Once upon a time there was something that the media named “alternative comedy”. We, that is to say those of us who played the circuit, called it “alternative cabaret”, which was, coincidentally, the same name used by Tony Allen and Alexei Sayle to describe their loose circuit of pub venues. By 1992, that had all changed, the cabaret circuit became the comedy circuit and barely anyone outside the business noticed the change. Back in 1992, you could hear comedians in the dressing rooms (if you were lucky to get them) talk darkly about how “television was killing comedy” and how Britain was going the way of the US. America, which was 20 years ahead of us, was witnessing a gradual decline in the state of its live comedy scene. I remember chatting to a few American comedians who had come over to work here, many of them complained of a circuit dominated by hacks and the lazy promoters who booked them. In this climate, acts like Bill Hicks were finding it tough to get work, while the new breed of performers like Andrew Dice Clay (my friend AJ assures me that all that racism, xenophobia and sexism was just an act on Clay’s part) were playing Madison Square Garden. This was a backlash against the so-called ‘truth-tellers’ and it didn’t take long for it to catch on over here as a reaction to ‘political correctness’.
So when I read John Fleming’s interview with Noel Faulkner the other day, I thought, “Bloody hell! It’s taken you all this time to see it”? Faulkner, who owns the Comedy Cafe (soon to be rebranded as The Comedy Cafe Theatre) in Shoreditch, says,
“The game is really played-out,” he told me. “I think ‘arena comedy’ has really done it damage, because 60,000 people at a time can go and see comedy now.
“I’d say the average comedy punter used to go to a club maybe four times a year. But, when they go to these arena shows, it soaks them up and they don’t bother coming to the little places. They go to an arena show and see ‘him off the telly’ and they’re able to boast about it at work on Monday morning: It was amazing. We were right against the big screen! Really up close!”
This seems to support an already widely-held view that not only has television changed the way in which audiences consume comedy, but the stadium shows are also responsible for sucking the life out of the circuit. Perhaps the biggest complaint about these large-scale concerts is that they are bereft of intimacy; they have no soul. How can a comedian really connect with an audience in a space that holds 60,000 people? Many of them will only be able to see the comedian on the huge monitors that hang either side of the stage. It is more a spectacle with laughs than it is a comedy show.
Continuing the interview, Fleming asks,
“So why are you going back to stand up?”
“One of the reasons […] is that, in the last four or five years, I’ve seen so many bad, hack, middle class comics trying to break through and some of them have made it all the way to telly. Twenty minutes of talking on stage doesn’t mean you have a comedy set. Talking, in itself, is not comedy.”
Well, the bad news is that even the cabaret circuit in the late 1980s was full of middle class types and I can literally count the working class acts on one hand… well, one and a bit, if I’m lucky. But to be honest, some of those cabaret acts had come from working class backgrounds but had gone to university or polytechnic. This route was effectively blocked by the Thatcher government in 1989 and the policy of economic exclusion for the working class was continued by the Blair government, when it introduced tuition fees in 1998. By the time I left the circuit it was almost all white, middle class and male. Some of these people had substantial sums of money behind them to make stand-up comedy their full-time career. It also turns out that Faulkner is himself from a middle-class background, “My father was a bank manager in Ireland. But I’ve fucking lived a life”.
Bennet Arron, writing for Chortle, echoes the sentiments that I outlined above when he says,
Stand-up comedy on television is also having an effect on the audiences which do attend clubs; their attention span is much shorter. (Again, I thought this was just me but thankfully it’s not). I assume this is because when you watch stand-up programmes on television, you see a comedian perform for five to ten minutes, before being replaced by another one. Some audiences seem to expect this at live gigs and seem bemused and somewhat cheated when the same comedian is still on stage after 15 minutes.
This is something that I’d noticed in 1998. I was doing a gig at a long-running club in North London, when I noticed 3 people in the front row casually chatting away, so I leant over and said, “You don’t have a remote control. This is real. This is actually happening right now”! By the way, this didn’t happen in the middle of my set, it happened at the beginning as I was introducing myself. Being the sort of person who can be a little on the confrontational side, I felt compelled to challenge these people. They were at a live event and not sitting at home in front of the telly. There are conventions.
Dark murmurings about stand-up comedy’s imminent demise aren’t new. This article from The Daily Telegraph in 2002 says,
To have to cancel one gig may be regarded as a misfortune; to have to scrap an entire summer season looks catastrophic. But that’s exactly what Nigel Klarfeld has been forced to do with his 200-seater club, Bound and Gagged, in Palmer’s Green, northLondon. “Normally we’d keep running through the summer, but attendances have been dropping so much that there was no point going on,” he explains. “I’m not alone. A lot of clubs are suffering, with numbers down across the board by between 30 and 40 per cent.”
Don Ward, who runs the Comedy Store, says: “Stand-up comedy has peaked. It’s all going to go very quiet. A lot of clubs will shut.”For someone of Ward’s status to be openly worrying about stand-up’s demise is almost unthinkable. What he helped to bring over from the States with co-founder Peter Rosengard – a cheap, egalitarian form of entertainment that required only a stage, a microphone and an individual with the guts to try and make people laugh – has looked like a growth industry for so long, the idea that it could ever fall from grace sounds preposterous.
