is a style of comedy
that originated in the United Kingdom
in the late 1970s and 1980s which would eventually go on to become mainstream in the 1990s and up to the present day. It has its roots in British
nonsense writings of the Victorian era, and their logical extension through the works of Canadian
author Stephen Leacock
and his influence over the Marx Brothers
and The Goons
. It coincided with other comedy movements of a similar style around the world, although the British scene had many unique aspects. A major alternative scene existed in Los Angeles
during the early 1990s, in which David Cross
and Bob Odenkirk
, Julia Sweeney
, Margaret Cho
, and Beth Lapides
, among others, rose to comedic prominence.
Alternative comedy can be alternatively defined as a) any comedy style that make a conscious break with the mainstream comedic taste of a particular era (meaning that what was alternative 20 years ago might now be commonplace, and so no longer alternative) or b) in reference to a particular British "post-punk" comedy movement that relied not on punchline-based jokes, like traditional comedians. Instead a typical alternative comedian might rely on one, all or a selection of the following:
- Observational humour: Making humour out of everyday occurrences, and also laughing at one's own foibles and weaknesses (traditional comedians laughed at other people, such as ethnic minorities or "the mother-in-law", while alternative comedians laughed at themselves, their situation, and at the human condition).
- Political satire: Or, at the very least, a radicalised political awareness rooted in socialism; if a comedian was floundering, he/she could get a cheer out of the audience by simply making a joke about Margaret Thatcher (Ben Elton, a well-known alternative comedian, referred to her as 'Mrs Thatch' and would often say, "Ooh, little bit of politics!" when he drifted into political satire). Nearly all comediennes described themselves as feminist to a greater or lesser degree.
- Breaking social taboos: Particularly those relating to sex and bad language; alternative comedians swore on stage and, continuing the theme of observational humour, often made jokes about sex acts and sexuality. Toilet humour was not uncommon either.
- Surreal whimsy: A comedian might start with observational humour and then drift into a degree of surrealism. For example, Paul Merton's Policeman on Acid sketch, or much of Alexei Sayle's material.
- Intellectual humour: Generally speaking, alternative comedy required an educated or knowledgeable audience. It required the audience to participate and understand the humour, rather than simply sit back and expect to be made to laugh. For example, the television series Yes, Minister relies on the audience having a degree of background knowledge about politics and the civil service.
- Extreme slapstick: People were often set on fire, had bricks smashed over their heads, or were flung through walls etc. This is arguably a less common trait of alternative comedy, however, and was only practiced by a handful of artists, such as Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson (and also Rowan Atkinson in the Blackadder television shows).
- Improvisation: Working without a script or plan and making up comedy on the spot in response to audience suggestions. This was usually during nights dedicated to 'improv', however. See The Comedy Store Players.
- Story-telling & personal narrative: Emphasizing story, personal experience and individual rhythm instead of the rigid set-up/punchline jokes and rhythms of mainstream comedy.
Alternative comedy was radical, both for its time and even today. Alternative comedians were passionate performers. Many were not driven exclusively by the desire to entertain, but also by the fact they had a message to get across (or simply because they wanted to smash social boundaries) and a family to feed. Nearly all alternative comedians were university graduates, and any came from a middle-class background and most held strong political and/or social beliefs. Most were not trained actors or experienced comics, and did not come from a variety or show-biz background. They sought to redefine the rulebook on comedy entertainment. Considering the mainstream success of most alternative comedians today, it could be argued that they have succeeded and in turn, have become the new mainstream.
History in the United Kingdom
Alternative comedy was a product of its time. In the early 1980s, Britain was a politically divided country, although alternative comedy also had a nihilistic streak running through it. Margaret Thatcher
had come to power and was pushing forward free trade reforms, but many still believed that Britain would one day be a socialist
country. Punk rock
had just come and gone in the late 1970s and Britain was changing forever in ways few people understood. From this melting pot, alternative comedy was born.
