Alternative comedy is dead. Maybe it never actually existed. After all, none of us referred to ourselves as “alternative comedians”. Some of us never liked being called “comedian” either. Comedians wore dinner suits, bow ties and frilly shirts. They told paddy jokes and sexist jokes. They told Paki and coon jokes on prime time telly. It wasn’t funny. Alexei Sayle had an interesting line, “I’m alternative comedian. Which means I’m not funny”! But he was very funny. A breath of fresh air. We needed it then and we need it now.
Whenever someone asked me what I did, I would often offer “plumber” or “exorcist”. Sometimes I would tell them I was a “shaman”. I thought of myself as an artist who painted or sculpted with words. This was the 1990’s. Alternative comedy was dead. Some people said alternative comedy died because it was too “politically correct”. I don’t know what “politically correct” means. Others said it was “outdated” while others conceded that it was “necessary”. The frilly shirts and bow-ties returned to the shadowy world of the CIU circuit. They became the alternative comedians.
When I started doing comedy in 1986, it was called cabaret back then. It was fresh, exciting, dangerous and innovative. Sometimes it wasn’t funny. The audiences knew the score. They came for something different. They were fed up with frilly shirts and bow ties too.
The frilly shirts and the bow ties are back. Well, the attitude has come back. It started around 1992. Loaded appeared and the jugglers and poets disappeared. The lad was here. Well, the lad never went away. What was alternative was transformed into something mainstream. Something more television-friendly. The clubs became factories that produced commodities. The commodities were fetishized by television companies and magazines like Loaded and is imitators. This is comedy on an industrial scale.
Then some journalist declared that “comedy” was “the new rock and roll”. Avalon took this seriously. They even booked Wembley Arena for their star performers. Kerrrrching! Even the comedy tours of the eighties didn’t take in such massive venues. This was the sort of venue that only the likes of Queen or Dire Straits played. This was stadium comedy to go with your stadium rock. “Welcome to the machine” is what Pink Floyd said on their album Wish You Were Here. Welcome to the machine.
Guy Debord said
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that is directly lived has moved away into a representation.
The lived experience of the alternative performer was gone. Representations of life appeared in their place. The master discourse was renewed and articulated through the comedian. Observations of nothing-in-particular came to signify la comédie nouvelle. The new jokes needed butts. They were found in the Welsh and people with red hair. One was a ‘sheep shagger’, the other a ‘ginga’. People paid good money to hear this stuff. But you can go to a playground on any day of the week and hear that stuff for free. Save your money.
The girlfriend was substituted for the wife or the mother-in-law. The frilly shirts and bow-ties owned those two. Homeless people became the new niggers at the hand of the hack. I once heard someone do a load of stuff about “smackheads”. It was tiresome. Tedious. Unimaginative. Pointlessly cruel. The weak became the focus of the new cruelty. Not the powerful. Not career politicians. The weak. But it’s just a joke. Can’t you take a joke? You have no sense of humour sometimes! It’s political correctness gone mad!
No, it isn’t.
It’s worse than that.
Much, much, worse.
Today’s comedian is like a vending machine. They produce perfectly formed gags like cans of Coke. Each one is the same as the last one. Put coin in, get a can of Coke. Repeat the process. If we take Jimmy Carr as an example, we see a comedian who is more of a technician than an artist. Arthur Smith once said of Carr that “He makes jokes like little clocks. He has no interest in their context or meaning, only that they cause an explosion of laughter. I want a comedian to have a hinterland”. Even Carr’s shows reflect a certain sterility to his approach. One show was titled “Joke Technician”. You really cannot get more technocratic than that. Such an admission is revealing, it shows us how some acts view their profession: not as art but as a science or a bloodsport. His current show is titled “Laughter Therapy”, which is not only unimaginative, it is also highly clinical.
