Attitude - Wanna make something of it?
The central premise of Tony Allen's excellent book is straightforward, but typically contentious: 'The secret of comedy is attitude'.
With this simple statement, repeated throughout the book in a variety of ways, and endorsed by the ostensibly chaotic structure of his book, Allen privileges the form of 'performance' over the content; indeed he challenges Oliver Double, who provides an impressively economical preface to the book, on this issue: 'But Olly, jokes are merely the vehicle of stand-up comedy. The actual fuel, the perfect blend juice required to get the joke up and running - is attitude. The secret of the joke with its familiar set-up and punchline exists in the blend - the juxtaposition of two complementary expressions of attitude, dormant in the first instance and consummated in the second'. Such a sentence is characteristic of Allen's engaging style when discussing the specifics of comedy throughout the book: a neat blend of the conversational and the analytical.
One of the most striking features of Attitude is the amount of thought Allen has devoted to stand-up comedy; he shrewdly observes of Bill Hicks: '[he] was a professional stand-up before he was an adult. So perhaps it should be no surprise that there was very little personal reflection in his work.' Conversely, Allen's book is, like his comedy performances, dominated by reflection, both personal and professional.
Attitude is divided into five parts: 'The secret of stand-up comedy', 'the history of stand-up comedy', 'the roots of alternative comedy', 'the edge of stand-up comedy', and 'post-alternative comedy'. Essentially, though, the book is not exactly governed by its structure; much like one of Allen's live sets he goes where the mood takes him, irrespective of what he began by doing. However, his account of 'the history of stand-up comedy' is disciplined and chronological; he begins with the Shaman and the Fool and ends with Lenny Bruce in 1950s America, en route discussing Commedia Dell' Arte, Joseph Grimaldi, Burnt Cork Minstrelsy, Victorian Music Hall and the English Variety Halls. It is, perhaps, particularly in this section that Allen shows himself to be a 'political' commentator in the most accurate sense of the word - he never loses sight of the cultural and, even broader, sociological context that enabled various forms of comedy and specific entertainers to emerge.
He never evaluates comedians without siting them within this broad context, and his evaluations of individual performers are economical and incisive. Of Max Miller, for example, he writes: 'As soon as he is on, he establishes a conspiratorial dynamic with the audience concerning the whereabouts of the theatre manager who wants to check his material', while, less approvingly, he observes of England's most famous double act 'Every Morecambe and Wise sketch is a little homage to the tolerance of friendship.'
Many readers of Attitude are likely to find Allen's sketches of other comedians particularly interesting. Always intelligently, if not always fairly, he covers a huge range of acts, ranging from household names: Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Billy Connolly and Ken Dodd, to the very well-known: Dawn French, Harry Hill, Paul Merton, Lee Hurst, Jo Brand and Jasper Carrot, to those he clearly thinks should be better-known: Arnold Brown, Rory Motion, Pauline Melville and Tony Green, who once heckled me into confused immobility.
In 'The roots of alternative comedy' Allen offers his perspective on the birth of the Comedy Store but, again characteristically, this is prefaced by a number of specific sketches which are offered as the context from which the Store emerged: fringe theatre, leftist politics, busking, clowning, folk clubs and reactions against the mainstream comedy of the late 1970s. To considerable effect, Allen weaves a comically self-deprecating autobiographical account of his own development as a performer throughout his account of this stormy period.
His history of the Comedy Store is primarily devoted to explaining the impact of its two most celebrated acts: Alexei Sayle and Keith Allen. Of Sayle he writes: 'Alexei had a big mean talent bursting to get out of the straight-jacket of what was ostensibly a character comedian - a working class scouse intellectual seething with repressed anger and class hatred.' Not everybody noticed, then or now, that Sayle was indeed a character comedian, while Allen's description of him as 'a big mean talent' is also right on the money. With similar accuracy, and generosity, he writes of Keith Allen: '[he] was a consummate clown, a fool, a storyteller and that very rare phenomenon - an actor who can perform stand-up. And it was astute and disturbing stand-up; his understanding and control over his emotional range was technically awesome nd it equipped him to tackle a major local taboo - the deceit at the root of performance - and make it part of his comedy.'
Attitude is full of gems: a thoughtful analysis of Trevor Griffiths' play Comedians (1976), a transcript of his own extended set 'The Grim Reapo Man is at the Door', a hilariously disturbing account of being gassed at Glastonbury in 1998, and a thoughtful obituary for Screaming Lord Sutch. One of the best pieces in the book is a splendidly bilious review of The Cutting Edge at the Comedy Store, in November 1997: 'I had no expectation of seeing licensed iconoclasts bare their souls on stage in front of a live audience in the cultural capital of the planet, savouring a potent moment as Western civilisation struggled to get one last toke out of the fag end of the second millennium. But neither did I reckon on such endemic cynicism, laziness and ignorance of the possibilities.'
Here, and elsewhere throughout his book, Allen mistakenly assumes that the very form of stand-up comedy is inherently political - it isn't. The apolitical Daniel Kitson and Ross Noble, for example, neither of whom are mentioned in Attitude, are by no means lesser comedians than, say, more politically committed acts such as Mark Thomas and Robert Newman, whom obviously Allen regards very highly. Nevertheless, Allen's concern for the present and the future of stand-up comedy animates the book, and his sound commonsense observations on the way in which the current comedy circuit can strangle originality should be read by any would-be comedian: 'As soon as [fledgling comedians] get their first "paid ten" in an established room, their opportunities to take risks and make the inevitable mistakes start to decrease. The pressure to conform and succeed is obvious and the impetus to cut the clever stuff and stitch together a "tight twenty" as good as the next guy's is almost overwhelming; but it's also soul-destroying.'
Like Bill Hicks, on whom he writes well, Allen is a Puritan, and, like Hicks, he can be unfair. He writes of his performance at the Oval house in 1979: 'I'm an over-typical post-punk hippie squatter; I haven't done a serious day's work in six years and I am about to deliver my first stand-up comedy set.' But Tony, most, probably all, of the people who make up an audience at the Comedy Store, or the Comedy Café , or Banana Cabaret or dozens of other clubs on the London circuit, have done a serious day's work, that day, and for many days before. That for an few hours audiences should be entertained by highly experienced and skilful comedians who get their laughs without resorting to racist, sexist, or second-hand gags is not reasonable cause for Allen's Jeremiads; instead, that audiences should choose to go out on a cold November night to hear such comics is a tribute to the legacy of Allen and the co-founders of 'Alternative Comedy'.
Part autobiography, part history of stand-up, part history of street theatre and squat culture and radical politics in the late 1970s, part account of the birth of the Comedy Store and 'Alternative Comedy' itself, Allen's book is like his stand-up performances: clever, idiosyncratic, opinionated and provocative - and is absolutely essential reading for anybody with an interest in stand-up comedy.
Kevin Macarron - Laughing Horse