|This article may contain previously unpublished synthesis of published material that conveys ideas not attributable to the original sources. (October 2009)|
Alternative comedy is a term coined in the 1980s for a style of comedy that makes a conscious break with the mainstream comedic style of an era. The phrase has had different connotations in different contexts: in the UK, it was used to describe content which was an 'alternative' to the mainstream of live comedy, which often involved racist and sexist material. In other contexts, it is the nature of the form that is 'alternative', avoiding reliance on a standardised structure of a sequence of jokes with punch lines. Patton Oswalt has defined it as "comedy where the audience has no pre-set expectations about the crowd, and vice versa. In comedy clubs, there tends to be a certain vibe—alternative comedy explores different types of material."
After his performance in Young Adult, Oswalt clarified the method and attitude of the alt comics he came up with as, "Don't try it, man. Just go up and wing it". He goes on to say how it affected his acting, "I didn’t really have the confidence to [put in the work]...I think a lot of that comes from insecurity. It’s that fashion of improv and amateurism that comes from the insecurity of saying to the audience, 'Well, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go well, because I didn’t even try that hard to begin with.' It’s like, 'Oh, that’s why you’re not [trying]. If you actually tried hard and it sucked, then you’ve got to blame yourself.' So that’s what makes it hard for some people to sit down and actually just do the fucking work, because doing the work means you’re making a commitment."
The official history of London's Comedy Store credits comedian and author Tony Allen with coining the term, though in his autobiography, the late Malcolm Hardee claims to have coined the term in 1978.
Alternative comedy came to describe an approach to stand-up comedy that was neither racist nor sexist but free-form and devised by the performers themselves. This style won out in a 'civil war' against more traditional comedians who had initially played London's Comedy Store, Soho, from its opening in May 1979. Traditional club comics of the time had been reliant on trite jokes which often targeted men and majority groups. The alternative that developed was more like comedy's answer to punk.
Alexei Sayle, the Comedy Store's first MC, provided angry character comedy satirising the left. Fellow-MC Tony Allen broke the taboos of personal and sexual politics while actor Keith Allen confronted audiences in a fearless series of 'put-ons' and was a big influence on the early cabaret scene that was about to emerge. From these onstage battles, Tony Allen and Alexi Sayle founded "Alternative Cabaret", with other Comedy Store regulars. Their aim was to establish several alternative comedy clubs in London in addition to their flagship venue at The Elgin, Ladbroke Grove, from August 1979. Its core members were Jim Barclay, Andy De La Tour and Pauline Melville, stand ups who shared a background in radical fringe theatre. The pair also brought alternative stand up to the Edinburgh Festival for the first time in August 1980 with "Late Night Alternative", at the Heriot-Watt Theatre. Returning with a full show in 1981, 'Alternative Cabaret' was the critical comedy hit of that year.
The Comedy Store now began advertising itself as 'The Home of Alternative Comedy' with 'Alternative Cabaret' listed by London's weekly Entertainment Guide, Time Out as its main show. Those tours established the idea of running comedy shows in small venues around London, and thus sowed the seeds of the network of pub-based gigs that grew in the capital and across the UK throughout the 1980s. The new comedy got its own section, 'Cabaret', in Listings magazines, first in 'City Limits' followed by 'Time Out' on 21 January 1983. Other organisations, comics and entrepreneurs including, Maria Kempinska's Jongleurs and Roland and Clare Muldoon's CAST/New Variety added more regular venues bringing the number of gigs per week from 24 in '83 to 69 by 1987.
Just about every major British stand up comedian in the last thirty years started their career in alternative comedy clubs, including Ben Elton, Jo Brand, Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Eddie Izzard, Harry Hill, Peter Kay, Jimmy Carr and Ross Noble. Meanwhile, other comics had left the Store with Peter Richardson to form The Comic Strip performing 'Comedy Cabaret' featuring double acts and sketch comedy, at The Boulevard Theatre, Soho in October 1980. The Comic Strip included Manchester University and Drama School graduates Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer and French and Saunders and aimed their talents at television. Ben Elton, who then became The Store's next MC, also became co-writer of BBC2's TV hit The Young Ones – as author William Cook noted, "After The Young Ones made him Alternative Comedy's hidden voice, Saturday Live (Channel 4) made him its most visible face." As 'The Comic Strip Presents..', the team altogether made 42 TV Movies for Channel 4 and the BBC.
