Alternative comedy

Alternative comedy is a British comedy scene in the late 1970s and 1980s which would eventually go on to become mainstream in the 1990s and up to the present day.



Alternative comedy was formed around The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip clubs in London (later also Jongleurs as well as others). These were (and still are) live venues which presented nothing but comedy and, although described as clubs, membership was not necessary. Since the early 1970s there had been a tradition of comedy within club venues in the UK, whether that be working men's clubs, which frequently featured cabaret involving traditional stand-up comics, or folk music clubs, which would allow a comedian take to the stage during the musical acts (such as Billy Connolly, Mike Harding, and Jasper Carrott).

There's an argument to be made that alternative comedy started in the folk clubs, although Malcolm Hardee the comedian, club-owner and early agent-manager to many alternative comedians was often described as 'the father of alternative comedy' and was held in almost totemic esteem by many successful alternative comics. In his 1996 autobiography "I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake". Hardee credits comedian Tony Allen with coining the phrase 'alternative comedy' but claims its origin was the series of 'alternative cabaret' shows staged in 1978 by the owner of the Ferry Inn at Salcombe, Devon in the West of England, who advertised that his cutting-edge comedy was 'alternative' to the more mainstream comedy being put on by the local yacht club.

The new alternative comedy clubs were different from the folk-music playing brethren. Although they relied on the same observational and occasionally surreal humour, they provided a voice for anarchic young comedians who were usually opposed to the status quo (effectively the Thatcherite Tory government of the day). Alternative comedy might be described as a manifestation of anti-establishment punk attitudes which were common at the time, and some alternative comedians performed at punk rock concerts as opening acts, or at political rallies. However, by no means all alternative comedians made political jokes or were politically influenced and the audience of Malcolm Hardee's infamously dangerous Tunnel Club in Greenwich were notably averse to political comedy.

In terms of content, alternative comedy tended to rely not on racial or other stereotypes (which was the mainstay of the previous generation The Comedians-style comics), or even standard punchline jokes. Instead it used personal observation and intellectual humour, partly inspired by the early live work of American comedians like Woody Allen during the 1950s and 60s, as well as comedy from the British Satire Boom such as Beyond The Fringe (see Peter Cook). British comedy had a tradition of "shaggy dog stories" - jokes told over the space of 10 or even 30 minutes which ended with an eventual punchline but contained many smaller jokes and observations inbetween (see Dave Allen and Ronnie Corbett). In many ways, alternative comedy could be said to be a radicalised version of this.

The British movement chimed with a similar scene in America, and New York in particular, which arose during the 1970s and came into fruition during the 1980s. In both UK and US clubs, the "stage" was usually a raised platform inches away from the audience, which made for intimate performances.

Satire and current events played a large part of the scene. Being a university graduate was de rigueur and the original Comedy Store host, Alexei Sayle, had been a university lecturer. His successor, Ben Elton, coined the phrase, "Little bit of politics...!" to refer to the times when he strayed away from his observation humour and into satire.

Often alternative comedy was tinged with postmodernism and it can be argued that alternative comedy worked because the audience was consciously aware that it was watching a comedy performance, and were aware the performer was attempting to make them laugh. Audiences at the comedy shows usually became part of the performance. Comedians were heckled and often their skill was measured not only on the quality of their jokes but on their ability to think up witty put-downs to silence the (usually drunk) hecklers (in a Brechtian fashion, the bar was kept open throughout the performance and, although the house lights were dimmed during performances, the audience encouraged to visit it whenever they wished). Jo Brand was particularly skilled at dealing with hecklers and Ben Elton later would describe the rapid 'motormouth' style of his delivery as an attempt not to allow the heckler to get a word in!

A number of key alternative comedy performers had been students at Manchester Polytechnic (a university in the north west of England), including Adrian Edmonson, Rik Mayall, Victoria Wood and Ben Elton. This made them distinct from the Oxford and Cambridge university graduates who had dominated British television comedy before, and again made them appear more radical than the previous generation.

Improvisation was also popular in alternative comedy clubs and was (and still is) practiced by the likes of Paul Merton, Steve Frost, Josie Lawrence and Jim Sweeney (the entire team is known as the Comedy Store Players).

Transition to mainstream

Spurred on by the actions of up coming television producers, such as Paul Jackson, Geoffrey Perkins and Jimmy Mulville (see also Hat Trick Productions), alternative comedy spilled onto TV in the 80s. It was supported by minority channel BBC 2 in the form of The Young Ones and other sitcoms. These were seen as cult programmes, although there was some mainstream success for shows like Not The Nine O'Clock News and French & Saunders, both of which eventually switched from BBC2 to BBC1.

The UK's other minority channel, Channel 4, hosted Saturday Live (UK) (later Friday Night Live), which effectively provided a TV platform for all those appearing at the Comedy Store at the time. Channel 4 also commissioned most of The Comic Strip pastiches as a central part of the channel's early development.

