A a giant, sentient disco ball sits front row at Party, Bristol’s comedy night run by Pravanya Pillay and Imogen Trusselle, and heckles the hosts as they take the stage. Each night has a theme — Las Vegas, Gossip Girl, the Gunpowder Conspiracy — and lineups include live stand-ups as well as original acts, Pillay says, from poets to clowns pouring themselves cereal on themselves. But is it an alternative comedy? “In my head, I’m like, ‘The party is not an alternative comedy night,'” Trusselle says. “But then I remember we based our whole show around this disco ball.”
In Manchester, The Jain Edwards Show is a cat show-cabaret hybrid, with Edwards’ “megalomaniac host” accompanied by house band Foxdog Studios and characters from Jack Evans and Jim John Harkness. East this alternative comedy? “Initially, you use the phrase because you’re told, ‘you’re not mainstream, you’re alternative,'” Edwards explains. “It can exclude you from certain things. There’s loads of mainstream gigs where I can break everything, but people say, “You’re just doing your weird thing here.” Pillay agrees: the label can be used to dismiss those who don’t fit an outdated stereotype of what a comedian looks like.
“I wonder if it’s useful,” says Jordan Brookes, who won the 2019 Edinburgh Comedy Award with a show some have called alternative. “If you want to do something different, just do something different. For me, the fun challenge is: how do you get as many people on board as possible with the weirdest thing? »
Since the inception of alternative comedy in 1979—a scene associated with Alexei Sayle and comics, defined by its opposition to the predictability and prejudice of worker’s club comedy—the term has persisted. “It’s often used in opposition to straight stand-up, so draw, embody, or do something that’s never been done on stage before,” says Oliver Double, head of comedy and popular performance at the University. from Kent and author of Alternative Comedy: 1979 and the reinvention of British stand-up comedy.
Channel 4’s new comedy director Charlie Perkins agrees. “But there are people crossing,” she said. Acts such as Brookes and James Acaster, who play with audience expectations and joke structure, fill that gap. Double also highlights the DIY sensibilities of Josie Long, Bridget Christie “defying established ideas about gender,” and Sophie Duker making room for comedians of color at her Wacky Racists party.
Perkins became head of comedy at Blink Industries (behind shows such as Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared) and was the founder of The Paddock, a multimedia comedy night. “The Paddock is an alternative night out because it’s a space where people can try out whatever’s useful to them,” says Perkins. “More established actors try something they couldn’t do elsewhere, or new people try stuff in front of a supporting crowd.”
There is a misconception, both Perkins and Double say, that “the alternative” is the opposite of the mainstream. Even in the 80s, Sayle and comics quickly moved to television. Now, shows like Stath Lets Flats are successfully pushing the boundaries of TV comedy. “I don’t agree with a pair: alternative or accessible,” says Perkins. “Comedy is such a broad spectrum. Alternative is a medium not a genre, it’s a way of expressing comedy and trying different things. It’s as broad as people see stand-up.
Often it’s about creating something you couldn’t find elsewhere and resisting the pressure to attract an imaginary average viewer. “You can’t assume what someone’s sense of humor is,” Brookes says. “People like weird shit. It’s a pleasure to see someone do something that you wouldn’t see another human being do in everyday life. It’s exhilarating.
As Double puts it in his book, alternative comedy “was meant to subvert the status quo both artistically and politically.” Perkins says, “We keep pushing forward creating different, amazing things that you’ve never seen before. That’s why comedy means so much to people, because you’re like, “I’ve never been through this before.”
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, where the creators have done everything by hand, has captured millions of fans online with its quirky aesthetic and disturbing vibe. “I would call it alternative in that they were doing something outside of the norm,” Perkins says. “Comedy is an art form and alternative comedy is perhaps more encompassing than stand-up.”
Double says the “Joint Efforts” turned alternative comedy into the stage. During seven years of The Paddock, Perkins has seen comedians find like-minded collaborators. “There’s power in the collective that’s really important in alternative comedy,” she says. “It is the people excluded from what is the norm who can create their own avenues.”
Edwards, inspired by comedy collective Weirdos, came up with a name to unite her team: North Wave. They take a “friends first” approach to working together, she says, which is important when you’re building something from the ground up. Pillay and Trusselle also wanted to create a community. “We want to have a fun, silly night that appeals to an audience that doesn’t normally go to a comedy show,” says Pillay. That means building platforms for female, trans, and non-binary performers, and having a place for a person of color to make their comedy debut with a supportive audience. Likewise, at Alternative Comedy Memorial Society, everyone chants “A noble failure! in recognition of the bravery of each act.
When live comedy was banned during the pandemic, North Wave moved to Twitch. “We thought comedy could be anything,” Edwards says. “Now if I had to define alternative comedy, it would be to take an alternative route, start your own thing.”
This do-it-yourself approach was built into early alt-comedies, Double says, from zine-like posters to homemade props. In London, the variety show Piñata ends with an audience member smashing a homemade piñata as their theme music plays. The Jain Edwards Show uses creative technology; Edwards’ character recently had an immaculate conception thanks to a bouncy belly designed by Foxdog.
Party broadcasts videos made by Pillay and Trusselle. “People love the way our products are homemade,” says Pillay. “It’s another way of saying: we don’t take ourselves seriously, we have fun. Maybe that’s the alternative comedy: you don’t have to take yourself seriously, we don’t!
Double says, “The same way punk is a good label even though people have disavowed it…although you might have a slightly different idea of what alternative comedy means, it gets you into the stadium. Alternative comedy is the label that’s stuck on, so let’s use it.