If Tony Allen, nicknamed by comics and critics as 'The Godfather of Alternative Comedy' "was the theory of anarchic comedy" wrote comic Arthur Smith, "then Malcolm Hardee was its cock-eyed embodiment". Hardee was the much loved MC at the Tunnel Palladium, The Mitre, Deptford 1984-89 whose audience were famous for their vocal participation and wit. There he influenced the early careers of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Simon Day, Chris Lynam, Martin Soan, Harry Enfield and many others to whom he gave their first gigs. He also found fame himself as part of 'The Greatest Show on Legs' which had been started by Martin Soan, his part in the legendary 'The Balloon Dance' as well as his many shows at The Edinburgh Festival.
New York City
In New York City, much of what is called alternative or "downtown comedy" is performed outside of traditional comedy clubs in theaters, such as Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB), Magnet Theater and the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT), as well as cabarets that host comedy only occasionally. The comedians at these shows offer character-based humour or surreal humour as opposed to observations of everyday life or more polemical themes. In addition, many alternative comics use unusual presentation styles, such as (Demetri Martin, Slovin and Allen) opting to play music, give Powerpoint presentations or act out sketches. Many alternative comics such as Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, and Todd Barry also perform in mainstream comedy venues. The now-defunct Luna Lounge in New York's Lower East Side was home to a celebrated weekly alternative comedy stand-up series called "Eating It" from 1995 to 2005, co-created by Garofalo, which featured a changing line-up including Louis CK, Jim Norton, Ted Alexandro, Todd Barry, H. Jon Benjamin, Greg Giraldo, Patrice O'Neal, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Vowell, Mike Birbiglia, Dave Chappelle, Roseanne Barr, Sarah Silverman, Garofalo, and numerous others until the property was sold and the building razed.
Warren St. John said that the "inspiration" for alternative comedy in New York City is the Upright Citizens Brigade. The group originally formed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea in 1999. Four years later, in 2003, several performers at the UCB spun off their own theater, and formed the PIT. St. John also argues that one reason that unusual comics can succeed in New York City is that they don't have to tour part-time, as many of them also work as writers on local comedy television shows such as The Daily Show and the Late Show with David Letterman.
Patton Oswalt cited Dana Gould as the originator of the Alternative Comedy Scene in the early nineties, whom also cites Janeane Garofalo as another pregenitor of the scene. Beth Lapides started the Un-Cabaret shows, which was the flagship of the alternative comedy movement.  Other contemporaries of the scene included Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Greg Behrendt, Andy Kindler, Kathy Griffin.
Patton Oswalt was essential in pioneering the alternative comedy on the West Coast. He created The Comedians of Comedy tour, which played across the US in independent music venues intermittently from 2004 to 2008. The original tour was hosted by Oswalt, and featured Maria Bamford, Zach Galifianakis, and Brian Posehn.
South African comedy often comprises racial or stereo-type based humour, alternative comedy in South Africa tends to avoid such subject matter. It is hard to define alternative comedy but subject matter may include taboo, dark, non sequitur, geek and various other topics whilst excluding racial, scatological, stereo-type, South Africanised humour and other topics considered mainstream. Although comedians of this genre may include mainstream topics it does not form the majority of their sets.
It is hard to say exactly where it started but The Underground in Melville Johannesburg was known for its risqué humour proliferated by founder John Vlismas. The Comedy Underground was fertile development ground for alternative humour with its anything goes policy. Since its closure in 2010 alternative comedy has found new venues including Foxwood theatre, Picollinos and various others. Johannesburg remains the home of South African alternative.
One of the driving forces behind the increasing prominence of alternative comedy is the Johannesburg Comedy Cartel whose members include Shaun Wewege, Warren Robertson, Vittorio Leonardi and Alyn Adams. Other South African comedians who fall into the genre are; Dale Amler, Roni Modimola, Mark Banks, John Vlismas.
Mel Miller is arguably considered one of the pioneers of the alternative genre in South Africa. During the Apartheid era Millers material was considered “inappropriate” or radical resulting in more than one run-in and detention with the South African Bureau of State Security
- Thomas, David (5 March 1982). "Micro-epic of The Black Hole". The Times. p. v. "At a time when "alternative comedy" is increasingly showing itself to be little other than a more aggressive version of the old comedy, the National Theatre of Brent are offering a style that is entirely original."
