Alexei Sayle: interview

Arguably the founder of alternative comedy, Alexei Sayle is returning to stand-up for the first time in 15 years. But, as he tells Ben Williams, his wife isn’t keen for him to get back on stage

Alexei Sayle Alexei Sayle - © Rob Greig

It’s quite simple, really: the comedy circuit as we know it would probably not exist if not for one man – Alexei Sayle. It’s possible alternative comedy would have come about eventually anyway but as the first ever compere of the UK’s original comedy club – The Comedy Store – the now 59-year-old Anfield-born comic was ultimately responsible for kick-starting a scene that has grown to enormous proportions. ‘It was an accident, just a right place, right time thing,’ he tells me, modestly, when we meet in the bar of the Soho Theatre. ‘But there is an extra thing for me, to go to a comedy club and think: I started this shit. It’s my deformed child.’

When Sayle initially began performing there were no influences, no rules and no expectations. What a comedian did on stage was often being done for the very first time. ‘It took courage, I guess,’ he acknowledges. ‘It takes a certain kind of person to throw yourself in the deep end of something where you don’t know what it is. That’s who we were; we were all pioneers.’ But in 1996, the father of modern comedy quit live work and focused on becoming an author. Ultimately, he was knackered. ‘I fucking hated it when I was doing it,’ he admits, ‘I don’t remember the performing bit. I just remember the exhaustion before and after.’

Now, for the first time in 15 years, the comedian-turned-author is returning to stand-up with a series of weekly low-key gigs at the Soho. Why the sudden urge to return to his roots? ‘I did a show with Stewart Lee at the Southbank Centre in May and that was the impetus,’ he says. ‘It had been long enough, really. I suddenly thought: Why not? In my essence, I’m a comic. Whatever other work I do, it comes from that source, you know? I feel most at home with other comics. I know what they’re thinking. I can see into their soul and they can see into mine.’

The comedy circuit has changed dramatically since Sayle’s heyday in the ’80s and ’90s. The number of gigs and clubs has vastly increased and there are countless opportunities for TV exposure; the career path for today’s comedians is clearly laid out. ‘Your modern comic knows what venues to play, what publicity people to use, what accountants, what lawyers,’ says Sayle. ‘Whereas with me, I’ve found myself playing discos, them stopping the music and me doing 20 minutes, because you didn’t know no better. Nobody really knew so nobody could give you any advice. It was all done by trial and error.’

Alexei Sayle on stage at the original Comedy Store Alexei Sayle on stage at the original Comedy Store - © Comedy Store

Sayle hasn’t set foot in a comedy club since he stopped performing in the mid-’90s. However, following the South Bank gig in May, the Liverpudlian has intensively familiarised himself with today’s scene, with club comic Josh Howie as his guide. His crash course has taught him plenty about modern circuit: ‘Everybody that I’ve seen seems much slicker than in my day,’ he admits. ‘They all know what they’re doing in a way that we didn’t, both for good and ill. When we were good we were fantastic. But when we were bad we were fucking catastrophic.’ He’s also noticed a change in audiences – ‘they’re much more educated in playing their part’ – and venues: ‘It always seems to be underground, all in dingy basements,’ he jokes. ‘There are literally a thousand basements in London and a man is talking about wanking over his computer to an audience of perplexed Scandinavians and work outings from DHL and Debenhams. And everyone’s happy.’

Sayle insists the Soho gigs are a very understated affair and not a full-blown return to stand-up; he’s simply seeing how it goes. Nevertheless, if they go well, would another tour be on the horizon? ‘Probably in the long run, yeah. If enough material came together I might take it on the road, but that’s a bit further down the line. I’m quite happy. I’ll see. I don’t need to do it– it’s not so I can get on “Mock the Week”.’

Back in the ’80s, Sayle’s on-stage persona was Coco: a hardcase low intellectual. The guise was so strong that he felt he couldn’t meet people after gigs: ‘It would dilute the power of him,’ he says. Fifteen years later, Sayle feels he can finally be himself on stage and experiment with a new, more relaxed, delivery. ‘What I want to do now is talk about me as I am, accept that I am who I am and to talk about my real life. That’s what I’ve done in book readings: it’s clearly me: it’s not a persona. I want to see if that works in a more cavalier environment. With jokes, obviously. I’m a bit worried, though. Coco’s still in there somewhere…’

The comedy world is excited to see a true legend go back to his roots. Someone, however, is less keen on his return to the stage. ‘My wife said she’d kill me if I ever got back up there,’ Sayle confesses. ‘She has this theory that I’m so highly regarded because nobody’s ever seen me.’ For comedy’s sake, let’s hope he keeps it a secret from her.