It could be argued that alternative comedy was a natural progression of anti-establishment comedy which had started in the 1950s and 1960s with the Satire Boom, the stage show Beyond the Fringe and TV shows like That Was The Week That Was. In addition, the bizarreness and surrealism of TV shows such as Monty Python's Flying Circus and Spike Milligan's Q5 (also known as Q6, Q7, Q8 and Q9) undoubtedly had an influence.
With regard to the origin of the term "alternative comedy", pioneering alternative comedian Malcolm Hardee wrote in his autobiography "I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake" (1996) that fellow comedian Tony Allen coined the phrase. He goes on to claim its origin was the series of 'alternative cabaret' shows staged in 1978 by the owner of the Ferry Inn at Salcombe, Devon. He advertised that his cutting-edge comedy was 'alternative' to the more mainstream comedy being put on by the local yacht club. But most would argue that alternative comedy found its home in London, in The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip clubs (later also Jongleurs & The Comedy Club) as well as others). As alternative comedy became more popular, similar clubs were opened in most British cities. They were (and still are) live venues which presented nothing but comedy and, although described as clubs, membership was not necessary. The "stage" was usually a raised platform inches away from the audience, which made for more intimate and less theatrical performances.
A number of key alternative comedy performers had been students at Manchester University, including Adrian Edmonson, Rik Mayall, and Ben Elton.
Transition to mainstream
Spurred on by the actions of up coming television producers, such as Paul Jackson
, Geoffrey Perkins
and Jimmy Mulville
(see also Hat Trick Productions
), alternative comedy spilled onto TV in the 1980s. It was supported by minority channel BBC 2
in the form of The Young Ones
and other sitcoms. These were seen as cult programmes, although there was some mainstream success for shows like Not The Nine O'Clock News
and French & Saunders
, both of which eventually switched from BBC2 to BBC1.
The UK's other minority channel, Channel 4, hosted Saturday Live (later Friday Night Live), which effectively provided a TV platform for all those appearing at the Comedy Store at the time. Channel 4 also commissioned most of The Comic Strip pastiches as a central part of the channel's early development.
The problem presented by alternative comedy on television was finding the correct format - a stand-up comedy performance was at odds with the needs of TV. Sketch shows, which relied on punchlines, were alien to the nature of alternative comedy. This led to a very high quantity of failed TV pilots. If there wasn't an alternative comedy star or top-rated programme in the early days, it wasn't through lack of trying.
However, despite that, 'alternative' comedy would eventually become mainstream, with the likes of Absolutely Fabulous becoming prime-time BBC viewing. In the early 1990s Ben Elton presented the UK TV chat show Wogan, in the host's absence, signifying that alternative comedy was to be thrust upon mainstream audiences whether they liked it or not. When comedy duo Rob Newman and David Baddiel played the largest ever stand-up gig at Wembley Arena, alternative comedy was hailed as "the new rock and roll" and acts made significant sums from merchandising, recordings of their TV shows and live performances.
Traditional comedy, characterised by Bernard Manning and Frank Carson, would be relegated to the sidelines in live venues such as working men's clubs. Nowadays traditional comedians appear on television only as curiosities in mockumentaries, or as game show hosts.
Modern British alternative comedy
It is debatable whether alternative comedy still exists. Comedians have always been averse to describing themselves as alternative, even during the genre's heyday. Comedians like Mark Thomas
, Mark Steel
, and Jeremy Hardy
still perform stand-up with a hard political and intellectual edge but their isolation makes them conspicuous, and they're far from being household names. Few of the original alternative comedians appear on stage any longer, least of all performing stand-up comedy. Ben Elton, now considers himself a writer, and has scripted several West End stage musicals just like Andrew Lloyd Webber.
