CHECKING THE ALTERNATIVE

Phil Nicol is not the sort of act to headline a gig masquerading under the title of “the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society” He is a misogynist, rabble rousing, reductionist, old school, dick-head and should be heckled off stage wherever he shows his smug, too-clever-by-half fucking fizzogg. But ‘hey’ I’m jumping ahead. When I first saw the so-called misappellanated Alternative Comedy Memorial Society advertised in Time Out I vowed to organise a works outing of the Performance Club to go check it out.

In 1979 with Alexei Sayle I founded Alternative Cabaret with a bunch of comedians and musicians at the Elgin in Ladbroke Grove and went on to promote and perform in a series of regular gigs at venues around London. At the same time we moved in on the newly opened Comedy Store and, with the arrogance of youth, attempted to impose our punkier, more socially relevant Stand-up comedy on the so-called mother-in–law comedians. The clash of comedic cultures made us tougher and more outrageous - Alternative Comedy was born.

When in 1994 I finally stopped seriously performing, I set up the The Performance Club to promote and support innovative performance with gigs and workshops. 12 months later in June 1995 a group of friends set up a Charity – New Agenda Arts Trust - to formalise what I was doing. I subsequently became the Artistic Director. That’s how I ended up buying 9 tickets to see the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society at the New Red Lion on City Road.

Our ages range from 16 to 66 and all of us aware that stand-up was once again in the doldrums and dominated by the variously irrelevant - slick smug or whimsical and all of it so safe especially the would-be taboo-breakers endlessly exposing the obvious.

Was there the faintest echo of the sort of thing I was involved in 33 years ago? I spend the first 90 minutes of the gig trying to keep my guests quiet; Sir Gideon Vein, a Comedy Store veteran, couldn’t contain himself “Fucking vacuous middle-class students! Who brought me to this shithole?” It was me; and he was right, and expressing exactly my feelings but I just wanted to hear them out before I started heckling. Another of our party – also a class-act alternative veteran (who shall remain nameless) - left early, looking at me and shaking his head.

I must admit to some interest in the attempts on stage at group work and also their critique of generic stand-up comedy, but unfortunately none of it was going anywhere. There was simply no art in it – hardly any of the performers had a thing to say about anything. There was so very little self-expression and absolutely no politics or social comment.

Eventually, and after an excruciatingly indulgent piece of ensemble sketch reading, the brash and blokey Phil Nicol was left on stage. Someone else – not me – heckled immediately and it was me who was told to keep quiet. I replied that to remain silent was to condone the crap entertainment, but by now I was clearly drunk. One of the gang gave me the price of a cab home and so I left with a little dignity and the knowledge that the state of stand-up comedy was in an even worse state than I had previously thought.

Tony Allen October 2011