If comedy is, as is sometimes claimed, the new rock 'n' roll, then
alternative comedy was its new wave - raw, spiky and with the arrogant sneer of
youth. Just as punk and new wave had, supposedly, swept
aside the rock dinosaurs of the 1970s, and returned the pop song to its tight,
brief, 7-inch vinyl purity, so the alternative comics hoped to displace the
bloated light entertainment hierarchy, and in particular the casual racism and
sexism that characterised much mainstream comedy.
Although they varied in the extent to which they embraced
politics, the alternative comics were inescapably the product of the
early Thatcher government, of high unemployment, economic depression and social
division. They were, in the main, young, anti-racist, anti-sexist and, broadly,
leftwing. Quite a few had working-class backgrounds, and although often
university educated, they had come through the newer 'redbrick' universities
(Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Ben Elton all went to Manchester University),
polytechnics, art colleges and drama schools rather than enjoyed the Oxbridge
advantages of previous comedy elites - the Beyond the Fringe set, Monty Python,
The scene had its antecedents - notably in the freeform, often
confrontational style of Billy Connolly and in the left-wing, variety-based
agit-prop of theatre troupe CAST (Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre), which
toured art centres, pubs and small theatres in the late 1960s and early '70s -
but it coalesced in a specific place at a specific time: between May 1979 (the
month that Margaret Thatcher began her first term of office) and early 1980 at
the Comedy Store club in London's Soho.
There was a pleasing comedy resonance to the venue's location, a stone's
throw from the Greek Street address of Peter Cook's old Establishment club,
epicentre of the early 1960s satire boom. But the Comedy Store inhabited a
different universe to the Establishment's fashionable, elegant clientele.
Established by former insurance salesman Peter Rosengard (and inspired by the
venue of the same name in Los Angeles), it occupied the top floor of a Dean
Street topless bar, the Gargoyle. After an advert in showbiz weekly The Stage left Rosengard "besieged by every out-of-work Butlins redcoat in Britain," a
more sensibly-placed notice in Private Eye (another link to '60s satire) eventually began to attract more suitable types, notably a bulky,
leather-jacketed, Marxist skinhead named Alexei Sayle, whose confrontational
style and breakneck delivery made him the perfect compere.
Within a few months, the venue had attracted a sizeable regular audience and an intimidating gladiatorial atmosphere - lesser acts were
foreshortened by the beating of a gong, some barely managing to introduce
themselves. But it had also assembled a core of comics able to conquer the
bloodthirsty crowd, among them Tony Allen, Jim Barclay, Keith Allen and two double acts, 20th Century Coyote (Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, aka the Dangerous Brothers) and The Outer Limits (Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer). In little over a year, the scene was burgeoning, with new venues - including
Woolwich's Tramshed, Malcolm Hardee's notoriously riotous Tunnel Club in
Rotherhithe and Peter Richardson's Comic Strip (located in another Soho strip
club, Paul Raymond's Revue Bar) - and new talent, notably Ben Elton (who took
over from Sayle as Comedy Store host in 1981) and double-act Dawn French and
The 'alternative' comics (the name, originally 'alternative cabaret', is credited to Tony Allen) were defined more easily by what they opposed than
what they shared. The Irishman / mother-in-law stock in trade of the
Northern working man's club circuit, as exemplified by ITV's The Comedians
(1971-92), was viewed with contempt, as were the more overtly racist and sexist
jokes of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson. Equally off-limits was the
cosy, middle-class humour of much contemporary TV sitcom. The alternative acts
could be explicitly leftwing (Sayle, Barclay, Elton) and/or confrontational (Keith Allen), anarchic and violent (Mayall and Edmondson, Planer and
Richardson), or based on acute social observation (Andy de la Tour, Pauline Melville). Common to many was an aggressive mode of delivery (there was plenty of shouting, from stage and audience alike), and a performance style
that drew attention to its own lack of polish.
Alternative comedy's television debut was uncharacteristically low-key. For Boom Boom...
Out Go the Lights (BBC, tx. 14/10/1980), Paul Jackson, then a young BBC light
entertainment producer, assembled some of the best of the Comedy Store talent
for a 30-minute showcase. Tucked away in a late BBC2 slot, it attracted little
attention, but it gave the likes of Sayle, Planer and Mayall an early taste of
television and laid the foundations for The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84).
Meanwhile, Mayall turned up in A Kick Up the Eighties (BBC,
1981-84). Weaving together sketches on a given social theme and presented initially by Nationwide's Richard Stilgoe, it was wryly cynical rather than anarchic, but Mayall's weekly monologues as the socially
inadequate, disaster-prone Brummie 'investigator' Kevin Turvey were spellbinding.
