How the bland and the posh failed alternative comedy | Alexei Sayle on 35 years in the business

How the bland and the posh failed alternative comedy

Alexei Sayle on 35 years in the business

Today’s stand-up scene has lost almost all links to the revolutionary spirit that first launched alternative comedy, Alexei Sayle has claimed.

The comedian – the first compere at the Comedy Store – said that bland arena comedy and club comics who refused to talk about anything meaningful had diluted the legacy he had hoped to leave.

He said he knew the revolutionary movement was over once Oxbridge comedians got in on the act – and that the rise of the laddish Nineties humour of Frank Skinner and David Baddiel marked a huge step backwards for comedy.

However, despite his misgivings, Sayle said that there is a new breed of comedian epitomised by the likes of Stewart Lee and Josie Long, who have his respect

In a wide-ranging talk at Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival last night, the comedy veteran also spoke of how:

• he ‘saved’ the Comedy Store, which would have quickly failed without his compering

• he felt ‘soiled’ when he became a presenter of TV shows – yet was in talks to be in the much-derided ITV reality programme Show Me The Funny

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• he quit stand-up because he thought he had exhausted all its possibilities – but had a reawakening and now enjoying his ‘elder statesman’ status.

Speaking at the I Say ‘comedy conversation’, Sayle said that alternative comedy started as a ‘radical experiment’ but said: ‘Every revolution contains the seeds of its own destruction.It mutated in ways we couldn’t foresee’.

He had started performing at arts school, and was in a Brechtian cabaret troupe. ‘I always had the sense I had a vision,’ Sayle said last night, ‘But I never knew how to articulate it. There was no comedy at the time for people like myself except for a few ex-folkies like Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott, there was just racist working men’s club comedy.’

However, he felt there might have been something out there. ‘I thought there was hip comedy in the States,’ he said, ‘based almost entirely on the Dustin Hoffman movie Lenny [a biopic of Lenny Bruce]. And a film called Dynamite Chicken produced by John and Oko which featured tiny bits of Richard Pryor and I thought, “That’s amazing.”’

In 1979, he got the chance to perform the comedy he wanted when he answered an advert in Private Eye seeking would-be comedians for a new venture coming to London.

‘I auditioned, and they gave me the job because I was the first person they saw. Or the first person they saw who wasn’t mad.’

He maintains that founders Don Ward and Peter Rosengard could have had a huge flop on their hands, was it not for him: ‘I saved their bacon – they didn’t know how much of a fix they were in.’

Although the new movement was ‘such a step in the dark’ he says that by today’s standards he was able to earn a living remarkably fast. ‘Money came rolling in within weeks, very quickly really, but there was some terrible gigs,’ he told the audience at De Montfort University.

‘We were inculcated with the post-punk ethos that we wanted the crowd to be riled, so we wound them up. Then there were incidents at the Store like Keith Allen throwing darts at the audience. It was pretty combative.’

He says a lot of TV show tried to feed off alternative comedy, ‘but they would just get comics to do their acts with the swear words taken out’ – while he appeared on a ‘semi-disastrous show’ called OTT alongside Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry. The exposure allowed him to become the first of his generation of stand-ups to embark on a theatre tour, even if these were not his comedy soulmates.

But it was the Young Ones that really propelled the new generation into the spotlight. ‘It took the sitcom form and subverted it in the same way we took the cabaret scene and subverted that,’ Sayle says.

However, he also said the show marked the ‘turning point’ in alternative comedy becoming mainstream. 'It was the episode Bambi in the second series,’ he said. ‘I turned up to find several members of the Cambridge Footlights were appearing in the show,’ joking that there was ‘Stephen Fry being delightful, Hugh Laurie singing blues numbers, Mel Smith offering us a ride in his gold Rolls-Royce and Griff Rhys-Jones entertaining us by screaming abuse at minions’.

‘I thought these people were the enemy,’ he said. ‘But the others said, “No that was just you; we never signed up for your class war.”

