alternative comedy

alternative comedy
   Comedy in the 1980s and 1990s has been called ‘the new rock and roll’. Certainly there has been a huge surge in audience figures for live comedy, and in response to the demand, new clubs and comedy venues have sprung up to provide an arena for comedy performers. When the Comedy Store, which now advertises itself as ‘the unofficial National Theatre of comedy’, opened in the summer of 1979 it was an isolated platform for comedy. By the mid-1990s, in London alone well over 100 shows could be found each week at dozens of venues.
   The demographic of the expansion shows a clear increase in the middle-class audience in the south. A new wave of comedy has erupted out of the change of direction in stand-up comedy made by the so-called ‘alternative’ comedians of the early 1980s. The traditional act is joke-based or gagbased. Carefully constructed stories leading to a punchline or one-liners are formed around figures and structures—the mother-in-law, the fire-breathing wife, the meeting of an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman—which are as fixed as the Punchinella and Columbine of medieval commedia dell’arte. Its home had been the working men’s clubs of the north, with women often the stock figures positioned as the butt of the humour. The change of direction initiated by the ‘alternative’ comedians was essentially towards the political, but also towards the politically correct. Commenting, as they largely did, from a left-wing or at least a liberal perspective, the alternative comedians opened up a younger, trendier and more affluent audience in the middle classes, and also created an arena which is more female and minority friendly. There was a genuine undercurrent of anger in the comedy of performers such as Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, anger directed almost exclusively against the Establishment, the Conservative government, its policies and their perceived effects. The political diatribe attacking the Establishment is a direct descendant of the ground-breaking satire of the 1960s, a natural consequence of the irreverence shown for previously unassailable institutions by shows such as That Was The Week That Was. As an extension of this political development, the stand-up routine naturally became more observational, pointing out and pointing up the oddities, irritations and absurdities of everyday British life, particularly from a political angle. This observational tack in turn led to routines which were less a series of unrelated jokes and more a stream of consciousness monologue of ideas. The burgeoning of the comedy circuit which has followed these alternative comics has seen these trends develop. The trains of thought and observations are no longer necessarily politically motivated, but may be absurd, surreal or more personal. Increasingly, performers are displaying alternative comedy 19 their own personality, or that of the character they create as a mouthpiece. It is arguably this emphasis on individual personality which has led to the identification of comedy as the new rock and roll. Individuals stand out, audiences select favourites, stars are created; stars beget fans and so the industry expands.
   The material of the new comedy may encourage a more politically correct atmosphere, a more demographically varied audience, but ‘punters’ are no easier to please. Rather than face alone the frequently hostile heckling which is now common at most new comedy venues, many performers, in accordance with the old adage that there is safety in numbers, choose to pursue a slightly different branch of comedy, working as part of a duo or team. The revue format is a university tradition; the Cambridge Footlights and the Oxford Revue have been in competition for decades. Again, it was in the 1960s that they came to the attention of a broader audience. The now legendary groups such as Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett in Beyond the Fringe, or the Monty Python team, combined members of both University revues and, largely through radio and television, broke through to a much larger audience.
   Their legacy is seen in the sketch groups of today such as the Cheese Shop or Curried Goat. In addition, although a female stand-up is no longer such a rarity (the demographic changes apply to performers as well as audiences, and Jo Brand or Jenny Eclair can quell a heckler as well as any man), many women seem to work fruitfully within partnerships; French and Saunders forged the path which others such as Mel and Sue or the Girls with Big Jests are now following. These duos, like the sketch teams, base their acts upon short scenes and varied characters.
   The revue format may mean that the sketches, skits and, occasionally, songs have a linking theme, but more usually the sketch show is simply a series of unconnected humorous situations presented dramatically, rather than just recounted as would be the case with a stand-up comic. This is the format most often translated to radio and television, as it is not as dependent as stand-up on having an audience to address because the members of the group can interact with one another. At its furthest extension, a team of comedians will improvise scenes and dialogue. Improvisation is now the style favoured by the Comedy Store Players, hosts at the best-known of the London comedy venues. Stand-up is the staple of most comedy clubs, but some offer more of a cabaret for an evening’s entertainment. Stand-up acts may be featured, but they will be interspersed with sketches, singers or some of the many novelty acts who now ply their trade on the comedy circuit; groups such as Corky and the Juice Pigs, whose act is formed of comic songs and musical impressions, or perhaps the more circus-based antics of The Umbilical Brothers. Current British comedy has been revolutionized by the alternative movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it now has a firm foothold in the television schedules with stars like Lee Evans, Jack Dee and Julian Clary who have their own shows.
   Further reading
    Double, O. (1988) Stand Up, London: Methuen.
   ALISON BOMBER

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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