A more tangible breakthrough came with the broadcast, in the space of a week,
of the first of a series of freestanding comic dramas under the banner of The
Comic Strip Presents... (Channel 4, 1982-88; BBC, 1990-93; Channel 4, 1998-2000)
and the first episode of The Young Ones. The first Comic Strip... entry, an
entertaining Enid Blyton parody, 'Five Go Mad in Dorset', aired on Channel 4's opening night (2/11/1982). A further 35 stories followed, with personnel
fluid from one project to the next, though Peter Richardson was very much the
dominant writer and performer. For most viewers, the high-water mark was 'The
Strike' (tx. 20/2/1988), an arch postmodern satire of Hollywood vapidity, in which Alexei Sayle's socialist playwright watches his script about the
Miners' strike transformed into a dumb blockbuster starring Al Pacino (Richardson)
and Meryl Streep (Jennifer Saunders) as Arthur and Mrs Scargill.
Again produced by Paul Jackson, The Young Ones presented a kind of
anti-matter sitcom family, with oppressed Mum (Neil), stern patriarch (Mike) and
two brattish, bickering sons (Rick and Vyvyan). The squalor of the four's
student accommodation was in stark contrast to mainstream middle-class sitcom
gentility, while conflict was not mild, hidden or brushed aside with humour, but
manifest, constant and violent. The characters were deliberately narrow and
stereotyped, but these were types new to television (though they strongly resembled the cast's earlier stage creations) - Neil (Planer) was
a terminally depressed hippy, whose own woeful ineptitude sabotaged his many
attempts at suicide; Mike (Christopher Ryan, alone among the main cast in not
having appeared at the Comedy Store) was a boastful but sexually-inadequate egomaniac; Rick (Mayall) a psuedo-politico and a dire poet; Vyvyan (Edmondson) a pathologically violent nihilist. Alexei Sayle
played the bizarre, slightly menacing Eastern European landlord, Mr Balowski,
and assorted members of his peculiar family. Audiences weren't huge, but they
were enthusiastic; alternative comedy had arrived.
ITV's Alfresco (1983-84) united Young Ones writer Ben Elton and Robbie Coltrane, who had been loitering at the edge of the scene, with ex-Cambridge Footlights
team Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson, further expanding the alt-comedy family. The cerebral A Bit of Fry and Laurie (BBC, 1987-92) had a rather
different flavour to most of the alternative crop, but the duo made regular
appearances in the others' projects throughout the late 1980s, and were regulars
in the suite of shows featuring Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder character (BBC,
1983-89), which also featured irregular guest appearances from the likes of
Mayall and Edmondson, and was co-scripted by Ben Elton from 1986.
Perhaps the biggest draw in the early years was Rik Mayall, who partnered Ade
Edmondson and Nigel Planer in the crude Filthy Rich and Catflap (BBC, 1987) - a
dry run for Mayall and Edmondson's self-scripted effort, the extremely violent,
scatological Bottom (BBC, 1991-95) - and played the memorably sleazy Tory MP
Alan B'Stard in Marks and Gran's political satire The New Statesman (ITV,
More enduringly successful, however, were Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
The two made a limited impact in their first semi-detached efforts, Happy
Families (BBC, 1985) - a virtuoso vehicle for Saunders written by Elton and
featuring support from her husband, Edmondson - and the all-female Girls on Top
(ITV, 1985-86), which teamed the pairing with Ruby Wax and Tracey Ullman. But
they hit gold with French and Saunders (BBC, 1987-). An idiosyncratic mix of
deliberately shambolic skits, sketches, stunts and spoofs, interrupted by
fervent bickering, the show appeared intermittently from 1987 to huge public and critical acclaim.
But the scene's true megastar was ultimately Ben Elton,
who, alongside providing scripts for many of the most successful ventures,
hosted Channel 4's Saturday Live / Friday Night Live (1985-88), as well as his own
successful BBC series, The Man from Auntie (1990; 1994), before achieving international celebrity as a novelist and playwright. Inspired by the
groundbreaking American show Saturday Night Live, Saturday Live's mix of stand-up
and character comedy provided a crucial link between the first wave of
alternative comics and a new breed, among them Harry Enfield, Paul Merton, Jo
Brand and Julian Clary.
Last of the original posse to get his own series was Alexei Sayle, but his
Alexei Sayle's Stuff (BBC, 1988-91), followed by The All-New Alexei Sayle Show
(BBC, 1994-95), provided some of the most winning TV comedy of the time,
successfully welding Sayle's distinctive ranting monologues to a number of
innovative and politically astute sketches.
Although the 'alternative' label is still liberally applied to almost any
progressively-minded comedy of the last quarter century, alternative comedy
proper, notwithstanding the continuing success of its early champions, was more
or less history by the early 1990s, as Thatcher became an increasingly distant
memory. Its influence survives in some of the more aggressive comedians on the
modern circuit, and the racist and sexist comedy it aimed to destroy has been
largely marginalised from television (though far from eliminated altogether). But its greatest legacy is perhaps the vast network of comedy venues that
sprang up in its wake (in 1999, according to Eddie Izzard, there were 88 in
London alone, against five each in New York and LA), as well as the huge and
appreciative audience for lively comedy it uncovered.