You Are Nothing by Robert Wringham

Book review by Steve Bennett

For many, Cluub Zarathrusta holds a unique, legendary status in the history of cult comedy. But then they probably never actually had to watch it.

In the Nineties, when stand-up was first being dubbed the new rock and roll, and promoters were waking up to the potential riches this market could offer, Cluub Zarathrusta was an orthodoxy-challenging creative crucible in which the likes of Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Kevin Eldon and Julian Barrett allowed their invention free reign.

Under the totalitarian gaze of Munnery’s pettily despotic League Against Tedium, the audience were treated like sub-human worms, not as possible drinking buddies. They were personally humiliated and subjected to all manner of unusual turns in a confrontational ‘comedy’ night most normally described as Dadaesque or Neitrzschean.

At times it was genius, at times it was the most appallingly indulgent art-wank – at least if this definitive account of the short-lived but influential movement is to be believed.

Author Robert Wringham can’t be sure, as he (like me) is one of the many, many people who never actually saw the show. Thus he is left to piece together the events from the unreliable testimony of the performers and the fossil record left by occasional reviews and comments on dormant websites. This, of course, adds to the mystique that any self-respecting cult covets.

What we do know is this: Cluub Zarathrusta began in the Market Tavern pub in Islington, North London, in 1994. So-called ‘alternative comedy’ was well ensconced into the mainstream, but Munnery’s night tried to capture some of the anarchic spirit of Vic and Bob’s early shows or the chaos epitomised by Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel Club – while adding its own totalitarian twist.

‘I’m sick of funny things,’ Munnery declared at the time, making it his intention to intrigue more than entertain. The roll-call of comedians who would join them in this venture is long and varied: Johnny Vegas, Al Murray, Tom Binns [as a stand-up who couldn’t use nouns], Graham Linehan, Waen Shepherd, Sally Phillips and, perhaps most memorable of the lot future Jerry Springer The Opera composer Richard Thomas and his ‘opera device’ Lori Lixenberg – who would be wheeled on to combat any hecklers with elaborate Wagnerian insults delivered in perfect mezzo-soprano.

However the results were – to say the least – a bit hit and miss. Lee called it 'both the best and worst thing I ever worked on', while another participant, the novelist Dan Rhodes, was more direct, calling the night ‘a truly shameful disaster’.

One performance involved a man walking on stage to the sound of the shipping forecast, dressed in suit with olive-laden cocktail sticks Sellotaped to his face. Another time, a performer called Martin Pickles announced he wasn’t going to do any comedy as he had just split up with his girlfriend, so sang Harry Nilsson’s Without You to his lost love. ‘I assumed the audience would realise this was a joke and would laugh at the excruciating awkwardness’ he said. ‘But instead they sat there in even more excruciating silence.’

But the failures were all part of the ethos of encouraging experimentation away from the formulae of comedy clubs and finely-managed Edinburgh shows. ‘Cluub Zarathrusta was great, even when it wasn’t,’ writer Peter Baynham told Wringham. ‘Some things were amazing, some things were bad, but there was more excitement and experimentation in a single night than a whole year at most normal stand-up shows.’

The show went up to Edinburgh, and Lee helped mould it into a less erratic experience, without sacrificing the sense of alternative. It was even picked up by Channel 4, and an expensive pilot shot – which failed to capture the immediacy and the terrifying intimacy of the live shows. It would be easy to blame ignorant TV bigwigs for ruining everything, but Wringham admits that ‘the actual story of what happened is more complicated’ and the suits did at least try to bring it to air.

To add to the cult’s legend, there is tell of a whole series having been written, but Wringham finds little credence in that. Some of the ideas resurfaced in other obscure Munnery TV outings, most notably the low-budget BBC Two series Attention Scum! – under Lee’s direction, the closest telly got to capturing the messy spirit of Cluub Zarathrusta.

This incomplete, honest but affectionate, biography of the idea seems timely. Comedy is bigger business than ever, but also ruled in the mainstream by a corporate-defined career structure. Do OK, keep your head down and graft hard, and we’ll progress you from panel show, to late-night stand-up, to the shiny-floor McIntyre showcases and into the O2 Arena.

But such monolithic enterprises have also led to dozens of independent nights on the circuit, all with their own ethos – a diversity that surely owes something to the pioneers of Cluub Zarathrusta and those who went before.

  • You Are Nothing by Robert Wringham is published by Go Faster Stripe, priced £12. Click here to buy it

Published: 29 May 2012

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