‘It had began as a radical experiment and now it was something else. And I was no longer the leader. The alliance for the Young Ones and the Comic Strip was always with the Oxbridge set.’

However, he remains grateful that he was cast in the Young Ones, saying: ‘That was the making of me. I was very lucky. I don’t know what would have happened to my ascent had I not been in the Young Ones.’

He believed landing the job was because the creators were intimidated by him being the king of the Comedy Store, with their fate at the venue in his hands: ‘If they annoyed me, I could put them on at 4am. But I don’t think they realised they didn’t need me any more.’

On the back of the Young Ones, his peers including Rik Mayall and Ben Elton went on tour and ‘became much more successful – it made me jealous and angry,’ he admitted.

‘I didn’t want to be a saint. I craved a big audience but didn’t want to do it by making what I thought were compromises.

‘But it turned out that on their night out people didn’t want to be abused by a rabid opinionated fat man. They twigged they could go and see people who would be nice to them, the mass audience quickly realised that.’

He added: ‘I was the boss, the leader of this alternative cabaret experiment. I set the template... but it lasted four months when I thought it would last forever. That was odd.’

Eventually disillusioned, Sayle stopped gigging in the UK in 1995 and his last gig was in Perth, Western Australia in 1996. ‘I just ran out of road,’ he said.

‘Now I know why; but I didn’t really know then. That stand-up character wasn’t me, it was a persona, and I had a limited number of things he could talk about. I thought that comedy was limited - but it was just him, he was limited. I couldn’t see how he could expand my stand-up work.

‘And if you’re a pioneer, that wears you out too. Plus with that character always winding up the audience, I felt I couldn’t meet the public as it would dilute that power. The shows went fantastically well, but they were wild. And that could be draining.’

He said quitting stand-up was ‘a relief’, but added: ‘There were a couple of years when I thrashed about – in self-pity I call them my wilderness years, 1996 to 2000. I tried things, like presenting a dance night on BBC Two. I liked dance a bit, but I wasn’t that passionate. It made me feel slightly soiled, but I was trying to think of what to do next.’

Meanwhile, the comedy landscape was changing. ‘When Frank Skinner started that really took back some of the advances we made,’ he said. ‘Frank and David [Baddiel]’s act was misogynist, and I felt peeved about that.’

Sayle turned to writing, ‘For 12 years I was a proper serious author. I loved publishing and was entranced by it all. By doing book readings I found I could talk about myself, with a comic twist, so I found a more human way of performing.’

That proved useful when in 2011, Stewart Lee asked Sayle to be in a celebration of alternative comedy called At Last The 1981 Show, staged the Royal Festival Hall in London.

‘I extracted stuff from my book readings and did it as stand-up,’ he said. ‘Doing it felt like what people say dying is like. I stepped out into the white light and was filled with love.

‘Because of that punk thing I could never before accept the audience liked me. If things got too cosy, I would always attack them. If anything, I wanted the audience to dislike me. I wanted them to laugh, but while they were disliking me. It’s quite a challenge. But all that slipped away that night. I could accept that love.’

Now he knows that comedy is ‘bigger than aerospace or chemicals’ and says that ‘arenas are only distantly related to what we did at the Comedy Store’.

Because the size of the venues means audiences watch the performance on giant screens, ‘people are paying £100 a head to entertain themselves while watching TV’, he said.

‘A comic could pack the front few rows with hirelings and put on a DVD, and get a Romanian Big Issue seller to prance around on stage and no one would be any the wiser,’ Sayle said. ‘They could nip off to do a corporate.

‘Like McDonald’s, they keep their material extremely bland - telling people stuff they already knew about safe subjects like child rearing and sheds.

‘I feel no animus towards these arena guys, but it’s not art, it’s just passing the time. OK maybe there’s some animus...

‘Micky Flanagan occasionally scales the heights but a lot of what these people do is just banal observation.’ But rather than being angry, as he once was, he now accepts the state of affairs: ‘More people would see Peter Kay in a night than would see me over my whole career. That doesn’t matter, it’s about the quality of the work - the numbers are irrelevant. That’s why I feel affection for Stewart Lee and all that gang.’

