Photo of Alexei Sayle with John McVicar from Thatcher Stole My Trousers (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What Happened to British Culture When Alternative Comedy Went from Posh to Punk?

If Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall represented the Pistols/Clash in-your-face assault and battery side of British punk comedy, Ben Elton was its Elvis Costello, complete with geeky wide-rimmed glasses.

Despite recent waves of kitsch nostalgia for it, British comedy in the ’70s was, for the most part, truly horrible. From stages to small and large screens, demeaning and predictable stereotypes of mothers-in-law, women, and Irish, as well as Indian, Pakistani and Caribbean immigrants, rolled off the comedy production lines, fueling and fulfilling the prevalent prejudices of lowest common denominator Britain. Great is was not, grating it certain could be, as an old (fashioned) establishment of comedians drew from the same wells time after time, providing the more bigoted of the lumpen masses just what they wanted. “Have you heard the one about the [fill in the blank with a minority of your choice]?” was the standard template. Prowling the stages of working men’s clubs were the likes of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson; on the small screen were simpleton sit-coms like Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language; and if that racist and sexist diet still left you hungry for more, there was always (it seemed) a Carry On film coming soon to a cinema near you.

Yet, despite the pounding drumbeat of crass comedy, alternative voices were starting to shout above the noise, if only from the margins of the entertainment oligopoly. In the ’60s, satirical programs like That Was The Week That Was, sophisticated wits like Peter Cook and Tony Hancock, and loveable eccentrics like Spike Milligan suggested that comedy could play to different beats. The expansion of college enrollment during the ’60s and ’70s also established a demographic demanding more arty and youth-oriented humor; this was duly provided by the so-called “Oxbridge Mafia”, a collection of budding intellectuals offering new brands of wit at stage reviews and on the radio. This alternative path led to the arrival of the revolutionary Monty Python’s Flying Circus on BBC TV in the early ’70s, ushering in an anarchic aesthetic for a new generation rivaled only by the then percolating musical subculture that would follow it: punk rock.

If Monty Python symbolized the proto-punk period of the comedy revolution, the subsequent “alternative” wave represented punk proper. Moreover, just as early British punks sought to distance themselves from their influential predecessors (pub and glam rockers), so the post-Python upstarts, despite most having studied at universities, disavowed the intellectualism of the upper-class Oxbridge wits, instead aligning themselves with the working class, unemployed, ethnic minorities, political radicals, and struggling students—all the perceived victims of Thatcher’s “bloody” Britain. Punk appeared to provide authentic voices on behalf of the disenfranchised, and this, too, was the implicit mission of alternative comedy.

“Alternative” and “new wave” comedians, as these terms suggest, were perceived as kindred spirits and comedy cousins to the punk rockers of the day. And as for many of those musicians tagged “punk”, few of the new comedians were happy to be called “alternative”, especially when old schoolers like Les Dawson took to jesting that these young amateurs were indeed an alternative to comedy. However, like their punk brethren, it was that old guard—and what it represented—that the new comics were reacting against. Rejection of the past was the default setting for both punk rock and alternative comedy, as each attempted to shed their industries of the barnacles of (long attached) bigotry. Parody became the comedic style of choice in this regard, with traditional comedy being laid bare for what it was. Tony Allen captured this antagonistic approach in quips like this: “There was this drunk homosexual Pakistani squatter trade unionist takes my mother-in-law to an Irish restaurant… says to the West Indian waiter, ‘Waiter, waiter, there’s a racial stereotype in my soup'” (Roger Wilmut and Peter Rosengard. Didn’t You Kill My Mother-in-Law? From the Comedy Store to Saturday Live. London: Methuen, 1989. p.i).

Alternative comedians in London managed to make a mark, some say, by having a collective identity, despite the diversity of comedy they displayed. The leading players, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, and Ben Elton, were as different in their styles and techniques as the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Stranglers had been, but because they were jointly characterized as anti-establishment and frequented the same venues, they were identified and marketed as a movement or genre. The Roxy and 100 Club were for punk bands what The Comedy Store and (later) The Comic Strip became for alternative comedians: a couple of the few venues that made themselves available for the new breed of aberrant upstarts at the close of the ’70s.

