This year Britain’s king of alternative comedy, Billy Connolly, hits 70-years-old. Still alive and kicking. But is the notion of alternative comedy dead?
Traditional stand-up comedy revolves around telling jokes at someone’s expense. The 70s TV show The Comedians (1) was a showcase for many successful mainstream comics including the notorious Bernard Manning. In the line of fire was anyone who wasn’t white, male and employed. Manning in particular gained massive success with his stinging routines about ethnic minority groups. (2). Comedians show colleague Frank Carson played up to the dumb Irishman stereotype. While this unfair discrimination – sometimes let off as just taking the piss – is the backbone of mainstream comedy, the alternative view delves into deeper and often darker territory.
Alternative comedians challenged the status quo without laughing at stereotypes. Connolly and co. used an observational approach to explore taboo subjects without punishing punchlines.
Connolly is officially the most influential British comedian ever. (3). Eddie Izzard – surreal comedian and arguably the world’s most famous transvestite – sees him as the godfather of alternative comedy: “He was doing alternative comedy before people were doing alternative comedy.” (4). Voted number 1 in UK TV’s Channel 4 100 Greatest-Stand-Ups, (5) Connolly was one of the first of a new age of radical comedians who arguably have now been assimilated into the mainstream.
A modern-day superstar comic like Frankie Boyle, arguably a master of satire, but often criticised for cruelty and crudity overshadowing his political influence, sold out major theatres for more than 100 dates. (6) The success of these arena comics suggests that today’s alternative comedians are no longer alternative at all, they are as mainstream as a millionaire can get.
For all that alternative comedy stands for, laughter may just be an escape valve for tensions and frustrations. (7). We have a laugh and then we feel better but we don’t act to change anything. Radical ideas and the declaration of revolutionary ideals are nothing if we don’t do anything to pursue them. What passes for alternative comedy today appears to have hit upon only one part of what made Connolly different and great. The shock factor. As in the punchline to Connolly’s gag on his breakthrough TV appearance on chat show Parkinson in 1975. (8) A man has murdered his wife and buried her in the back garden. But he’s left her bum sticking out of the ground. A mate comes round and asks why. “I needed somewhere to park my bike.” The shockwave from this item on mainstream UK TV was massive. It was just a small part of Connolly’s act. But it was a pointer to how his life trajectory exemplifies how alternative comedy gets absorbed into the mainstream and he has joked about being just a showbiz personality. (9) If so, Connolly’s work is at best just an escape valve and therefore actually just helps maintain the status quo by reducing the pressure for change. The money makers and everyone who does not want beneficial change are very happy, they know that people will laugh, let off steam and then do nothing.
Arguably alternative comedy is laughing all the way to the bank at the expense of the very people it supposedly aims to champion, the downtrodden, the victimised and the rejected. Because they still do not have effective champions.
Here are profiles of five more alternative comedy giants who may, or may not, have maintained their alt credentials.
“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” (10) The talented Mr Williams, first name Robin, definitely practices what he preaches. His frantic vitality was chemically enhanced in his early days, making him all the more intense to watch. Voted alongside Connolly as the greatest stand-up comedian of all time, (11) the 60-year-old has graced the silver screen with his abundant acting skills. Raised an only child and shunted around at the expense of his father’s work, Williams described himself as: “short, shy, chubby and lonely.” (12).
Williams ranked 13th on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of all Time in 2004. (13).
Lenny Bruce epitomised controversy. His black humour style punctuated with vulgarity saw him push social conventions on issues such as race, religion and sex. (14). Bruce was the landmark man to challenge what was acceptable. “The role of a comedian is to make the audience laugh, at a minimum of once every 15 seconds’I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce, ” (15).
Bruce’s parents divorced when he was five and he was left to shack up with various relatives while his mother pursued a career in show business. Bruce’s own performances developed into something different. Dashed with curse words, his addressing of religious and racist prejudices provoked not just his audience but the media too. American critic Ralph J. Gleason was one of the first to write about Bruce: “Lenny Bruce [is] a wildly insane comic whose material is beyond surrealism, farther out than Mort Sahl and devastating in its attacks on the pompous, the pious and the phony in American culture.” (16).
