Putting the alternative back into comedy

Bob Slayer calls for a rock-style revolution

In a recent Guardian article – Stand Up Comics Hit The Boom TimeEddie Izzard’s promoter, Mick Perrin, predicted: ‘There will be a reaction against the TV-slick professionalisation of comedy... there's a punk revolution brewing...’ 

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.

While all this has its place (Ecclesiastes 3:1), there really are many more paths in comedy than the conveyorbelt of competitions and awards required to slowly move up the club ladder and hopefully lead to a slot on Mock The Week. There are plenty of ways comedians could be spending their efforts developing their own fan base rather than pursuing the moribund approval of a middle-aged industry. To misquote Jerry Sadowitz: ‘You know what my problem with comedy is, half of the comedians are fresh faced twats who want to present T4 and the other half let them.’

The increased demand for sanitised stand -p is coming from the same people who complained about a radio programme they didn't hear. The weight of Daily Mail opinion that Russell Brand is a bit of a dick and shouldn't be allowed to make puerile remarks to Manuel, somehow matters more than the right of people to say silly things in the hope that other people will laugh.

What state are we in when someone who Twitters in jest that they would like to bomb an airport when their flight is delayed leads to some humourless judicial wench nailing them for it. As if the possibility that a random bloke was actually trying to be funny was less probable than he was indicating his actual intentions. It has been encouraging to see the backlash online and in the wider media, which shows that the appetite for both free speech and comedy has not gone away.

Back in the 80s, alternative comedy was reacting to an outdated and bigoted mainstream, which had been left largely unchecked for so long that within a few years it had pretty much been replaced. The new broom swept clean: goodbye Jim Davidson hello Ben Elton. However this success was not without compromise: alternative comedy had been about much more than stand ups like Ben Elton; it was made up of a collection of non-conformist performers, variety turns, speciality acts, poets and punks. But as alternative achieved increasing success, those who were not able to compromise were marginalised and left behind.

Subsequently variety and speciality acts have pretty much become divorced from stand-up and developed into a separate scene under the cabaret banner that has little impact on the mainstream. What started out as alternative comedy has evolved into 'stand up' that fits into a marketable box, this has been repeatedly honed and fine tuned to produce the ultimate mainstream comedian: Michael McIntyre

Compare all this with the music industry: Punk rock proceeded alternative comedy by a few years in the 70s; it set out to topple the system, take over the music industry, the government and the world... Unfortunately punk failed, it enjoyed its time in the spotlight and then either evolved into a plastic representation of its original form (ie Green Day) or was driven back underground. The music industry had successfully suppressed the uprising, which was a similar result to comedy's absorption of the alternative. As Johnny Rotten said: ‘Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?’

The big difference between the music industry and comedy is that, ever since the demise of Punk, there has been no shortage of passionate grassroot movements ready to challenge the mainstream. The underground is constantly making leaps in creativity and innovation that the strangled mainstream never could. Those that make the most noise such as post-punk, hardcore, new wave, new romantics, goth, glam, alternative, indie, Madchester, shoegazing, grunge, Britpop... to name but a few, have all shone come out of the underground and been absorbed by the mainstream, which in turn is forced to change and adapt as it fights to keep control.

This constant change based around a symbiotic relationship maintains a healthy balance within the music industry. The internet has had a massive impact on this relationship, pulling the fulcrum towards the artist. Most artists in music have realised that the internet can be used to develop and maintain a fan base, while in comedy the general use barely extends beyond facebook, uncreative use of YouTube and maybe a blog. As a consequence of having strong direct contact with their fans, many bands are taking more control over their careers and in numerous cases this has allowed artists to sustain a completely independent career and enjoy unprecedented levels of creative and commercial freedom.

In comedy the relationship between mainstream and alternative is much less developed. TV and TV acts dominate and the more independent minded acts that do exist are largely separated from the mainstream by the proliferation of pseudo-mainstream acts that are subservient to the system in between.

For comedy’s growth and boom to continue at the top it desperately needs to develop a more sustainable alternative that innovates, regulates and keeps the whole industry healthy. This demand is making comedy an increasingly fertile place for mavericks who are prepared to stick two fingers up to the system, pursue creative freedom and go their own way. These are the outsiders that keep comedy interesting and we need more of them.

As Simon Munnery's Alan Parker: Urban Warrior said: "Smash the system, build a new one... and smash that..."

  • Bob Slayer's Rock & Roll Circus is on tour in December with fellow comedy outsiders Jason Rouse, contortionist Chris Cross and Dr Brown. Click here for tour info. Bob Slayer's Rock & Roll Gameshow starts residencies at Leicester Square Theatre, Crack Comedy Wimbledon and elsewhere in 2011.

Published: 16 Nov 2010

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