Nelson David wrote an interesting article for Chortle a few months ago. He says,
I’ve often wondered why many younger generation comedians seem less politically and philosophically engaged with the world around them than their predecessors of 25 years ago, especially as times are so turbulent.
So where is the reaction? Maybe audiences are more interested in observations of naff all. A promoter once asked me “Why do you do all that political stuff? Why can’t you just stick with your impressions”? Nelson David,
It does seem that exclusively political comedy has become the preserve of the more mature performer in Britain. Sadly for me their number is few, certainly far less than I’d need to be able to nickname them the Grecian 2000. But Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Mark Thomas, Arnold Brown and Rob Newman for example remain inspirational.
More recently, Bob Slayer, writing for the same website, said this,
Fuckin’ A! It’s been a quarter of a century since alternative comedy turned the industry on its head and it is long overdue another shake-up. Comedy may be booming at the top but there are many signs that it is becoming more than a little middle aged around the middle, it is increasingly choked with clubs promoting generic comedy, established comedians delivering interchangeable material and new acts, that only want to be the next Russell Howard, trying stand up as a career choice.
Bob rightly puts his finger on the industry’s lack of adventure. Pierre Bourdieu reminds us that,
Old style intellectuals monopolise legitimate cultural practices due to the inertia of the institutions of cultural production.
The “old style intellectuals” here are those who control the industry. They are the ones who produce tastes and project them downwards to the masses. These intellectuals come from the public schools and Oxbridge. Many of them are employed by the BBC. Political satire is one area where production is controlled by former public school and Oxbridge types. A good example of this can be found in Channel 4’s Bremner, Bird and Fortune, a series that is patchily amusing and often full of obscure parliamentary in-jokes that need to be decoded with the aid of Hansard. It is a programme for those who have been initiated into the political system. Those who have not been initiated will feel alienated.
The comedy industry like the rest of the culture industries is not concerned with innovation or inventiveness. It concerns itself entirely with safe ideas, safe products and safe comedy. When it offers danger it tends to be produced without thought or analysis and is done to shock. Recently there have been a series of article about the number of rape jokes being told. Emma Poole, writing for the blog site, Liberal Conspiracy writes,
I watched a recorded episode of ‘Russell Howard’s Good News’ this week – I couldn’t even enjoy the funny bits. The show was fragmented by the host’s jokes about rape and paedophilia. I don’t find them funny. They make me feel sick. They give me nightmares.
Rape and paedophilia jokes have become the new comedian’s stock-in-trade. Rape jokes can be funny but only if the perpetrator is the butt of the humour. More often than not, it is the victim who is the butt of the joke. Alexei Sayle says,
Offence doesn’t reside in the subject matter, but in the power relationship between the comic and the audience.
Perhaps some of the newer comics should take this on board. But the phrase “power relationship” is not one that many of them will understand. Some will try and claim that they are being ‘ironic’ but this is the last refuge of the coward and the bully. The behaviour that would have once been left at the school gates has now accompanied these comedians into adult life.
There is a need for a new alternative comedy. We live in turbulent social and political times. The economic crisis, peak oil and war would have featured in many an alternative comedian’s set in the 1980’s. Today’s comedians would rather talk about their dicks or talk about disabled people as though they were subhuman. The only way to ensure that there is an alternative to the new mainstream is to create the space for it. But with most pub landlords interested in short term gains, finding a sympathetic landlord is a very difficult task indeed. I should know, in the last three years, I tried to set up an alternative cabaret club and each time, pub management was the obstacle to progress. The old mainstream acts still had places to play when alternative comedy emerged. They still had audiences. The alternative acts had nowhere to play once the new mainstream took control but surely they still have audiences? The only real way forward is to have your own space where you are not subject to the capricious whims of a pub landlord. You control the means of production, not the landlord, the brewery or a lads mag.
When alternative comedy arrived in 1979, it disrupted the spectacle. In 1992, the spectacle recuperated comedy and transformed it into a product of the hospitality industry. It’s time to take it back!