Alexei “Fookin'” Sayle

On securing his £5 a week job as the premiere compère at The Comedy Store, Sayle quickly established a reputation for what he describes as “rock stand-up comedy” (p.22). “Punk rock stand-up” would be a more accurate descriptor, for the spirit of the incipient punk movement pulsed through his veins, reflecting itself in both his style and material. “What made Sayle’s act stand out was his sheer presence—the ranting, the speed of attack, the willingness to say anything he wanted to say—and the amount of swearing,” recalls comedy critic Roger Wilmut (p.23).

Despite ironic excursions into multi-syllabic rants on various intellectual theories, Sayle’s voice, like punk’s, mostly captured the streets—exaggeratedly. The comedian saw himself as “bilingual”, adding, “I can talk working-class, or I can talk posh” (p.50). That voice also oscillated with ease between his native Liverpudlian and the mock-cockney—complete with rhyming slang and latent aggression—he would transition into on a dime. Indeed, Sayle’s greatest commercial success may be his mockney song, “Ullo John! Got a New Motor?” which largely consisted of the comic rapping a list of unconnected street clichés over the kind of faux funk beat favored by the New Romantic bands of the era. To everyone’s surprise, this novelty number became a cult hit in early 1984.

Peter Rosengard credits Sayle with fostering the punk environment that gave The Comedy Store its unique identity. He notes that whereas presenters conventionally played nice with both performers and audiences, Sayle comically inverted this time-held tradition, “unleashing his manically threatening stream of violent invective at both parties throughout the evening” (p.8). Like Johnny Rotten, he became beloved by being unlovable—but thus credible, unpretentious, and authentic in the process. Sayle’s take-it-or-leave-it approach was essentially an act of genre rebellion, for, as he bluntly states, “Every comic there’s ever been wants to be liked by the audience, except me” (p.49).

Sayle complemented his confrontational style by assuming the visual persona of a skinhead. However, as for similarly aligned bands of the era like Sham 69 and Madness, this image sometimes provoked inflammatory consequences, particularly when pockets of National Front skins would attend the comedian’s shows only to be fed a funny feast of Marxist rhetoric and fascism put-downs. For Sayle, the Doc Martens boots, mod suit, and shaved head allowed him to get in character, but also to make a class-conscious visual statement. “The reason I adopted the guise of a skinhead is because it’s the one working-class tribal form that posh people will never rip off,” he explains (p. 51).

Rik “Dangerous” Mayall

If Alexei Sayle had the voice of a punk frontman, Rik Mayall embodied the corresponding physical presence. Part of the so-called “second generation” of Comedy Store comedians, Mayall, like many from this wave, was less overtly political in content, but more anarchic and disruptive in physical manifestations of the craft.

Physical comedy has long been a beloved feature of British comedy. One thinks of Benny Hill, John Cleese, and Rowan Atkinson as just some who have made their body contortions and facial expressions as pointedly comedic as anything they might say. Few, though, have taken physical comedy to the punk extremes that Mayall did. In the guise of the angry young poet—one of his earliest incarnations—he would glare at a bemused audience for minutes before telling them to “Shut up” when they laughed at his tortured verse. Here, he echoed the kind of mock-menacing persona Johnny Rotten crafted from watching Laurence Olivier play Richard III, a character the singer once described as “wicked and psychotic, mixed with a fatally cruel sense of humor” (John Lydon. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. New York: Picador, 1994. p.17). Few realized then (or now) that Rotten saw his stage presence in comic terms, his prolonged, wide-eyed “Lydon stare” as a provocative “act” of (self-)parody (p.17).

While The Comedy Store had gathered an array of alternative would-be comedians from their respective wildernesses, The Comic Strip, which opened in London in 1980, siphoned off the cream of that crop. Among the chosen rebels were Mayall and Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and writer Ben Elton. With the help of supportive producer Paul Jackson and a nascent TV network, Channel Four, seeking youth content, these comedians thrust the punk spirit into mainstream media via an array of mostly short-lived TV sit-coms. Pioneering this vanguard, and written by Mayall, his girlfriend Lise Mayer, and Elton, was The Young Ones, arguably the most punk-stylized show ever to reach the small screen.

Capturing the zeitgeist of youth backlash against the early Thatcher years, The Young Ones was the fortunate beneficiary of the BBC’s crisis of confidence, as it feared the upstart Channel Four would steal not only the youth demographic but also the gang of bright young comics breaking through. In a “we’ll take anything” moment rivaled only by the frenzy that ensued among major record labels when signing up the Sex Pistols’ punk peers in 1977, the BBC contracted with The Young Ones team in 1982, introducing a sit-com so extreme that nothing close to its outrage and innovation had been broadcast before—or since.