The problem presented by alternative comedy on television was finding the correct format - a stand-up comedy performance was at odds with the needs of TV. Sketch shows, which relied on punchlines, were alien to the nature of alternative comedy. This lead to a very high quantity of failed TV pilots. If there wasn't an alternative comedy star or top-rated programme in the early days, it wasn't through lack of trying.

However, despite that, 'alternative' comedy would eventually become mainstream, with the likes of Absolutely Fabulous becoming prime-time BBC viewing. In the early 1990s Ben Elton presented the UK TV chat show Wogan, in the host's absence, signifying that alternative comedy was to be thrust upon mainstream audiences whether they liked it or not. When comedy duo Rob Newman and David Baddiel played the largest ever stand-up gig at Wembley Arena, alternative comedy was hailed as "the new rock and roll" and acts made significant sums from merchandising, recordings of their TV shows and live performances.

Traditional comedy, characterised by Bernard Manning and Frank Carson, would be relegated to the sidelines in live venues such as working men's clubs. Nowadays traditional comedians appear on television only as curiosities in mockumentaries, or as game show hosts.

Modern alternative comedy

It's debatable whether alternative comedy still exists. Comedians like Mark Thomas, Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy still perform stand-up with a hard political and intellectual edge but their isolation makes them conspicuous. Few of the original alternative comedians appear on stage any longer, least of all performing stand-up comedy. Ben Elton now considers himself a writer, and has scripted several West End stage musicals.

There is certainly still a strong scene of underground stand-up comedians supported by the likes of the Edinburgh Fringe and various live comedy clubs up and down the country. Proponents include Boothby Graffoe, Ross Noble, Dominic Holland, Sean Lock and Dave Gorman. BBC Radio 4 sponsors many up and coming alternative comedians, such as The Consultants, via half-hour shows. Character comedy is also a large part of modern alternative comedy and modern alternative comedians are usually also actors.

It's worth noting that the comedy clubs which sponsored alternative comedy are still in operation and a search of their Friday and Saturday night list of acts shows the contemporary scene off very well.

Modern alternative comedy tends to be more absurdist than previously, perhaps as a reaction to the pointed satire and deliberate intellectualism of the earlier generation which had become odious. It's also more international than previously, with Australian, Irish and American comedians mixing in well with what was at one time an almost exclusively British scene. One suggestion towards a definition of modern alternative comedy might be that it is popular but in a limited way (i.e. it achieves cult status). Recent examples include the League Of Gentlemen programmes or, from a previous generation, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer (Reeves & Mortimer).


Many people are critical of alternative comedy and there is a strong generational divide between those who like and dislike it. Older people in particular find the swearing and no-holds-barred nature of alternative comedy to be offensive. In the early days of alternative comedy, a frequent criticism was that nobody found a person standing on a stage simply discussing events in his or her life particularly funny.

The aggressive attitude of alternative comedians was also off-putting for many and shocking when compared to the measured and heavily styled delivery of traditional comedians. Modern 'alternative comedy', if it can still claim to exist as such, takes the form of comedians like Graham Norton, who rely on sexual explicitness and strong innuendo. Many people find this upsetting. Because of the controversial nature of many modern comedy stars, some argue there is no longer the possibility of nationally appreciated comedy stars like Morecambe and Wise, Dick Emery, Benny Hill or Tommy Cooper. Although Eddie Izzard plays to huge auditoriums, and in spite of the relative success of Ricky Gervais' comedy The Office, many feel alternative comedy destroyed the much loved light entertainment scene which predominated before.

When it first emerged Alternative Comedy styled itself as a reaction to the increasingly genteel comedy of the Oxbridge Educated Monty Python/Goodies set. While the core of The Comic Strip were educated at Manchester and the likes of Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse, Jo Brand, Paul Merton, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer all came through unconventional routes, the vast bulk of Alternative Comedians came from Oxbridge backgrounds. Ben Elton's adoption of a Mockney Accent as the son of a Cambridge Don and Oxbridge Graduate David Baddiels laddish persona drew particular derision. The rise of Alternative Comedy resulted in a narrowing of the social classes represented on British Broadcast Media that had a direct corellation with the rise of reality television.

Ben Elton has personally attracted most criticism having written West End Musicals in collaboration with Andrew Lloyd-Webber and presented a concert for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The appearance of Vic Reeves on the series I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here also suggests that the alternative comedy generation have come full circle.

Notable names and TV shows

Comedians from the era include:

TV shows from the golden age of alternative comedy include:

Note: Many comedians in this list would argue against considering themselves "alternative comedians", perhaps because the term became somewhat odious in the early 1990s; however, these comedians either performed in what might be called alternative comedy clubs or appeared in alternative comedy television programmes

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