That was 10 years ago. Little, it seems, has changed. Clubs have come and gone but then, they’ve always come and gone. There are plenty of hacks cluttering up the bills but then, there have always been hacks on the circuit. So why the anxiety? Well, the live scene is regarded by many punters as an adjunct of television. “Is he on telly”? some will ask, while the promoters, looking to put bums on seats, may only book those acts who have been on television and have some DVDs to flog after the show. It’s all about profile. And yes, television has played its part in transforming stand-up comedy, in particular, into another commodity form to be sold alongside package holidays and insurance policies.
We can trace much of this back to the mid-1980s and the popularity of Saturday Live. I can remember posters advertizing gigs, with a strap reading, “As seen on TV” beneath the name of the headline act. It was a way of getting bums on seats. But I also remember the circuit suddenly being flooded with stand-up comedians, all of them observational and all of them with little or nothing to say for themselves. These comedians displaced the speciality or spesh acts. I mean, when was the last time you saw a juggler at a comedy club? You haven’t because comedy clubs never feature jugglers or poets… or fire-eaters, or … you see what I mean.
In November 1989, Time Out’s Malcolm Hay, noticed how safe the cabaret circuit was becoming. He asked,
“Where did all the odd acts go? In the early days of alternative comedy, we’re told, the stand ups would rub shoulders with a rag bag army of eccentric acts and assorted crazies. We live in a more professional (that is to say, more tedious) times. Many comedians are so busy being funny that they fail to convey much sense of joy – or any sense of danger. Very few comics allow themselves to be silly”. (1005: 71)
The article also mentions Chris Luby, an eccentric sound impressionist, Randolph the Remarkable, a silly ‘stuntman’ and oddball musical act, The Amazing Mr. Smith. Luby continued to perform into the 1990s but his appearances on the circuit were often limited to Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel Club and later Up the Creek in Greenwich. The Amazing Mr. Smith still performs and Randolph was last heard performing at Covent Garden.
A month later, Janet Prince of East Dulwich Cabaret said,
“The cabaret circuit has developed into a high professional standard. But it’s now verging on a conveyor belt style of comedy. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was more room for acts to relax and for more experimentation”? (1009/10: 77)
In the same article, Pete Harris of Screaming Blue Murder said, “Audiences have become more demanding and acts have become safer, less experimental” (1009/10: 77). The dark clouds of commercialism were looming and there was nothing anyone could really do to stop them. But was it possible to resist the forces of commercialism? Well, no, not really. After the success of the Saturday/Friday Night Live, the machinery of the cultural industries began to work overtime to accommodate the new comedy. Once these industries have appropriated something, they will dilute it, repackage and promote it relentlessly.
When Vic Reeves appeared on the circuit in the mid-1980s, it was only a matter of time before television producers snapped him and his Big Night Out up. Reeves and Mortimer were a godsend to television because their style appeared to hark back to a lost era and, in our postmodern age, nostalgia is a highly fetishized commodity form. The Reeves/ Mortimer schtick was an affectionate pastiche of old variety that had been immersed in the absurdism of The Goon Show (but without the democracy between its participants). It was ideal. It appeared to have no politics. More importantly, it was seen as a rejection of ‘political correctness’.
The watershed moment came when Jo Brand appeared on Question Time in 1998. After that, television ran rampant with stand-up shows. It could be argued that producers had finally understood what stand-up comedy was about and had worked out how to shoot it. It was now presentable; just cut away to the audience laughing even though they aren’t laughing and it works as good as canned laughter. The audience at home will never know the difference. Laughter is community-forming after all!
Television and radio aren’t interested in danger or experimentation. The media never leads, it always follows. It can do nothing else. Safety guarantees advertizing revenue and that translates into bonuses for the executives and dividends for the shareholders. The live circuit, in its turn, feeds off the power of the media exposure of its headline acts and in the years since Saturday Live, many promoters have responded by giving the audience something that they think the punters will want.
But all is not lost! There is something happening outside the mainstream. Variety is making a comeback through the likes of Martin and Vivienne Soan’s Pull the Other One Cabaret, for example. I will be opening my own venue at The Tramshed in Woolwich this autumn (fingers crossed). This venture is the offspring of my Cake Shop Cabaret clubs that ran intermittently from 2005 to 2008. The club was the victim of myopic pub managers – but that’s a subject for another blog.
There is also a small but lively independent comedy movement that aims to exist separate to what is now the mainstream. While the Edinburgh Fringe is dominated by the big agencies: Avalon, Off the Kerb and others , there is a Free Fringe that exists alongside its massive commercial (and, ultimately, safe) cousin.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The alternative cabaret circuit was male, middle class and mainly white. Most of the acts were in their twenties and some had been to Oxbridge. So much for rebellion.
I hate to leave this article on a low note but I understand Michael MacIntyre is doing an unfinished show at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Tickets are £31 a pop. It’s supposed to be a fringe festival. Doesn’t he have enough exposure already? He plays fucking stadia for crying out loud! He’s like…he’s like a ringer playing for a Sunday league football side!
Bergson, H. (1999). Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Los Angeles: Green Integer
Hay, M (1989) Time Out, Issue 1005
Hay, M (1989) Time Out, Issue 1009/10