There is certainly still a strong scene of underground stand-up comedians supported by the likes of the Edinburgh Fringe and various live comedy clubs up and down the country. Proponents include Boothby Graffoe, Ross Noble, Andre Vincent, Dominic Holland, Sean Lock and Dave Gorman. BBC Radio 4 sponsors many up-and-coming alternative comedians, such as The Consultants, via half-hour shows. Character comedy is also a large part of modern alternative comedy and modern alternative comedians are usually also actors. It's worth noting that the comedy clubs which sponsored alternative comedy are still in operation and a search of their Friday and Saturday night list of acts shows the contemporary scene off very well. Modern alternative comedy tends to be more absurdist than previously, perhaps as a reaction to the pointed satire and deliberate intellectualism of the earlier generation which had become odious. It's also more international than previously, with Australian, Irish, and American comedians mixing in well with what was at one time an almost exclusively British scene. One suggestion towards a definition of modern alternative comedy might be that it is popular but in a limited way (i.e. it achieves cult status). Recent examples include Brass Eye, The League of Gentlemen programmes, or, from a previous generation, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer (Reeves & Mortimer).
Major alternative comedy scenes (2001 - present)
Currently, alternative comedy is experiencing a renaissance in cities such as Seattle, Chicago, and Vancouver. Necessarily, what is alternative to one generation is staid to another, and the young comedians in the East Village
have put their new stamp on what is considered "not mainstream". The idea of a "non-physical venue" is also on the rise, with downloadable acts in the form of a video podcast using the viewer's iPod or computer as the new stage. Such groups as The Lonely Island
and Train of Thought Sketch Comedy
have been able to promote their unique brand of humor in the form of short skits and vignettes that you can either download or stream from their respective sites. Without the pressure of renting a performance space or getting a "bad performance time" the focus is put on providing a non-traditional form of comedy that not only plays with content, but with concept and medium as well.
The Los Angeles scene
American alternative comedy was born in Los Angeles in 1990, when performance artist-turned comedian Beth Lapides
started bringing comedy to "alternative" venues like The Women's Building and Highways Performance Space. In contrast to the material onstage at the Comedy Store and the Improv, Lapides and her fellow-travellers were interested in comedy that was not homophobic, xenophobic or misogynistic, and dubbed their show "Un-Cabaret
Un-Cabaret took up residence in 1993 at LunaPark, an eclectic music club in West Hollywood, with Sunday night shows for the next seven years featuring performers who had been active in the straight clubs like Taylor Negron, Dana Gould, Andy Kindler, Judy Toll, Laura Kightlinger, Margaret Cho, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, plus others like Julia Sweeney, Kathy Griffin, Scott Thompson, et al. who came from The Groundlings and other sketch traditions. Un-Cabaret's brand of alternative comedy was based in storytelling and stream-of-consciousness rants, and added a structural innovation: a second microphone in the back of the room that Lapides used to talk to other performers while they were onstage. This ensured an informal, conversational and spontaneous performance situation in keeping with Un-Cabaret's insistence that performers never "do their act".
The alternative comedy scene flourished, with many other shows pursuing more surreal sketch & musical forms. It was at this time that Bob & David started workshopping "Mr. Show" in a live club context. Un-Cabaret also created a one-hour special for Comedy Central.
When LunaPark closed, Un-Cabaret moved to the HBO Workspace, Knitting Factory, and then M-Bar, with increasing focus on getting funny people to tell unusually honest stories about their real life. TV writers like Michael Patrick King, Judd Apatow, Larry Charles and Winnie Holzman started performing with Un-Cabaret as a creative alternative to their network day-jobs. This led to other Un-Cabaret produced shows like "Say the Word" (writers reading their own true funny stories) and "The Other Network", a collection of un-aired TV pilots introduced by their creators.
Un-Cabaret continues to present live shows and conduct workshops to help comedians and writers explore this style of funny personal narrative.
The Other Network subsequently became an alternative route to get your foot in the door to Hollywood, with The Other Network Comedy Contest offering winners receiving script notes from top TV showrunners, and The Other Network Writers' Room, in which Beth Lapides interviews writers including Michael Patrick King, Larry Charles and Alan Zweibel about how aspiring writers can write for TV.
Many of the comedians from the 1990s LA alternative scene (David Cross, Janeane Garofalo, Patton Oswalt) were outspoken in their leftist political beliefs, and insistent on a reality-based and personal point-of-view, a remarkable contrast to the current downtown New York scene that prefers absurdism and irony to making statements.
