In a new TV series, Stewart Lee aims to showcase alternative comedy acts “too clever, thoughtful, radical, satirical, strange, or downright stupid” to be primetime viewing. He recalls five personally influential moments from the scene’s 1980s heyday.
1. May 5 1981
BBC2 aired the second and final edition of Boom Boom … Out Go The Lights (the first, extremely short-lived, TV showcase of alternative comedy). I didn’t see the first programme and I’m not sure how, aged 13, I came to watch the second. All I know is that, after seeing Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson’s double act, the Dangerous Brothers, struggle in a Beckettian vortex with the basic mechanics of telling a joke about a gooseberry in a lift, while dressed like dishevelled members of the R&B mod band Nine Below Zero, I was never the same again. The joke didn’t matter. It was all about the process. It was the opposite of comedy as we knew it.
2. October 3 1982
I saw Dexys Midnight Runners at the Birmingham Hippodrome, supported by The Comic Strip’s Peter Richardson, performing in character as a threatening and mysterious Mexican bandit. I was 14. Back then there wasn’t a touring comedy circuit for alternative comedians, and if there had been I wouldn’t have been able to get into the clubs anyway. Richardson’s act was amazing but this was the first and last time he performed it, having been largely ignored by a bewildered crowd of “Come On Eileen”-craving pop-pickers.
3. October 28 1984
Ted Chippington supported the Fall at the Powerhaus, Birmingham. He came on as if he didn’t want to be there, performed variations on the same joke over and over for half an hour, interspersed with poor renditions of club standards, scowled over a bottle of beer while dressed as a Teddy Boy, and divided the audience into the hysterical and the furious. Aged 16, it was the most punk rock thing I had ever seen. I knew then I wanted to be a stand-up.
4. Sometime in 1985
When I saw Oscar McLennan at Warwick Arts Centre, he was still a stand-up but was clearly on his way to becoming the hardcore performance artist he is today. An hour-plus monologue about a dysfunctional family ended with him rolling around on the floor, lit by a single low level light, to the strains of “Helicopter Man” by the forgotten punkabilly band Turkey Bones and the Wild Dogs. I have subliminally subsumed the show into my own pretentious art comedy outpourings ever since.
5. August 1987
I went to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time, aged 19, and saw an era-defining stand-up bill of Arnold Brown, Norman Lovett, Arthur Smith and Jerry Sadowitz – all at the Gilded Balloon. Brown and Lovett’s deadpan surrealism solidified the studied indifference I’d seen in Chippington; Smith showed you could be literary and louche and love language; and Sadowitz opened up all sorts of arguments about taste and targets. I can’t imagine a bill this brilliant ever happening today.
Stewart Lee is curating ‘The Alternative Comedy Experience’ for Comedy Central from February 5; www.comedycentral.co.uk
Susie Boyt’s column returns next week