With Glasgow Comedy Festival kicking off this month, we speak to Chloe Petts, Donald Alexander and Tom Mayhew to explore what constitutes alternative today
Alternative comedy's legend endures. Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton are touring, while podcasts eulogise the 1980s when you could afford to live and perform in London while signing on, sharing stages with eccentric 'spesh acts' melting giant ice blocks and smashing vinyl records to smithereens. A majority Tory government is again in power but comedy has changed unrecognisably. The biggest names occupy massive arenas, digital media affords unprecedented exposure and there are more wannabe comics than ever.
Yet the noughties' boom is a fading memory with some stand-ups who appeared on Live at the Apollo and Mock the Week have second jobs. Edinburgh Comedy Award nominees are returning to live with their parents. Can any comic still afford to be alternative? Admiring leftfield acts like Spencer Jones, Paul Foot and Paul Currie, 29-year-old Edinburgher Donald Alexander stands out with his angular physicality and offbeat delivery. 'I look weird, and I'm big and gangly,' he admits. 'For me, the best gigs are the ones where I come on and a proportion of the audience are laughing before I've said anything. I like using my body with the words, or the offset between them. Sometimes, lifting my leg just works. I try not to over-think it. Keep it loose and fun.'
Invariably 'quite alternative for Scotland', he does though, feel a 'phony' claiming the alternative comedy tag for himself. 'I've never thought of myself in that camp but get told I am. I'm a man talking about my experiences. There's a slight surreal fadeover but it's still storytelling.' When he plays an avowedly alternative night, he questions his peers' financial prospects. 'But I wouldn't recommend anyone get into stand-up if money is their goal.' Besides, telling jokes to strangers is inherently 'quite surreal' he reckons. And anyone pursuing such an alternative vocation must 'feel a bit of imposter syndrome. Unless they're a psychopath.'
Tom Mayhew can empathise. His Fringe show, I, Tom Mayhew, explored demonisation of the working class and recounted his time on the dole, becoming a cult hit which earned him a Soho Theatre run and writing experience for Radio 4's The News Quiz. 'It was the first time I'd been near a BBC building and I was really excited, like a kid who'd won a competition to meet Willy Wonka,' the 28-year-old from Hertfordshire recalls. 'But I didn't have a laptop so I had to borrow my girlfriend's. They'd have provided me with one, but I didn't want to be that guy and feel really self-conscious. But the opportunity made me feel less disenfranchised and I thought, "OK, there is a place for me in this industry".' Still, he was signing on again shortly after his News Quiz stints and he still feels an outsider. 'There's very little to support working-class voices. And that comes from society.'
Enormously successful acts like Micky Flanagan and Frank Skinner have cultivated a working-class boy done-good persona. But Mayhew reckons there are very few comics speaking openly about their contemporary financial struggles. 'I'm looking at the hard reality of it, the political and societal issues, and the actual reasons why more people are using food banks. No one else is.'
Far from being charity cases, once-marginalised voices are enriching mainstream comedy when given the chance. Co-founder of comedy night The LOL Word, showcasing queer female acts, Chloe Petts is keen to point out that 'lots of blokes and straight people come to the gig and have a nice time'. Signed with Avalon, one of comedy's biggest management companies, her love of football is already winning her Radio 5 Live and talkSPORT appearances. 'An alternative comedian, to me, is someone doing something structurally or formally different,' the south London-based 26-year-old suggests. 'And I'm not necessarily doing that. I could be mainstream.'
Her debut stand-up hour Alpha is about being a masculine woman and explores macho culture from the perspective of a football and darts fan. Albeit one who's occasionally mistaken for a man. 'And it's about how sometimes people think my masculinity is derivative of male masculinity, but how female masculinity can be just as valuable. The mainstream may not be quite ready for something as rad as The LOL Word, and maybe I can be branded alternative because I'm not a cis white male but I'm talking about issues that they might discuss.'
Donald Alexander: Yikes!, The Stand, Tue 17 Mar; Tom Mayhew: I, Tom Mayhew, The Vacant Space, Sat 28 Mar; Chloe Petts: Alpha, The Vacant Space, Sun 29 Mar.
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