As Alexei Sayle re-enters stand up, we look back on the Alternative Comedy movement
Rik Mayall, Jenny Eclair and Ben Elton are among the 1980s alt.comics who shaped comedy today
He may be viewed as a showbusiness pariah today, but Ben Elton’s words once summed up the alternative comedy ethos: ‘We can make people laugh without being racist or sexist. Bernard Manning’s mother-in-law jokes, and jokes implying that all Irish are stupid are out.’ The likes of the northern soulless comic and his 1970s brethren on The Comedians were always playing straight to their constituency (white, working-class male). They wouldn’t have dared suggest that their hateful material had anything to do with the subtle wordplay which Jimmy Carr insists is the sole motivation behind his gags about rape, weight, disability and gypsies.
But does the thriving of this so-called ‘new offensiveness’ allied to the stadium-troubling likes of McIntyre, Bishop and Kay mean that alternative comedy ultimately lost the good fight? Jenny Eclair was a punk poet in the early 80s before morphing into a 1990s Perrier winner and the grumpy old woman we know and cherish today. She believes that the period’s legacy can be witnessed in the democratisation of comedy that exists now.
‘In the 80s there was suddenly a home for us to go to and I never thought that the business I was in would ever be oversubscribed. It started off in a recession and now, if you’re a bright graduate who wants to be creative, there aren’t the same sort of spaces in advertising and journalism, so a lot of them are turning to stand-up. People want to have their voice heard and as we’re all bloggers now it doesn’t seem such a huge step for some people to then get up on stage.’
If Ben Elton was the sparkly-jacketed, express-train talking face of alternative comedy, Alexei Sayle was the man in the tight suit who is viewed as the form’s godfather (unless you’re in the Malcolm Hardee nude ballooning camp). The first MC at The Comedy Store (the London epicentre of alternative comedy and the venue where French & Saunders, Rik Mayall, Craig Ferguson, Paul Merton and Mike Myers all took their first baby steps into stand-up), Sayle drove the movement with ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?’, his visceral performances in The Young Ones and a vocal left-wing politicking. Three decades later, and he’s back on the road. In an interview with Time Out last year, he recalled dipping his toes once more into the stand-up waters: ‘I go to a comedy club now and think, “I started this shit”. It’s my deformed child.’
With his pulsating, energetic and confrontational stage act, Nick Helm might be seen as following in the Doc Martened footsteps of Sayle and he acknowledges his debt to the Liverpudlian laugh merchant. ‘My dad was always a big fan of Alexei Sayle so I used to watch his TV stuff in the 80s and I loved his anarchic style. I was a bit too young for The Young Ones. I found that a bit too scary, with Adrian Edmondson having his head cut off by a train. I’ve seen it again since and it is funny, but at the age of four or five, it was real nightmare stuff.’
For Josh Widdicombe, another member of the new comedy generation, alternative comedy was neither punk nor rock’n’roll, as it was touted during the early 90s with Newman and Baddiel playing to 12,000 at Wembley Arena. ‘The thing with punk was that while it was revolutionary in what it said, musically it was pretty unadventurous. That would be the equivalent of quite a boring stand-up just saying outrageous stuff whereas alternative comedy was like the post-punk of Gang of Four, playing with form and revolutionising the medium. I remember watching Alexei Sayle on TV and it felt very exciting, though I was too young to know exactly what he was going on about. At the age of ten, I had very few views on Trotsky.’
Of course, 1980s right-wing acts such as Bob Monkhouse, Kenny Everett and Jimmy Tarbuck loved to taunt the new breed by insisting they were an alternative to comedy (clever, huh?). Like every cultural movement, there are bits and pieces that anyone can take from it (old schoolers Jim Bowen and Mick Miller have stolen many younger hearts) and alternative comedy obviously has its share of turkeys. But just as punk set some anarchic cats among the establishment pigeons for a brief but memorable moment, so the mad japes of Rik’n’Ade, Dawn’n’Jen, Alexei and his ill-fitting threads all paved the way for today’s vast swathe of British comedy talent.
Five new alt.comedy projects
Alexei Sayle’s gigs are merely the tip of a reprised alternative comedy iceberg.
It’s 18 years since Rik Mayall and Adrian ‘Ade’ Edmondson’s slapstick brutality and unrelenting knob gags disgraced the airwaves, but the dangerous duo are bringing back Richie Richard and Eddie Hitler for Hooligan’s Island, to be shown sometime next year on the Beeb.
Not exactly Mr Popular these days even among his Alternative Comedy comrades, but you sense he does not give a flying jot given the enormous mainstream success of his novels and musicals. His new novel, Two Brothers, is set in 1920s Berlin as we are transported to history’s darkest hour. No, not the opening night of We Will Rock You.
Before the year is out, expect a brand new Comic Strip on UKTV, entitled Five Go to Rehab. Robbie Coltrane, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Adrian Edmondson (what, again?) and Peter Richardson revive it up while Stephen Mangan represents the new breed of TV comedy actor. An accompanying documentary, 30 Years of The Comic Strip Presents, reflects on the influential franchise.
Long before the campmeister general was being bashed by the tabloids for making a verbal pass at Norman Lamont and winning Celebrity Big Brother, he was an original voice on the AltCom scene as Gillian Pieface and then The Joan Collins Fanclub, ably assisted by Fanny the Wonder Dog.