It wasn’t just Lee’s 1981 show that renewed Sayle’s appetite for stand-up. Less fashionably, it was also the ‘catastrophic’ ITV reality programme Show Me The Funny, which combined stand-up shows with odd personal challenges.

‘At one point they were going to give these young comics mentors, and they talked to me,’ he said. ‘When I had these meetings at ITV with people who didn’t know what they were talking about I realised comedy was the thing I cared about. I

‘I didn’t know who anybody [in comedy] was, but I do know comedy, I know comedy better than anybody, I think. I could tell a comic exactly what they were doing wrong - not that they would listen. I intuitively know the business of doing comedy, if not the actual business side of it.’

Sayle then started going around the clubs to get a feel for the comedy waters he wanted to dip his toe back into.

‘I spent a year going round the clubs, with a comic called Josh Howie as my natural guide and looking for where the schisms are, figuring out that there are these different tribes. It was vital that I knew about that before doing stand-up.

‘One thing that surprised me was that I thought young comics would talk about politics - and they weren’t. In the clubs people will talks about the most intimate sexual things and the audience are very relaxed – but they become uncomfortable when anyone mentions politics.

‘I have a sense of allegiance to people who try to make people think as well as laugh. There are comedians who have made a conscious decision to shun the mainstream of panel shows and voiceovers and arena. They are doing more interesting and innovative work to intelligent audiences with open minds. People like Daniel Kitson, Stewart Lee, Tony Law, Robin Ince, Isy Suttie, Rob Newman, Alfie Brown, Richard Herring and Paul Foot.

‘I think of these as my real comedy children and hopefully they will accept their estranged dad back into the family home.’

He also said that retuning to the circuit was good for his ego. ‘I’ve always had a messianic thing about my own greatness - regardless of any evidence,’ he said.

‘It was great, People in the dressing rooms would go, “Fucking hell, Alexei Sayle is in.” People previously though I didn’t exist – I was some mythical creature invented to frighten children.

‘That idea of being their grandfather figure, I loved all that. Some of the comics were pretending, but still.. It felt like coming home.’

He said his comeback tour ‘didn’t entirely work for me’ and added if he was to do another he ‘would do smaller venues, maybe 100 seaters. There’s a lot I can do. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.’

He said his more recent material was even more political than what he did in the early days, to try to plug the gap in today’s circuit.

‘There really wasn’t that much political stuff in what I used to do,’ he said. ‘The thing that fuelled a lot of what I did last year was injustice.’ And in particular social mobility: ‘Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful actor but if my cat had the facilities he had at Eton, my cat could be in Sherlock.’

He said that the rise of public-school educated stars in all aspects of the arts was skewing Britain’s culture and sense of what the nation is. ‘The holy role of the comedian – the best of us – is to speak truth to power,’ he said.

‘That’s why comedians should never align to political parties and that’s why think Eddie Izzard is making a mistake. A comedian has to be free of political allegiance.’

‘The one person who’s seen that opportunity [to cover politics] and done it for his career is Russell Brand,’ Sayle added. ‘He’s ravenous. He’s seen that opportunity and really gone for it. He had much greater courage than I ever had.’

Although he believed Brand had embraced politics largely for his own aggrandisement, Sayle said taking such a stance was still enviable. Instead he reserved a special jibe for the comic who succeeded him as compere at the Comedy Store, referring to ‘the whole Ben Elton thing of pretending to be left-wing until it suits you to become right wing’.

Of his own legacy, Sayle concludes: ‘I’ve had a good run. I oscillate between believing I should have been a bigger star and being amazed that anyone would listen to me at all.’

And although today’s mainstream comedy is only tenuously linked to the work he pioneered, he concluded: ‘The non-sexist and non-racist ideals, that’s kinda stuck, and that’s an achievement.’

Published: 19 Feb 2014

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