The Rise And Fall of British Alternative Comedy
By Earl Okin
In this Larf exclusive, British comedian Earl Okin reveals the tale of the evolution of the British comedy boom and it’s ultimate collapse.
The year was about 1980. Through the 60s and 70s, alongside comedians who told gags written by other people, gags about mothers-in-law, Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen etc., there had been some groundbreaking comedy, beginning with the Goon Show on the radio, the political satire of That Was The Week That Was (TW3) and its spin-offs and, of-course, the Monty Python crowd. There had also been some classic sit-coms, such as Porridge, set in a prison.
In addition to this, another type of comedy had been seen in Folk clubs. I performed on that circuit regularly through the 70s. We were divided into ‘Traddies’, those who actually sang traditional folk songs, mainly from all around the British Isles, and the ‘Entertainers’ who would sing/play all sorts of things from historic tunes from past centuries, through Music Hall (Vaudeville) songs to Jazz and Blues and their own self-penned comedy songs, often writing alternative lyrics to well known pop-songs, such as those by The Beatles. These ‘entertainers’ would also talk to the audience in between songs, about their week, things in the news and of-course the next song, usually in a manner to make people laugh. With a few of these, they began to talk much more and play less and less music. Two of the best were Mick or Mike Elliot and Billy Connolly. The latter has become perhaps the UK’s favourite comedian, hilarious, outrageous and unique, and has recently been knighted.
Mother-in-law jokes were out; satire was in.
As I say, the year was 1980 or thereabouts. A new generation of comedians were fed up with what was on offer, hated the racial and gender stereotype type of jokes and were fed up with anti-establishment political humour which had become tired and predictable. Their style was anarchic, very individual, self-written and stereotype jokes were banned. On the other hand, you could say ‘F–k’ on stage…or indeed any other swear word. In a way, they were doing for comedy what Punk had done for Pop music.
A new generation of comedians were fed up with what was on offer, hated the racial and gender stereotype type of jokes and were fed up with anti-establishment political humour which had become tired and predictable.
The first two clubs were The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip, both held in what were normally Soho strip clubs.
Around 1981 or so, the entire Folk Club circuit seemed to collapse, almost all at once. It’s day, beginning in the early 50s and with its heyday in the 60s-early 70s, had gone. It wasn’t long before, often in the very same rooms over pubs that the nascent comedy clubs took their place.
One night around that time, I met Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson, who had come down to the 606 Jazz Club, then still in its original venue on the Kings Road, to try some of their material on Jazz musicians, since they’d heard that Jazz musicians had a special brand of humour, which is true. Their prescient sketch about terrorists taking over London Airport and putting people in microwave ovens to cook them was very black and very funny. Chatting afterwards, they explained the rules of the new comedy…no stereotypes of any kind, but you can swear and when I mentioned that I did a bit of comedy, I was immediately invited to be in one of their shows. Difficult to believe now, but back then, there were hardly any comedians apart from the ‘mother-in-law gag’ type.
Like 60’s London pub & club scene fomented The Kinks and the Stones, so came this new wave of comedians.
So it was that I did my first comedy gig. I just took the funny bits of my Folk set out and performed them. Funny songs. The other comedians were mainly double-act sketch acts…Nigel and Peter, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders with newcomer Arnold Brown, a Jewish accountant from Scotland and the compere (MC) Alexei Sayle providing the stand-up element. These became some of the biggest names on UK TV in years to come, but that night, we had an audience of 6. One of these, however, worked for Granada TV and we were all invited to make a pilot of a sort of updated TW3 show in Manchester. This never came to anything, but the others were soon snapped up for various TV shows, all except me. Nobody was interested in music comedy. What they wanted was stand-up and sketches that might develop into sit-coms, a pattern which has never changed.
From being an underground thing, this new ‘alternative’ comedy began to spread. Various venues tried it. I remember doing shows in Piccadilly for a nightclub disco called Xenon. There was a wonderful room at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe called the Fringe Club, where all sorts of acts – comedy, musical…ANYTHING…would do 10 minutes in order to sell tickets for their show. Do well and your show might sell out. Do badly and you might be attacked with beer, glasses, bottles and a huge chorus of ‘f–k off’ from the young audience.
Jongleurs became the biggest comedy animal, attracting all kinds of beasts.
Back in London a huge and at first really exciting club opened…by Maria Kempinska. Partly based on The Fringe Club, it was called Jongleurs and, unusually was to be found South of the river in Battersea. It was home not only to stand-ups, but comedy impressionists, jugglers, musicians, magicians and all sorts of brands of comedy, including, for instance, an act which consisted entirely of ‘torturing’ teddy bears. For a short while, I have no way of expressing how exciting it was for performers and audience alike. However, it wasn’t long before, as with Edinburgh, heckling became a standard part of the evening and a stand-up was partly judged on his/her ability to invent instant put downs to deal with heckles.
Sadly, after a couple of years of this, John Davey, Maria’s husband saw that Jongleurs could be a money-making brand. More and more clubs gradually opened, all sorts of people were allowed in and drunken stag and hen parties often made up much of the audience. The public image of alternative comedy became for a while nothing but a place where you could go and heckle the performers. Jongleurs also developed a series of controlling rules for the comedians who performed for them., eg, if a comedian had to cancel a gig, then they would cancel all their gigs, etc. It became a horrible place to perform and the early culture of variety in comedy was replaced by that of hard-nosed stand-ups who could deal with drunken hecklers and heavily controlling management.
There were other clubs, of-course, run by people who loved comedy…Noel Faulkner’s Comedy Café in Hoxton and Peter Grahame’s Downstairs At The King’s Head in Crouch End come to mind…and a plethora of other, usually weekly clubs in pubs, followed. No matter which day of the week, you could always find a comedy club to go to somewhere in London and, gradually in other parts of the country too.
An Empire Collapses in on Itself; British Déjá Vu?
This state of affairs continued for a decade or so and then the whole comedy scene began to be invaded by agents and from being alternative, it all became very corporate. Off The Kerb and Avalon and other such agents began to snap up comedians whom they could market and a few became famous on TV and thus household names; (not always the most talented ones, but that’s the way of showbiz).
This trend has continued in the 21st century. After one or two comedians became as famous as rock-stars, quite a few youngsters have gone into comedy not because they love comedy but as a perceived step to fame and riches. Worse still, the big names of comedy have had tours arranged in bigger and bigger venues…and we’re talking arenas! The public, wrongly assuming that these must surely be the best comedians on offer, tend to save up money to go to these huge shows with ticket prices to match, no longer attending their local comedy clubs which, just like the folk clubs before them, have begun to fold…even famous clubs such as The Comedy Café.
So, we now have more and more comedians chasing fewer gigs and the comedy provided by many of the newer comedians has become as predictable and generic in its way as the old comedy of the past, though, of-course, there are always a few true originals.
It could well be time for some new form of entertainment to start bubbling up from below. There was a little renaissance of ‘new’ variety a few years ago, rather like that old original Jongleurs club, but that seems to have died away.
What will be the next big thing? Who knows?
EARL OKIN. June 2018. London.
For more information about Earl Okin as well as bookings, click here to his website.