Alternative comedy is a tricky one – for audiences, for comedians and in terms of its own definition. Whilst we are familiar and supposedly comfortable with what we perceive to be mainstream comedy, where does that leave those comedians offering something different? Thom Milson and Mark Stephenson are both comedians who gig regularly on the alternative comedy scene in the North and South of England respectively. They have each given their perspective on alternative comedy – the problems, the successes, its future and more!
Alternative comedy is comedy that takes the presumptions and rules of comedy and plays against them, often abandoning typical form and structure, as well as covering topics that aren’t considered the norm. In Britain, the term is often associated with comedy from the 1980s (and such comedians as Ben Elton, Jo Brand, and Jack Dee) but I feel this association is now out of date. These comedians are now the mainstream, and therefore shouldn’t be considered alternative. Today, I feel the term is more suitable for comedians trying to do things that probably wouldn’t end up on TV in the UK.
When I say it wouldn’t end up on television, this isn’t because it’s bad, in fact it’s pretty damn good. The main reason it wouldn’t end up on TV is because of the subject matter. I could be here all week discussing comedy on TV and how I feel it has become quite stale (it’s almost as if the comics on TV stop trying once they make it on TV) but instead I’m going to talk about why comics I know are starting to explore alternative comedy in the North.
Alternative comedy is quite dark up north, but only dark because of its truth. Comedians here are starting to look into themselves for their comedy: analysing their failures and their insecurities, instead of lampooning celebrities and Greggs. They’re coming from the POV that comedians should very much be on the outside looking in, and I couldn’t agree more.
What we consider alternative comedy up north is actually based quite heavily on what’s happening across the Atlantic with comedians like Louis C.K, Todd Barry, Doug Stanhope, Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, Paul F. Tompkins, and a whole bunch of others. These comics all look at their own lives, and talk about honest things that have happened to them, whether these things are good or bad. When you watch them they affect you because of the authenticity in their act. That’s what comics here are starting to strive for.
A lot of these American comics are starting to make a name for themselves over here (especially Oswalt, and C.K) yet in the larger scheme of things, they still fall a long way behind acts such as Russell Howard, Jack Whitehall, and Russell Kane, who, in my opinion, seem dull in comparison (or at least dead behind the eyes). Usually, if you know these American comics you’re comedy literate. This means you don’t fit the description of the typical audience in a Northern comedy club.
Some club audiences up here can be fantastic, but most of the time they want jokes about Vajazzles and Pastries; not jokes about the Human condition and the problems we face in society. Those latter topics are often preferred by the comedy literate. That’s the real purpose of alternative comedy in the North I suppose: Comedy for Comedy literate audiences. The audiences these nights seem to attract seem very open for everything, and there’s a very “Art”, “Jazz”, or “Beat” vibe within most of the nights.
When you’re free from the stag nights, the hen do’s, and the people who want Michael McIntyre for free, you’re left with the perfect atmosphere for comedy: audiences that want to be impressed, but don’t have a specific mould in mind, in fact they want something unique and original, even if it isn’t perfect. They’re on your side, and they want to listen to your ideas.
If I said alternative comedy was perfect, I would be a liar. There are still problems with it as a “genre” in the North. The main problem is that many of the comedians in the alternative scene don’t want to be “alternative”, they want to be comics. They’re fine with being considered Alternative, but they want Britain to move forward and away from the gags that often rely on negative stereotypes, sexism, and homophobia, which are still found in “club” comedy at the moment. alternative comedy isn’t alternative because it wants to be, but because it has to be.
This means we have to take ourselves to people who might like us, instead of waiting for people to come to us. This means advertising through the roof, whilst keeping the gigs themselves accessible. This means keeping entrance prices as low as possible, if we even have one. This means that advertising is more difficult for us than the big clubs. In short, we can’t compete. So we’re not.
This is where I feel the real strength of alternative comedy is up North. It’s not just about the comedians, but everyone involved, from the venue to the audience. It’s a community thing. This isn’t something that is achieved in a short amount of time; this is something that takes years. This is what the future of alternative comedy relies on, and it needs the people who are willing to commit. This is why I wanted to write this article.
All of the comedians, audience members, and promoters who may be unhappy with how comedy is at the moment have to work together instead of being isolated. This is how we make new alternative comedy get noticed. We have to spread the word about other nights around the country, we have to e-mail each other with acts that we need to put on, and we need to ask what the audience who come to our night want, and we have to do that, and we have to do it well.
Alternative comedy has to do what British comedy has failed to do so far: embrace the internet. Sara runs this fabulous blog that is a wonderful example of what can be done with a comedy website owned by someone who cares. There isn’t enough of this out there. Nights need to start running websites and blogs, and we all need to work with each other, not compete, and contribute with one another until anyone who might want to see alternative comedy knows exactly where to find it.
It’s achievable. It already exists. Just not up north, yet.
