The A Word

It's fetishised by some, cringed at by others, but what, asks Si Hawkins, does the 'alternative' label really mean today?

feature | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 22 Jul 2013

Huddled in the corner of a London café, within spitting distance of The Comedy Store, John Fleming is pondering what alternative comedy means to the general public.

“It’s Ben Elton in a sparkly suit on Channel 4 doing political jokes,” he says. “They ignored working-class Malcolm down in Greenwich, showing his bollocks. I would argue that bollocks are much more alternative.”

Fleming knows a bit about comedy’s extremities. He runs the Fringe’s annual Malcolm Hardee Awards, which commemorate the aforementioned legend by celebrating “bizarrely original” acts, as he puts it.

Memories of Hardee—who died in 2005—can make even the most wizened comic wistful. If Alexei Sayle was the embodiment of 80s alternative comedy, peddling both politics and mayhem, then Fleming's old mate was the underground antagonist, encouraging lunatic stunts and no little nakedness. But what would he make of alternative comedy today? According to one Hardee Award winner, the original scene was a lot more interesting.

"I remember going to see Julian Clary and Malcolm Hardee, and I assumed it would still be like that, that’s what I assumed people did comedy for," says Edward Aczel. Now a Fringe stalwart, his crowd-dividing ‘anti-comedy’ emerged in response to the mid-noughties status quo. Aczel won the Hardee Award for Comic Originality in 2008, three years after visiting a comedy club for the first time in aeons and finding it disappointingly traditional.

“I was shocked by that, so many people were doing such textbook stuff,” he says. “You go to The Comedy Store now, which was the home of alternative comedy, and you find it’s much more conventional than you’d imagine.”

So is he an alternative comedian? “Alternative comedy is quite a loaded word,” muses Aczel, talking to Fest during his day-job lunch break. “It became mainstream. Mainstream comedy now in some ways has more in common with the ‘70s comedians. There was something punk about the ‘80s.”

Bob Slayer also has issues with the ‘A’ word. The former rock ‘n’ roll road manager runs Heroes of the Fringe, hosting acts who dare to be different. Until this year, it was called the Alternative Fringe, but that word is "dated" and "could become a millstone", announced Slayer. And who needs millstones these days?

“Alternative comedy was a moment in time,” he says, “a reaction to everything that was going on: old men in suits doing racist jokes, Thatcher and all that gubbins.” The Alternative Fringe was a response to the industry that subsequently arose, making a particular splash in 2011, when Slayer and musical comedian Kunt and the Gang won the Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for putting penis stickers on big companies’ posters and being threatened with legal action. Unabashed, he insists that “independent is the new alternative. Acts that refuse to buy into the pay-to-play model are developing their own ways to do the Fringe.”

That said, at Edinburgh’s most established venue, The Stand, you’ll find two ‘alternative’ showcases during August. The performers booked for the second series of Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience are an interesting selection of what currently constitutes ‘alternative,’ several of them—Kevin Eldon, Hattie Hayridge—already familiar TV faces. Ask comics about modern alternative acts and different names tend to crop up –one in particular.

“That other comics think I’m 'alternative' is really nice to hear,” says Lewis Schaffer. “Tell that to the producers of Stewart Lee's Alternative Comedy Experience! I haven't been asked to be on that show.”

Another Cunning Stunt winner (for announcing that he’d sponsored the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2009), Schaffer’s onstage style is “all over the place,” says Fleming, “constantly telling the audience how shit he is.” Shit, maybe, but alternative?

“I don't see myself as alternative, not in the way the word is used in the UK,” says Schaffer. “I associate alternative comedy as worthy and earnest. Not my favourite style of comedy.”

Also at The Stand are nine editions of the much-loved Alternative Comedy Memorial Society, which actively encourages acts to try out odder stuff. Nadia Kamil is on the society’s ‘board’ (whose meetings are apparently set to be filmed by Channel 4), and will also be doing her first solo show: Wide Open Beavers! So where do the ACMS hierarchy stand on that contentious term?

“I would definitely define myself as alternative, mostly because I don't ever want anyone coming to see me and for them to be baffled or furious that I’m not like Michael McIntyre or Jimmy Carr,” Kamil says. Covering both angles of the 80s alternative ethos, Beavers! mixes “very silly whimsical stuff and quite a bit of politics, specifically feminism,” she explains. “I'm getting to a point where I feel irresponsible if I don't use my platform as a comic to talk about things I really care about.”

While traditional standup is still heavily skewed towards white males, alternative comedy is clearly fertile ground for the fairer sex. Half of the ACMS board members and ACE series acts are women, with Josie Long the most obvious heiress to the 80s agit-comedy crown, while the likes of Lou Sanders, Bridget Christie and Claudia O’Doherty have made waves with wonderfully inventive Fringe shows in recent years. But then many genuinely alternative comics weren’t ever really aiming to be standups. “The best comedy I saw last year was actually in the [Fringe] cabaret section,” admits John Fleming.

“People come from different backgrounds—acting, theatre—and this can influence the way that they perform standup,” agrees Sam Deards, whose club night Twice as Nice is at Dropkick Murphy’s throughout the Fringe. The weekly London version mixes big headliners with brand new acts, who veer from quirky gagsmiths to the sort of loons Hardee would approve of. Ignoring the textbook might be a decent career move, given the increasingly competitive open-mic circuit. “It is often the comics with a difference that get noticed,” says Deards.

With independent promoters and clubnights offering a welcome stage for weird performers, a new alternative wave could well be brewing. We’ll just need someone to write a Young Ones-style TV vehicle to show them off. Perhaps not Ben Elton this time, though.