Shouting, Swearing And Politics, Part 1
Comic original recalls the birth of the modern UK alt comedy
In the first of a three part serialisation of his new book, comic raconteur Tony Allen recalls the days when he and Alexei Sayle founded the seminal seventies comedy club which provoked a new genre of alternative comedy.
13th December 2002
"I came to Ladbroke Grove for the free love and squatting. I settled for sexual politics and a licensed derri.**"
That was my opening line at the first Alternative Cabaret gig at the Elgin. It received a big laugh. A few nights later I tried it at the Comedy Store - hardly a titter. In the Summer of 1979 I didn't need much encouraging to set-up a regular local cabaret gig where I could play to a home crowd.
The Elgin Ladbroke Grove in 1979 was a run-down inner-city area. For the previous decade or more its shabby streets of four-storey Victorian terraces had suffered development blight and neglect; they were now heavily squatted and seething with community activism. The Lord Elgin was bigger than most local boozers and still had its original décor, grimy but intact - the place was a tip with very basic amenities. In the spacious back bar, a cheap single spotlight was angled at a small stage with an extension constructed out of beer crates. Occasionally local punk and squat-rock bands played benefits for housing campaigns; more frequent were spontaneous acoustic sessions by Irish musicians.
The clientele The Elgin was the pub of preference for scruffy political extremists; bohemian arty types and those barred from everywhere else. On any given night you could meet up with feminist groups, plotting squatters and law centre workers.
Acts Alternative Cabaret comprised: five comedians - Myself, Alexei Sayle, Jim Barclay, Andy De La Tour and Pauline Melville; two folk duos - Gasmark and Hopkins and Chisholm and Stevens; and Combo Passé - a five piece Jazz/Salsa outfit.
Alexei and I alternated from gig to gig as MC or resident comedian. I worked up stacks of material exploring my dilemmas around various social issues with plenty of sniping at the party lines being demanded by the straight left groups. Which of course was generally the audiences angle as well.
Whatever position I took on an issue, there was always an individual or group voicing a more extreme opinion - it was a given. Not everyone listened to the whole show; some women would only listen to the female acts. As a joke some men would only listen to the male acts. The antennae were out for the complexities of sexism and racism, but there was also a strong situationist inclination that was far hotter on the cult of celebrity - some comrades were just as happy (or unhappy) sitting at the back discussing whether entertainment was necessary in the first place. I defended my position by saying that I was trying to learn how to tell the truth in public. Which was the truth and I said it in public. Or rather screamed it at them by way of self-justification.
Stand-up comedy can be more than just the scented aerosol in the shit-house of existence! I don't want my soul so bruised and scarred that I can no longer bare it in public! Sometimes up here, I feel like an avant-garde Butlins' Redcoat.
Sexist shit Some nights when I stood in front of the Elgin crowd I looked out on a sea of faces that I recognised. I was all too aware of the state of heightened awareness, if not tension, around language. Women heckling macho rock bands with "Sexist shit!" was commonplace; almost a sport. It was often shouted at me although mostly as a joke. So I played around with it from my perspective of a re-constructed male on the road to post-guilt liberation. This involved a lot of swearing and a lot of jokes about sex and language and resulted in some wacky exchanges.
"Heterosexist shit! You can't say that?"
"But I've just said it! Where does that leave us?
"No dialogue with men?"
"What's this then?"
"No dialogue with men?"
"Well that certainly sorted out the persons from the persons. Didn't it?"
I didn't always win these encounters but I was allowed to bounce back. As a local anarcho-feminist squatter, I was playing to my tribe. The audience was generally supportive. Often they would urge me on to take more risks, as a ruse to wind up another section of the crowd. They were never wholly judgmental; someone would always defend an underdog especially if there was an argument begging. Ideological bickering could erupt from a heckle or from a heckle put-down. Mostly protagonists were told to "fuck off into the front bar".
Swearing There was a lot of low flying dodgy logic around swearing and use of language in the early days of Alternative Cabaret. My immediate tribe, particularly the women, were enthusiastically reclaiming the word 'cunt' and seizing every opportunity to use it. I was used to hearing the word across communal dinner tables in front of the children.
Arguing in court for my right at Speaker's Corner to use the word 'cunt' in it's appropriate sexual context was clear, even if it was parlance only in a relatively small sub-culture of radical feminists and their male fellow travellers. Censuring it's use as a heavy duty expletive, was, in retrospect, both priggish and ludicrous, especially with the use of the word 'fuck' still being debated among the comrades. I was happily promoting the position that you didn't fuck someone, you fucked with them. While I could argue coherently that the reason that 'fuck' was an expletive, was indicative of society's problems with sexuality, my own vocabulary was (and remains) peppered with fucks. It's a slovenly passé fashion in permanent retro that invokes pseudo masculinity, working class bravado and adolescent rebellion and every generation re-enforces it and there's fuck all we can do about it. In a phrase 'the fucking fucker's fucking fucked!' There, that's the answer; exhaust the cunt.
But those who heard every heckle of "Sexist shit" as the establishment of a rigid new orthodoxy were missing the point; it was only the first knockings of a new orthodoxy - the arguing was part of it. To stand up in front of people as a comedian is to be privileged. It also opens a debate about everything said. Every audience contribution can be scrutinised and turned into comedy. A good comedian can get laughter from their own opinions, from begging to differ or from admitting they are wrong.
My selective swearing on stage at the Elgin was a political position within the new orthodoxy. At the Comedy Store there were no such subtleties and I veered from seeming a puritan on some nights to a sufferer of Tourette's syndrome on others. When I swore at a pub showcase I was called blue. I wasn't blue. I was neither blue nor mainstream. What I was doing was an alternative to that.
Origins of Alternative? Just for the record I can't ever remember coining the phrase Alternative Comedy. My understanding of it goes like this.
In the early summer of 1979 a bunch of my mates were editing the info-directory Alternative London, so that name was in my head when I booked our cabaret package to a promoter, who'd rung up to book me solo. When he asked me for a name, I just plucked Alternative Cabaret out of the air as a meantime ting. In the following weeks no one came up with anything better, more gigs started coming in, and the name stuck. Alternative Cabaret soon becomes Alternative Comedy when referring to a show that features a bunch of comedians. Yadder yadder yadder. But it takes a long time for such a cumbersome phrase to become parlance.
In the autumn of 1980 the phrase Alternative Comedy seems to have been used in the media as the generic term for a new approach to stand up comedy. It caused more or less every comedian in the constituency to deny being an 'Alternative'. Alexei Sayle, who by then had left Alternative Cabaret, had a gag he spat out - "I'm an Alternative Comedian - I'm not funny?"
I defiantly embraced the term around this time, but previously I'd always thought of myself as a radical stand-up comedian with Alternative Cabaret. By 1985 I was calling myself a Post-Alternative Comedian.
Adapted from 'Attitude - Wanna make something of it' by Tony Allen.
Pub. Gothic Image publications
ISBN 0 906362 56 3.
SHOUTING, SWEARING AND POLITICS Part 2 - Second extract from a new book of cutting edge hilarity
Lofty Tones - Global Village Idiot Tony Allen states his case for suing Nirex - Squall 16, 1998. (See Tony Allen's ranting columns in print issues of Squall).