Comedy doesn’t fall into easy categories. The label of alternative comedy, I’ve found, is nearly impossible to define accurately. Historically, it was the movement against the traditional working men’s club comedians by the post-modern, ironic comedy coming out of universities in the late ‘70s. Then it was a protest against something, a true alternative. When alternative comedy, or comedians who follow that lineage, make up 95% of the circuit, the old definition becomes redundant.
Alternative comedy, as I see it, isn’t something you can strictly define; it’s something you can sense definitively. I’m too new to know the time before comedy was this huge business but now there are hundreds of professional comedians now on the career ladder around the circuit, and it becomes a popularity contest. Popular people tend to be followed around by twats without an imagination, like how Ricky Gervais was funny but the comedians copying him aren’t yet earn enough money from comedy to parade around with freshly cut hair and t-shirts emblazoned with ultra-modern sentiments. Crudely, alternative comedy is doing what you think is funny, and not what you think the audience will find funny. How someone would use that to be able to label any comedian as alternative I don’t know, as you’d have to ask the comedian and, if they were mainstream, they’d just tell you what you wanted hear anyway. Or it’s a malleable post-modern term anyone can change to fit their own particular grievances about comedy.
The pull of commercial has long out-weighted critical success, and you have to bare in mind comedy has no great history of criticism like music or film; it’s a handful of critics against three million people watching repeats of Live At The Apollo on BBC One. A lot of mainstream comedy is good enough anyway. No one is calling them racist or sexist any more, so where’s the desire to be alternative? A lot of comics idolise alternative acts like Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee, because they are generally considered to be the best. Practically most comics aren’t hugely rich and will do what gives them money. It takes a real strength of conviction to turn down big tours and TV opportunities, and fifteen years later have the popularity to sell out the National Theatre like Kitson’s done. It’s the opposite of what the mainstream business side of comedy would ever advise. So most comics are appreciative of good alternative comedy, and everyone makes their own decisions. However, there is a growing strand of comics who do comedy as a gateway to just being on TV – as a comedian or not. And, for some, it’s working. And they don’t care at all as far as I can tell. But then they don’t care about comedy either. Or anything. They’re the dead-eyed feckless youth – in my opinion.
Comedy audiences come for a rollocking good laugh, which is the equivalent to going to live music for a sing-a-long. And I’ve found out it’s awfully embarrassing singing alone in a pub in Piccadilly Circus, especially when the song is a sardonic take on why people used to wear hats more than they do now. Audiences are made up of the general public, and everyone agrees they dun kno’ shit. Being alternative often results in straight-faced praise from a sober-looking man in glasses whereas mainstream comedians are put in front of the Queen by ITV to try and crack that lemon expression of hers. Good audiences aren’t that rare though, you can either play the audience or choose your gigs on different criteria I guess.
Alternative omedy is a great way for comics to steal jokes from people they think no one else knows; hence the disappointment in every open-micer when he realises other people have seen Stewart Lee as well. I speak this as someone who has had one joke stolen. And the comic is still using it. I would get angry but she’s re-appropriated it in such a way it can no longer make sense and, therefore, serve as an actual joke but a rogue statement in an armoury of conventional sentences, and that makes me smile, which happily allows the joke to survive alone from the many deaths imposed on it. The “circuit” could survive with one comedian if they were eager and observant enough, and could play the piano before the interval. It doesn’t need alternative comedy. All popular music now has a rap at the end, transpose that to comedy and ask if the general public cares about difference.
Humour produces a binary reaction. You laugh or you don’t. The only objectively funny things are animals acting like humans and confident people falling over. A joke or an act might not have found the right audience yet, but who really cares? It’s not art, and alternative comedy is a form of entertainment that can get dangerously close to believing it’s an art. There is always a danger of comedy taking itself seriously, and this is truer with alternative because it can go badly without being bad. But comedy doesn’t last beyond its frame of reference and time. It serves no higher purpose. No one laughs when watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe, unless they’re a wanker, so there’s always got to be a duty to entertain otherwise you’re no better than an actor. So there are problems with alternative comedy but they’re irrelevant because no one cares enough.
As someone who performs regularly at an alternative comedy night in King’s Cross and Stoke Newington – it’s called WEIRDOS, and this snappy copy’s entire objective is to subtly promote the shit out of it into your dumb brain – I can honestly say London audiences are the best! In more honesty, the South treats itself as the most sophisticated place in the world. The North (and they really appreciate that capital letter) has a stronger sense of identity. It’s its own territory that provides a tacit sense of the collective – did you know the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, was from the North/north Leicestershire? However, Londoners see themselves as individuals, which is why they’re on Twitter slinging their small individual thoughts into nothingness and Stephen Fry and the monstrous, devouring nothingness. London is also wrapped like an overbearing ape-mother by many inter-circulating roads called ring roads – the M25 is the largest and most famous! The North has straight motorways: A to B. They like to be direct, like a Geoff Boycott cover-drive or a proper romantic poem like Wordsworth. I know this as, despite refusing to play outside of London unless I get a lot of money, it happens all the time!
Alternative comedy has no future. Anyone who’s alternative will become popular and then be copied and ruined. Although this is only governed by the parameters of alternative comedy I made up to produce this article.
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