Alternative comedy pioneer Tony Allen dies at 78 | 'He made a difference'

Alternative comedy pioneer Tony Allen dies at 78

'He made a difference'

Tony Allen – widely hailed  as the godfather of alternative comedy – has died at the age of 78.

The comic had been diagnosed with cancer, and was suffering a number of age-related health problems.

He was instrumental in creating the modern comedy scene when he and Alexei Sayle set up a collective of politically motivated performers called Alternative Cabaret in 1979, with an ethos borrowed from punk and radical theatre.

They staged gigs at the Elgin pub on Ladbroke Grove, West London, and began the tradition of comedians taking solo stand-up acts to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1980. Allen would continue to attend until the mid-1990s

He was also the second compere at the Comedy Store – after Sayle and before Ben Elton – and has been a regular at Speakers’ Corner.

Paying tribute today, comic Dave Cohen said it was ‘hard to explain the importance of Tony Allen on the world of alternative comedy. His impact was enormous. Everyone you've ever heard of, from Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall onwards, owed a debt of gratitude to Tony.’

Earlier this year, friends threw Allen a ‘woke wake’ in a pub near his West London home so he could have a ‘going away party’ while he was still alive.

Tony in later life

Among the ‘mourners’ was Sayle, who  was in a Brecht play in 1976 when Allen heckled him, and a friendshup was born. ‘We were at the dawn of something extraordinary,’ he said the event. ‘It’s an unrepeatable experience that very  few people are granted, to be right at the very creation of an art form. 

‘It was a delirious time to be alive, really. We used to we used to think about ideas, we used to spend all night talking about the theory and what we were going to do. 

‘One night I remember at Tony’s flat, we had a long discussion about how, if a production company sent a limo for you, was it all right to accept it? Or would you have to cycle or walk there or wait for a demonstration to be passing by – that was fairly likely in those days – which would pass the production company. 

‘So me and Tony we stayed up all night arguing this point and consulted all the sacred texts: The Eagle annual for 1957, The Anarchists’ Cookbook… In the end, we decided – and this was the official line – that it would be all right, to accept the limo from the production company to take you to a meeting as long as you sat in the front with the driver… and have a discussion with him about Cuba. That was one of my many thousands of wonderful recollections of my time with Tony.’

Stand-up Nick Revell recalled his first gig at the original Comedy Store in Dean Street, Soho, in 1980 hosted by Allen, saying: ‘It was a very, very tough night. But Tony was brilliant… Watching Tony run this room, I thought "there is a way of making this work." And so I owe it to him that I persisted as a stand-up comedian, but don't hold that against him.’

And he recalled one of Allen’s best jokes: ‘Lenny Bruce, my hero, ended his career dying of heroin in a toilet. That's how I'm starting off.’ 

Here he is on stage of the Comedy Cafe in 1993:

Poet and musician Attila The Stockbroker said the 'woke wake': ’He made a difference. He did something really valuable and really important. Thank you comrade.’

The gig was organised by stand-up and artist Becky Fury, who told Chortle ‘Tony was basically my Dad for a few years and basically adopted me when I was fucked up. As well as imparting a lot of wisdom to me, mainly through the medium of dressing as clowns and dicking about, he gave me a much more productive addiction and  form of self harm to indulge in than heroin. Stand up comedy. Which likely saved my life.'

» Read our full report of Allen’s ‘wake’ here

» Tony Allen and others on the origins of alternative comedy

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Published: 1 Dec 2023

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