The transition from stage to screen was one most of the alternative British comedians had been wary of. They knew that their methods and contents would likely be compromised and censored, and they feared, too, that the live energy so central to the success of their humor would dissipate when subjected to cameras and studio conditions. Such concerns were unfounded with The Young Ones, as Mayall, Mayer, and Elton merely took the punk road less traveled, embracing their own amateurism by circumventing such inconveniences as structure and competence. With anything goes abandon, they pieced together 30 minute episodes as though they were three minute punk songs, complete with raw energy, anarchic attitudes, and periodic incongruous interruptions that arrived like short, sharp guitar solos. Explosions, violence, and surreal conversational exchanges were juxtaposed without transitions; then cutaway sequences would take us down a rat hole or to a band performance by The Damned or Motörhead. Logic was deemed dull and thus suspended, yet there always lingered subversive methods amidst all the madness.

Thinly-veiled statements of intent and purpose were made throughout by the program, such as in the episode “Sick” when punk-metal character Vyvyan (played by Edmondson) smashes through a full screen showing The Good Life, a vapid 70s sit-com embodying all the bland middle-class niceties alternative comedy was railing against. Another is made in the show’s debut episode, “Demolition,” when the camera pans to a TV showing a typical studio set of a typical “hip” youth show (called Nozin’ Aroun’); the clip shows Ben Elton playing the typical down-with-the-kids host, proclaiming with mock-wonder, “I’m up on a catwalk because shock is what this program is about.”

Like “Anarchy in the U.K.” followed by “God Save the Queen”, “Pretty Vacant”, and “Holidays in the Sun”, The Young Ones was relentless in assaulting the manners and mores of modern society. Not surprisingly, parents hated this virus that had inhabited their screens, while kids of all ages could not believe a program had finally arrived that they could relate to. Young kids aped the show’s physical slapstick on playgrounds across the country, while college students saw themselves cast in comic form, as four slobs surviving each others’ quirks inside dilapidated digs. Roger Wilmut summarizes the show’s impact, calling it a “vital step for alternative comedy” and “an imaginative grasping of the medium and a fanfare for its invasion by the new wave of performers” (Wilmut & Rosengard, p.107).

Ben “Motormouth” Elton

If Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall represented the Pistols/Clash in-your-face assault and battery side of the new punk comedy, Ben Elton was its Elvis Costello, complete with geeky wide-rimmed glasses. Like Costello, Elton eschewed the street slang favored by the harder core, choosing instead to unload excessively wordy—yet articulate—descriptive scenarios on his unsuspecting audience. And like early Costello, too, he did so with a speedy word salad that seemed to defy the laws of verbal communication. Some compared Elton’s Cockney tirades with those of Sayle, but they never had the latter’s tongue-in-cheek self-consciousness, nor his snarl and bite. More New Wave than punk, Elton’s comedy was tailor-made for the trendy lefty student set rather than for the more eccentric or working-class audiences Sayle additionally appealed to.

Elton’s stand-up career developed out of his position as second generation compère at The Comedy Store. There he masked his nerves by developing a “motormouth” style of rapid delivery that left hecklers with little time or space to interrupt. Known for his political bits against “Thatch”, this aspect of his comedy has been somewhat exaggerated, even if he did garner a reputation—one Sayle often fed—for acting like a preacher. A more accurate representation would be that he was a socially conscious writer—again, like Costello—that gave face to the struggles of those adversely affected by Thatcher’s “reign”.

By the mid-’90s, obituaries were already being written about the demise of alternative British comedy. As with punk, the initial energies were bound to wane, but the spirit and legacy were far from exhausted. Some cynics reflected upon the irony that for all its posturing about racism and sexism, the punk comedy performers and audiences were and remained mostly male and white. Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and Lenny Henry were notable front-line exceptions, but it was not until the ’90s that sit-coms represented a more comprehensive diversity. For this, supporters would rightly argue that the ’80s alternative comedians had paved the way, opening doors the BBC would no doubt otherwise have kept closed.

Perhaps the most significant legacy of the era when comedy went punk is in the tectonic shifts it brought to comedy expectations. Despite the so-called ’90s “lad” backlash, pre-alternative-styled comedy has rarely been seen again. You would be quite a sucker for jeers and punishment to go out on a stage today and attempt to force-feed audiences with the kind of racist, sexist, and homophobic gags that were not only common before punk comedy, but expected and demanded.