Tony Allen has a unique place in modern stand-up.
He played the Comedy Store in its earliest days, and is credited (wrongly, he maintains) with inventing the term 'alternative comedy' by insisting on performing confrontational, challenging stand-up.
Yet while many of his contemporaries found fame and fortune, he stayed true to his staunch, radical conscience and has spent a lifetime performing at low-key comedy venues, spoken word nights, counter-culture festivals and Speaker's Corner - forging a niche as a self-proclaimed 'mixed ability shaman'.
Clearly the voice of such experience should have something to say.
And Attitude: Wanna Make Something Of It, is a decidedly personal take on the state of stand-up. While that's entirely appropriate, given that the message running through every chapter is 'be true to yourself', it can be a little frustrating to read tracts about subjects for which you don't share his passion.
Part instruction manual, part autobiography and part history book, the brief is wide, and it can jump around a bit, with reviews and assorted pieces of writing sitting amid the main thread. It's almost as if he dropped part of the manuscript on the way to the publishers and hurriedly reassembled the pages in the best order he could. Despite that, there's plenty of advice, insight and analysis in those pages, which is well worth seeking out.
Part one ambitiously claims to reveal the secret of stand-up comedy. Which turns out to be timing. And attitude. And experience. And repetition.
In fact, it's an invaluable, if all-too brief, run-through of all the tools comedians should have at their disposal. His tips are pretty much the universally accepted ones - mainly that the key is to 'find you voice' - but succinctly and convincingly put. He also includes a couple of specific exercises to help find that stance, which could prove very useful to an aspiring stand-up.
Part two is a history of stand-up, from tribal behaviour, through commedia dell'arte and music hall, and right up to Allen's comic hero and inspiration, Lenny Bruce. In truth, this has been tackled before and this book doesn't really add anything. Along with a later segment relating to the role of the clown, these essays seem more about Allen justifying his personal 'shaman' approach within the traditions of the fool, rather than revealing anything more universal.
Then it's onto the history of alternative comedy, a first-hand account from one of the key participants, and a useful companion to previous tomes such as Didn't You Kill My Mother In Law, and The Comedy Store. This more personal approach, while less comprehensive than the previous books, is a fresh angle, and his insights on the nascent movement are fascinating.
Part four, The Edge Of Stand-Up Comedy, traces Allen's career as a clown, mixed with a rag-bag of reviews and opinions of the circuit as it stands - which are pretty much bang on the money about what makes a truly great comic stand apart from the hack.
The book ends with a transcript of his monologue which, like all stand-up, looks decidedly odd on the page. Though there are several great gags among the diatribe - a reminder that behind all the analysis, and whatever the comic's agenda, the whole point is to make 'em laugh.
An alternative view
by Ivor Dembina
It's a bad time for live stand-up. The audience is voting with its feet, sponsors are beginning to desert and listing magazines cut their column space. Acts who'll never swim clutch for an oar of the Jongleurs lifeboat and 'political comedy' means gags about September 11 in the cappuccino atmosphere of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Even the most cretinous of TV producers recognise that stand-up doesn't work on the box and a small army of PR people consider the dole queue amid the collective realisation that good publicity doesn't make you funny. Here on Chortle the idea of a comedy news item is Johnny Vegas marrying his 26 year-old girlfriend from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. What do we do? Send rendered pottery as a wedding present?
It's prescient to ask Where Did It All Go Wrong? Tony Allen doesn't give us an answer but in his book Attitude Wanna Make Something Of It you'll find one man's journey through the last 25 years.
The strength of this outpouring of history notes, diary fragments, insights and profundities is it reminds us of what stand-up comedy could be; vital, challenging, passionate and painfully funny.
His account of the creative bedlam around the Comedy Store's inception will baffle the younger reader who's perception of the venue is mediated by hack-of-the-day highlights seamlessly scheduled between the soft porn and other crap on late night Channel 5. To his credit, Allen only tells it like it was. He never sentimentalises or tells you it was better in the early days. He doesn't have to, it leaps out of the page and smacks you in the face.
His anecdotes don't just inform, but give a frontline view of his war with his own confidence, the delusion brought on by unexpected success and the self-coruscation that follows public failure. His critique of why everyone loved Morecambe and Wise is as persuasive as his analysis of why Terry Alderton will always be a banker act but never a star. Were his assessment of some of his recent associates not suspiciously gentle, there would surely be a role for Tony Allen as Britain's leading comedy critic.
Not that I think he'd want it. My guess is that Tony Allen wants to be what he is still capable of being, a truly outstanding stand-up comedian. Why isn't he? The clue lies in a brilliant misprint halfway down page 74. A sentence that should have read: 'Too many agendas spoil your concentration' opens with the word 'Two'. I'm sure it wasn't deliberate and, even if it was, it doesn't weaken the point: Tony Allen suffers from a syndrome of compulsive distraction. A childlike quality which makes it impossible for him to dwell on anything for very long. Tony Allen will take this as a compliment, sadly its not intended as one.
Stand-up requires a curious balance of relaxation and discipline. Frank Skinner has it, Tony Allen doesn't. Frank's book has it, Tony's doesn't. The irony is, Tony Allen has more interesting things to say in five minutes than Frank will ever have in five careers. The extended section of Tony Allen's material at the very end of the book left me breathless with its excitement, imaginative possibilities, intelligence and humour.
This book is a glorious shambles and Tony Allen should never look at it again. He talks a lot about the secret of comedy but I think it's this: It's never too late to become a successful stand-up comedian.
Tony Allen should start work now. I always used to cringe when I heard him described as the 'Grandfather of Alternative Comedy'. It would be to his benefit and ours if he turned out to be its grandchild instead.
October 10, 2002
Click to buy from Amazon.co.uk