The Toronto scene
Toronto is a city renowned for creating comedy. Mike Myers
, Jim Carrey
, Eugene Levy
, John Candy
, Catherine O'Hara
and many others have roots in Toronto. The city's comedy scene has been dominated by Yuk Yuk's
standup comedy club and The Second City
improvisational theater for quite some time. The success of SCTV
, a Toronto produced television show based on characters developed at Second City, became the benchmark for Canadian comedy. Yuk Yuk's, conversely, renowned for bawdy humour, caters to lovers of traditional "set-up/punchline" stand-up. The roots of Toronto's alternative comedy scene lie in The Rivoli
in the 1980s, where the Kids in the Hall
presented their revolutionary sketch comedy as part of what would become the weekly ALTdot COMedy Lounge
, which remains Toronto's most popular alternative comedy show. A weekly Sketch Comedy Lounge
was added in 2005.
Prominent acts include:
Sketch troupes/group acts
The East Village scene
In downtown New York, comedy flourishes outside of the stand-up club circuit. Theatres that are more known for improv or sketch comedy, like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre
(UCB), and the Peoples Improv Theater
(PIT), as well as cabarets that do not exclusively offer any kind of comedy, like Rififi, have weekly comedy shows. The UCB Theater has Crash Test every Monday, hosted by Aziz. The PIT has Hot Tub every Friday, hosted by Kurt Braunohler
and Kristen Schaal. Rififi has Giant Tuesday Night of Amazing Inventions And Also There Is A Game and Invite Them Up.
The comedians at these shows offer character-based humour or surreal humour as opposed to observations of everyday life or more polemical themes. A growing number of comics (Demetri Martin, Slovin and Allen, Andres du Bouchet) do not only tell jokes, opting to play music, give Powerpoint presentations or act out sketches as well. It's rare to see these performers in a traditional New York comedy club much like it's rare to see a traditional "club comic" in an underground room. A few alternative comics (David Cross, Todd Barry, Patton Oswalt) have enough crossover appeal to play in more mainstream venues.
Comedy group Stella (Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and David Wain) and the sketch group Upright Citizens Brigade were heavily influential on the current New York alternative comedy scene. Stella -- a trio whose absurdist humour has been compared to the Marx Brothers -- began doing their shows (in which they would perform along with other comics and sketch groups like Eugene Mirman and the Upright Citizens Brigade) at the NY club Fez in 1997. In 1999, the original Upright Citizens' Brigade Theatre opened in Chelsea. Four years later, in 2003, several performers at the UCB spun off their own theater, and formed the PIT.
The Seattle Scene
The Seattle comedy scene is a mystery to some. Very talented performers have stepped out of Seattle, including Mitch Hedberg. For years, there were just two main comedy options in the city: The Comedy Underground, and Giggles Comedy club. In 2005 a group of comedians known as the People's Republic of Komedy (PROK) started an alternative show called Laffhole in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. This spawned other "alt" shows around town, and eventually the group started getting press. (Something unheard of in the Seattle comedy scene for some time.) Laffhole started in the small basement theater of the Capitol Hill Arts Center, and has since moved to Re-Bar, a popular Seattle nightclub. In the summer of 2007, PROK booked their own comedy stage at the Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival. Other performers at the festival included Eugene Mirman, Michael Ian Black, Todd Berry, Doug Benson, and more. In 2008, PROK performed at the Sasquatch Music Festival and will once again manage the Regional Comedy stage at Bumbershoot. Laffhole takes place every Wednesday at 10:00pm, and has become the flagship of the Seattle alt comedy scene.
Prominent acts include:
The Chicago Scene
The Chicago scene has flourished in the past few years. With a lack of mainstream clubs in the city, comics on the North side have drawn more influence from its improv and sketch traditions, such as The Second City
Top alt/independent rooms in the North Side scene include the Lincoln Lodge, Chicago Underground Comedy and the Lakeshore Theater. Recent Chicago stand-ups to get exposure include T.J. Miller
, Renee Gauthier
, Danny Kallas
, and Pete Holmes
The Lincoln Lodge
Chicago Underground Comedy
The Comedians You Should Know Show