the early Alternative Cabaret of the Comic Strip via The Comedy Store, it is very much in the tradition of American Stand Up. And, just because we’d only had a few respectable practitioners before 1979, mostly in the folk clubs (eg Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott, Mike Harding, Max Boyce), making it new to Britain, this new stand up had already had an airing in the Establishment Club in the early 1960s (the revived Frankie Howard and the visiting Lenny Bruce being the outstandng examples).
    The punk ethos of Malcolm Hardee and Ted Chippington now looks, at this distance, not so much as a poltical statement against professional comedy as a rough-and-ready attempt at trying to do it and just not doing it in a slick and polished style. (Having watched some Ted Chippington recently I find it hard to conclude anything other than that he just wasn’t very good. You obviously had to be there).
    The 21st century sense of Alternative that Robin is using here, to mean a “humorous sociology lecturer” can perhaps be more broadly definied as meaning comedians who “have a point” as opposed to comedians who are just “being funny”, and this is something we could plot on a Venn diagram. The big name TV comedians of Mock The Week and 8 Out Of 10 Cats fame would be most interesting to plot on this graph. I have seen Frankie Boyle, Dara O’Briain and Russell Howard to be very much Comedians With A Point, yet many who call themselves Alternative would class them as Sellouts or cheap gag merchants. I think you could play the same game with comedians of 50 or 60 years ago. Where would you put Gerard Hoffnung, Alan Bennett, Tommy Cooper, Tom Lehrer, Allan Sherman, Tony Hancock, Peter Cook, Frankie Howard, Arthur Haines, or Chic Murray?
    It’s an interesting exercise. And this question, like most headlines that end in a question mark, never has just one answer. That was part of mine, thanks for the invitation to think.

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