- Lisa Selin Davis (10 November 2003). "The Brooklyn Paper: SERIOUS FUN". The Brooklyn Paper. Retrieved 2009-10-30. "Alternative comedy is nothing new. The term gained fame in 1980s Britain, when out-of-the-ordinary sitcoms like "The Young Ones" or "Absolutely Fabulous" popped up, and continued in America with unorthodox sketch comedy groups such as Manhattan’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade. But, according to [Andrea Rosen of the "Pie Hole Comedy Show" in Brooklyn, New York], alternative comedy predates all of those acts. "Mel Brooks was an alternative comic," said Rosen, citing his famous 2000-Year-Old Man routine. "So is Steve Martin." And Rosen’s influences also include old masters like filmmaker Woody Allen, who started his career as a standup. "There’s a whole world of alternative comedy rooms, in bars and basements.""
- Jeremy Tunstall (1993). Television Producers. Routledge. p. 127. ISBN 0-415-09471-2. "'Alternative' comedy is inevitably difficult to define, not least because it tends, after an interval, to join the mainstream."
- Cook, William (2001). The Comedy Store. Little, Brown & Company. ISBN 0-316-85792-0.
- "Patton Oswalt". Panorama Magazine. AltCom!. 5 May 2008. Retrieved 2009-10-30.
- "Patton Oswalt on his most memorable roles and giving life advice to Dane Cook". Random Roles. A.V. Club. 9 November 2012. Retrieved 2012-11-22.
- Hardee, Malcolm; Fleming, John (1996). I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake. Fourth Estate. ISBN 0-09-188924-3.
- Double, Oliver (1997). Stand Up, On Being a Comedian. Methuen Drama. ISBN 0-413-70320-7.
- Connor, John (1990). Ten Years of Alternative Comedy. PAPERMAC. ISBN 0-333-54171-5.
- Smith, Arthur (2009). My Name is Daphne Fairfax. Random House. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-09-951965-2.
- Smith, Arthur (2009). My Name is Daphne Fairfax. Random House. ISBN 978-0-09-951965-2.
- Calcott, Andrew (2006). The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy. Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 1-84353-618-8.
- Rosengard, Peter; & Wilmot, Roger (1989). DIdn't You Kill My Mother-in-Law?. Methuen Drama. ISBN 978-0-413-17390-4.
- Sayle, Alexi (3 August). My Favourite Year. Sunday Independent.
- Alexei Sayle dot ME
- "London Listings". Time Out (Time Out Ltd): 60. 1 January 1981.
- "London Listings". Time Out (Time Out Ltd): 81. 4 December 1981.
- "London Listings". Time Out (Time Out Ltd): 69. 21 January 1983.
- "London Listings". Time Out (Time Out Ltd). 21 January 1983.
- Double, Oliver (2005). Getting The Joke. Methuen. ISBN 0-413-77476-7.
- Warren St. John (Published: January 29, 2006). "Alternative Comedy - New York Times". Nytimes.com. Retrieved 2008-11-07.
- St. John, Warren (January 29, 2006). "Seinfeld It Ain't". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-30. "Bars and back rooms in the East Village and Lower East Side are overflowing these days with the likes of Adolf Dice Hitler Clay: not spoofs of Nazis necessarily, but rather a wave of young and creative comics who are branching out from straight stand-up to eccentric sketch and character-based humor that owes more to Da Ali G Show than to George Carlin....Any attempt to define the term alternative comedy was doomed, [Andrés] du Bouchet said before his Tuesday night show, but he gave it a shot anyway. "Alternative is a catchall phrase for 'not stand-up,' " he said. Aziz Ansari, 22 and an up-and-coming comic on the scene, elaborated. "The alternative rooms give you an outlet to explore something other than straight stand-up," he said. "You can do characters. I can bring a girl on stage that I got rejected by and interview her, or do a PowerPoint presentation or show a short film. The nature of the venues allows you to experiment.""
- Nerdist Podcast with Dana Gould
- The Comedy Underground is dead!
- Joburg Comedy Cartel
- Shaun Wewege
- John Vlismas on the post-Fifa apocalypse, Sepp Blatter and Helen Zille