Stewart Lee on alternative comedy



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A recent television show persuaded Stewart Lee to delve a little deeper into the history of alternative comedy. When he did, he made some startling discoveries...

  • Comedy_comill.jpgI recently toured my new show, 41st Best Stand-Up Ever, before its current six-week residency at the Soho Theatre. The title reflects my position in a dubious Channel 4 run-down of stand-ups earlier this year.

    I was surprised to be placed at all, but the very existence of such a list does tell us something of the increasing cultural currency of stand-up, once the most despised of art forms.

    When I started on the London circuit in 1989 no one even really reviewed stand-up. It would have been considered the equivalent of trying to review farts. But today there are professional comedy critics who make their living from analysing the relative merits of different jokesmiths. So much has changed. Fart critics, however, remain unwaged gentleman amateurs, misunderstood and rarely invited to contribute to broadsheet newspapers. Perhaps they will find a place on Channel 4's forthcoming show ‘The 100 Best Farts Ever', which represents an admirable effort to upgrade the quality of the channel's output.

    As I sit in the car on tour, I pontificate to my fascinated opening acts, Henning Wehn and Stephen Carlin, about the good old days of the London Comedy Circuit, before anyone realised you could make a living as a stand-up, and when there was only one branch of Jongleurs. For my generation, the year zero of the comedy circuit is 1979, which saw the establishment of The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip. A new wave of comedians set themselves up in opposition to the hegemony of bowtie-sporting '70s working men's club racists and high-falutin '60s Oxbridge satirists. Before then, as far as I understood it, there was not a traditon of alternative comedy in Britain. But it seems I was wrong.

    Visiting Time Out's offices to prepare for this self-aggrandising puff-piece, I happened upon a copy of the magazine from November 1907, back when it was called Time Out Gentlemen's Weekly. I expected the comedy listings from the period to be a predictable list of Music Hall Performances, complete with the disgraceful blackface artists, camp drag acts, regional stereotypes and supposedly risque musical performers we know from archive footage, but even then it appears, London boasted an alternative comedy circuit, run by performers and promoters disillusioned with the mainstream.

    The Time Out of November 1907 responded to this sudden proliferation of new talent by appending these events to its Music Hall listings for the first time under the new term ‘alternative cabaret', which I had previously been led to believe had been first coined by Malcolm Hardee in the mid-70's. He lied, as usual.

    Predictably, very few of the venues we know today have survived from alternative comedy's original 1907 wave. The Leicester Square Comedy Store of 1979 was, it appears, a rebranded version of the 1907 venue The Comedy Whores, run by the Comedy Store owner Don Ward's mother, where prostitutes told amusing stories about omnibuses, wives and snuff to punters inbetween tricks.

    A 1907 version of Jongleurs, on the site of the supposedly original Battersea franchise, advertises ‘Marmite, Rhubard, Beef, Hot Potatoes, Porter, Dancing, Cushions and some comedy'. Other than that, only Downstairs at the King's Head in Crouch End is familliar in the 1907 listings, even then under the stewardship of a young Peter Graham, who still books the acts today while fingering his original gas-operated 1907 lighting board.

    Interestingly, even in the very early days of alternative comedy's real first wave, radical pockets of performers found the gradual coalescing of an acceptable style constricting, just as they do today. Many, it appears, felt compelled to host evenings for comic splinter groups, whose very existence implied a formal critique of the emerging new orthodoxy. Robin Ince's Book Club, Josie Long's Sunday Night Adventure Club and Andrew Maxwell's Full Mooners all find their historical precedents in 1907 listings for regular gigs entitled Tobin Mince's Spekky Gang, Gypsy Lou's Monday Night Knitting Circle, and Eamon Magoo's Gruel Spooners.

    Time Out's comedy listings have played their part in making London the unrivalled stand-up comedy capital of the world for longer, it seems, than any of us realised. Faced with a comic legacy that goes back even further than previously imagined, the idea of rating the 100 best stand-ups of all time seems increasingly absurd. That said, I am remain officially the 41st best ever, and I hereby consign the stand-up comedians of 1907 to the dustbin of history where they belong.

    Stewart Lee plays the Soho Theatre Nov 13-Dec 23.

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