Attitude - Wanna make something of it?
Strategic Identity Crisis
Tony Allen may not be a household name, but as a pivotal figure in the early alternative comedy scene, he could justly be seen as one of the architects of modern stand-up. His new book, Attitude: Wanna Make Something of it? (Gothic Image Publications, £9.95), is a collection of reviews, anecdotes, history, theory and comedy material, which makes an important contribution to the growing academic debate on stand-up. There are some real gems, including a historical account of the early development of alternative comedy from an insider's perspective, a transcript of Allen's extraordinary stand-up act from 1990, and an overheard mobile phone conversation on a train reviewed as a piece of performance.
The book is loosely structured, resembling a collage or scrapbook of individual pieces, but from this emerges a surprisingly coherent analysis, centred on the concept of 'attitude'. Attitude relates to both material and performance, and is akin to the concept of stage persona. Allen argues that standing on stage and talking to an audience triggers 'a sort of strategic identity crisis' which brings out 'various sides of our personality.' These 'minority personalities' are amplified and it is the 'essential curl' from one to another that forms the basis of jokes. Attitude, then, is the blend of minority personalities that come out when a performer is on stage.
What makes the book of particular interest to me is that Allen, together with fellow performer Den Levett, now teaches stand-up comedy. This is something which many view with suspicion. When I started my stand-up module at the University of Kent in 1999, it caused a flurry of press interest, much of it cynical. The Stage, for example, said that, 'stand-up is too rich and juicy a pie for the education industry to keep its fingers out of'', and quoted comedian Ivor Dembina making the same point more vociferously: 'A course like this is an example of a university desperate to attract students in any way it can to get government funding.' A number of other comedians have also criticised the idea of teaching stand-up. Jo Brand says, 'I think it's a very bad idea to have training. I think being able to do stand-up is a very natural thing, helped along by age or experience.'
Allen explicitly challenges this idea, that stand-up is little more than the simple expression of a natural gift: 'Any deconstruction reveals it to be honed, heightened and carefully selected re-runs of normal speech and behaviour.' But as most comedians learn how to hone, heighten and carefully select on the job, simply by arranging try-out spots in clubs and gradually teaching themselves, why are comedy courses necessary? When I put this to Allen, he has a convincing answer:
'The way people learn stand-up comedy is to copy what is already there.So instead of finding their own unique stage persona, they end up latching on to somebody close to roughly what they wanna be doing and copying that. And that ends up with recognisable generic types.In Exeter recently, we did a workshop and there were nine participants; when we got to the showcase at the end we had nine really eccentrically individual performances - It was wild.'
He sees the current state of the comedy circuit as pretty dire, commenting, 'Actually, there's a lot of Jeff Greens around, talking about his girlfriend, and talking about his knob, and talking about his childhood and stuff.' Allen's book is similarly critical, containing devastating critiques of Terry Alderton ('Although his talent is impressive, it is also deceptively limited and conceals a dismal lack of substance.') and the Comedy Store's Cutting Edge night ('a slick, off-West End show simulating topicality and begging the question from anyone capable of joined up thinking- cutting edge of what?'). So what caused the radical comedy scene he helped to establish to degenerate to this level, I wondered?
'I think anything can turn generic, really. It's laziness, isn't it? And it's sort of a lack of integrity somewhere, in the artistic process. Well, it's just lack of an artistic process. And it's that whole thing about the difference between the artist and the entertainer, isn't it? The entertainer gives the audience what it wants, the artist gives the audience what it didn't know it wanted. And there's a lot of people giving the audience what they want.'
This is a far cry from 1979, when Allen helped to change the course of British entertainment, by kick-starting the revolutionary alternative comedy scene. He paints a vivid picture of this in the book, for the first time providing a real insider's perspective on events, but when I ask him about his own role, he is surprisingly modest. Whilst acknowledging that he was as important as any of the other key figures, he feels that others were more talented:
'I think what Rik Mayall did, but certainly what Keith Allen [no relation] and Alexei Sayle did, they really had something, and they were really expressing, for a brief while, the zeitgeist. You know, they were decoding the zeitgeist, as the phrase goes.'
If the current comedy scene is moribund by comparison, Allen does see some green shoots growing in the wasteland of copycat banality. In a post 11th September world with Bush gearing up for war on Iraq because of a spurious, undisclosed link with Bin Laden, performers are starting to bring radical politics back into the fore- to the audience's delight: 'When somebody delivers the goods, and does it with passion, people just cheer. Sometimes it feels like 1979 again.' He sees this trend coming from within the emerging Spoken Word performance scene rather than stand-up. He praises acts like Mr Social Control and Yap, but he does acknowledge the few comedians who dare to challenge the accepted political wisdom: 'I've certainly seen Mark Thomas and Rob Newman and Jeremy Hardy getting it right, and people loving it, absolutely loving it. 'Cos it's so rare, you know.'
One of the most important achievements of the early alternative comedy scene was the way it challenged sexism and racism in comedy. In the 1970s, light entertainment was in the thrall of comedians like Bernard Manning, and prime-time TV shows like The Comedians showed a succession of tuxedo-clad buffoons telling jokes about illegal immigrants swamping into the country on 'camels, oil slicks, owt they can get on' or the Pakistani who went for a job as a conductor- so they nailed him to a chimney. Comedians like Tony Allen rejected, challenged and even parodied this kind of joke. He used to begin his act:
'Right, stand-up comedy, I know what you want, stand-up comedy, right. Er, there was this drunk homosexual Pakistani squatter trade unionist, and 'e takes my mother-in-law to an Irish restaurant, right?'
Nowadays, he sees some of the more fervent politics of that time as being a bit preachy and 'finger waggy', but he believes there are still more prejudices to be challenged:
'I've recently got involved in various campaigns about the use of language around madness. And you, yourself, just used the word "nutter" and stuff, and we do. And the last thing I wanna do is to go back into that priggish sort of, "You can't say that word" - but people have got to understand that these things do serve people badly, when that language is used as glibly and as easily as that.'
He points out how many current comedians put down hecklers by suggesting they are part of a care in the community scheme. This is being used as 'a sort of icon for loser' without any understanding, but 'meanwhile you've got kids throwing stones at the local care in the community household and dancing around at night going "Nutters, nutters, nutters!" crash, crash, crash, and driving them even nuttier than they already are, you know.' So if the prejudice against people with mental health problems is an important issue, but you don't want be priggish, how can you challenge comedians who make this kind of joke? Allen comes up with the perfect solution:
'Fly a plane into the side of their house.'
Oliver Double - Connections