Voted 3rd in Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time (17), it seems Bruce was not intimidated by death: “I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.” (18).
Bill Hicks’ upbringing bore the burden of strict religion. Settling in Texas, he was raised in the Southern Baptist faith. Hicks’ main motivation became to get away from his devout parents and lifestyle. (19) The self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness stood forcefully against consumerism and despised the superficial banality of popular culture. He believed society’s mediocrity was so the ruling class could: “keep people stupid and apathetic.” (20).
Gaining mass popularity in the UK while on tour in 1991, Hicks placed 4th in the UK’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups in 2007 and again in 2010. (21).
“I don’t have pet peeves, I have major psychotic fucking hatreds!” (22). New York’s curious George was arguably the comic master of the English language. Raised by his mother, she left Carlin’s father: “a stalker and an alcoholic” (23) when Carlin was just two months old. In his 50-year career, Carlin went from conventional comedian to a radical overhaul in the 1960s. Sharp-tongued, quick-witted and insightful, his social cynicism melded with bouts of cleverly constructed rage made him instantly recognisable.
Listed 2nd on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time, (24) Carlin’s death in 2008, aged 71, was a great loss to comedy: “I’m a visionary. I’m ahead of my time. The only problem is I’m only about one and half hours ahead.” (25).
Like Connolly, Richard Pryor was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. (26)
Pryor’s ability to capture the reality of African American life in the USA in the 1970s is unparalleled. Beginning as a middlebrow comedian inspired by the likes of Bill Cosby, Pryor experienced what he called an epiphany in front of a sold out crowd in 1967. After this, his material took on a more profane tone, particularly the use of the word nigger. (27) Pryor’s well-documented drug-use culminated in 1980 when he set himself on fire after abusing rum and cocaine. He spent six weeks recuperating from burns to half his body. (28). Pryor’s health suffered further when, after two heart attacks and quadruple by-pass surgery, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986.
Regarded by many as the best ever and voted 1st on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of all Time, (29) there will never be another Pryor. In the words of his own hero, Cosby: “Richard Pryor drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as one could possibly paint it.” (30).
These radical men were all angry at the world. Perhaps they felt unfairly treated in life. They certainly share a tainting of oppression. If so, their reaction to their upbringing is monumental. We need these people to stay radical. So happy birthday and thank you to Connolly. Let’s stop laughter as an escape valve and the use of cruelty and crudity – unless it has a point to make – as well as victimising stereotypes and anyone outside the norm, for a quick, cheap, shocking laugh.
Whether you see him as a visionary, an idealist or an angry alternative comic, perhaps Bill Hicks sums up where our heads should be at the climax of his end evil monologue: “Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defence each year, and instead spend it feeding, clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, for ever, in peace.” (31).
(1) The Comedians
(2) Bernard Manning
(3) Billy Connolly influential
(4) Izzard on Connolly
(5) Channel 4 100 greatest stand-ups
(6) Frankie Boyle
(7) The Spirituality of Comedy: Comic Heroism in a Tragic World
(8) Billy Connolly TV Parkinson
(9) Connolly showbiz personality
(10) Williams quote
(11) Williams and Connolly
(12) Williams quote
(13) 13th Comedy Central 100 Greatest Stand-Ups
(14) Bruce style
(15) Bruce quote
(16) Gleason on Bruce
(17 & 18) 3rd Comedy Central and Bruce quote
(19) Hicks get away
(20) Prince of Darkness
(21) Hicks 1991
(22) Carlin quote
(23) Carlin’s father
(24) 2nd Comedy Central
(25) Carlin visionary
(26) Pryor abuse
(27) Pryor career
(28) Pryor health
(29) 1st Comedy Central
(30) Cosby on Pryor
(31) Hicks End Evil
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This post was written by MC