In the early 1980s an anarchic group of young comedians sought to change the world with violence, Marxism and quite a lot of swearing.
The Comic Strip,
The Comic Strip,
Springtime Records HA HA 6001,
Bowels aside, by and large there are no great ‘movements’ in comedy today. Today’s generation of comedians seem to be out only for themselves. As long as the country’s motorway service stations are supplied with a steady stream of hilarious CDs for sales reps to listen to, then all is well with the world and no great or establishment-challenging art has to take place. The career progression for aspiring young comedians these days is clear and easy to follow: start as a guest on a topical news quiz, chair a panel show, host an ironic gameshow, then look forward to your own regular night of compered variety fun on primetime TV and yet more DVDs for the service station racks. Along the way the venues get gradually larger, from dingy comedy clubs, via corn exchanges and provincial guildhalls, to arenas and finally stadiums. And then you’ve made it. Maybe go to America and annoy them for a bit, make a few appearances in a film few people will see, or just fill out an arena every couple of years if something in the local Ferrari dealership catches your eye.
There used to be some accepted wisdom that post-war comedy would always have groups of similarly minded individuals come along every so often. Groups who would radically change the scene they inherited and shake up notions of what comedy was meant to be. From the wartime anarchy of the Goons, through Beyond The Fringe, Monty Python, Not The Nine O’Clock News, and right on into the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s, there have always been groups of young talented people ready to evolve comedy, to react against social norms and perceived methods of working, to challenge, to dare, to experiment and rail against the madness of the modern world. Not now though. Now we have nothing. Just endless bloody panel shows and endless Russell bloody Howard. Future generations will pity us, they really will. Sadly though, we won’t even be able to take offence at their condescending patronizing pity, as we will be too sedated from the soporific effects of watching Russell Howard to even notice or care what is happening. Russell Howard. Russell Russell Howard…
The story of the young radicals who would become the Comic Strip began collectively around 1979, with a group of comedians performing in the newly opened Comedy Store in London. There, in shows compered by angry Scouse Marxist Alexei Sayle, established double acts such as The Outer Limits (Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer) and 20th Century Coyote (Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson) performed lively anarchic comedy that would soon come to be referred to as ‘alternative’. Alternative comedy as a concept and a term was invented by Tony Allen, also a regular at the Comedy Store, and came as a reaction against hackneyed gags that relied on stereotypically easy targets, those joke staples of established club comics such as ethnic minorities and mothers-in-law.
The prime mover behind the Comic Strip as a coherent group was Peter Richardson. Keen to stage a play, he found a cheap venue in the Raymond Revue Bar, a strip club that after it closed and was cleared of naked women and lecherous tourists, was suitably empty, cheap and in a prime Soho location. Soon the idea of the play was abandoned but Richardson recognised that the venue would make the ideal late night comedy venue. Luring his chums from the Comedy Store to perform at the venue, along with lugubrious stand up Arnold Brown and double act French and Saunders, the scene was set for a comedy revolution.
A lot happened very fast in the life of the collective Comic Strip regulars. Within a year of forming, a national and international tour had been mounted, followed by a TV special and the production of this vinyl artefact which all raised the group’s profile. By 1982, with the persistence and enthusiasm of Peter Richardson being the main driving force, both the BBC and the newly created Channel 4 had signed up the Comic Strip players in the shape of The Young Ones and The Comic Strip Presents…
With the faces and personalities now so familiar to comedy fans after almost forty years of exposure, it’s easy to forget just what an impact these comedians once made. The individual members of the Comic Strip are these days members of the establishment themselves. With respected bodies of work, and long critically acclaimed careers they seem somehow safe and reliable. It is easy to forget that they were once the outsiders and that their work was seen as subversive, corrupting and dangerous.
Alexei Sayle for instance is now only an occasional comedian. His career as a writer has largely taken over but anyone who needs to remind themselves why he was once so feared needs only to listen to his contributions to this record. Plucked straight from a live Soho performance in the Comic Strip with no studio finesse or post-production polish, Sayle’s contributions are visceral and raw. No effort is made to tone down his act and he, perhaps more than anyone else on this record, evokes what it must have been like to witness the arrogance and self-assurance of the Comic Strip in their prime.
Sayle in the album opener Introduction sets out his stall as an ‘alternative’ comedian from the off. Jokes referencing Marxism and Enver Hoxha sit alongside more traditional gags about beer and curry. A rudimentary ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor? (Sayle’s unlikely 1982 Top 15 hit) can be briefly heard towards the end of his set but his full album closer Stream Of Tastelessness has to be heard to be believed. Never mind comedians, there are few individuals lucky enough to live outside secure prison wings that could sustain such a level of insane invective, shouting, swearing and spittle for the full nine and a half minutes that Alexei Sayle does!
The other acts on the record also show glimpses of what they would go on to achieve. Nigel Planer debuts a prototype Young Ones creation on The Outer Limits track Neil At Wembley, complete with self-deprecating commentary, terrible maudlin material, and long tedious songs about depression. Elsewhere on Lenny Flowers, Planer and Richardson experiment with an extended narrative sketch about a heavy metal band reforming which must surely have inspired Edmondson’s later creation, the degenerate rockers Bad News. Performing aside, Peter Richardson’s other main contribution is showing his keenness for organising and structuring the anarchy around him. As well as producing the record, Richardson ropes in future creative partners Pete Richens and Ben Elton for script writing duties on the track Page 3 Girls.
In the performances of Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall it is immediately apparent that they are comfortable with their own brand of comedy, that now familiar blend of unbridled anarchy, social awkwardness and casual violence that would serve them well for the next thirty years of their career. Listening to Mayall recite his angry and very awful poetic verses on the two tracks devoted to Rik’s Poetry, it is clear that Rik, as with Planer’s Neil, is ready to step straight into his Young Ones role.
Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders too seem remarkably comfortable in their sole contribution to the album, Psychodrama. Adopting the personas of two vapid and health obsessed American tourists, their skill at accents and subtle observant acting stands out from the rest of the more brash confrontational comedy on offer. That’s not to say their routine lacks bite or ability to shock. As the two Americans descend into ever more spiteful competitiveness and mutual loathing, the piece doesn’t look quite so out of place.
Before DVDs, VHS, and even before TV executives began to notice them, The Comic Strip as an album was a calling card for a group who were determined to forge a new style of comedy. It was a clear and bold statement of intent from the outset that didn’t compromise or make any concessions to listeners’ sensibilities. The ripples that this album caused are still around today, from the many comedy clubs that have proliferated across the country, to any mainstream TV show that bills itself as somehow edgy or dark. That all these once daring, dangerous comedians are now respected documentary makers, presenters, novelists, film stars, and in some cases just plain dead, is not their fault. They were young and they tried to change the world and I applaud them for that. The fact the modern world is such a mess is Russell Howard’s fault, and I blame him entirely for that.
So to finish on a high, here is Rik Mayall, with help from Adrian Edmondson on toy gun, reminding us why they were so ruddy brilliant and dangerous in the first place: