The Wrong Show is an independent and alternative comedy night in Leeds. This is our blog. Here you will find comedy reviews, features, and interviews. We were formally known as HOWL. Our home is The Fenton, Leeds.
By Callum Scott
So, I argued that Jimmy Carr and Michael MacIntyre are alternative comedians. If you’ve got to part two I respect you, I really do. I’m not actually arguing that these acts are paragons of alternative comedy; nor am I arguing that alternative comedy is dead or irrelevant. In fact, I think that a new definition of alternative comedy is required. In the same way that alternative comedy in the 80s was a PC reaction to the working mens’ club comedians that preceded them, current alternative comedy is a reaction to the mainstream comedians of today. I am not anywhere near au fait enough with the conventions of American comedy to talk about it, so I will mainly focus on the UK.
The current mainstream comedy in the UK relies on humour taken from collective shared ideologies and cultural tropes, as can be seen by observational comics such as Peter Kay, as well as the ironic use of these types by comedians such as Jimmy Carr, albeit in different ways. This can be seen by the subjects often viewed as ‘hack’, such as The Only Way is Essex, and chavs. These are culturally relevant ideas that are drawn upon to create humour. The reaction of alternative comedy is rather
than to talk about subjects that are culturally relevant to the majority of society, to instead focus on subjects that are personal to the comedian, which is where the uniqueness of alternative comics comes into play. Andrew O’Neill, described in the Guardian as the ‘definition of alternative’, discusses his day-to-day life as a transvestite, and his journey of conversion to occultism. These are in no way subjects with which the majority of an audience can identify. Whilst O’Neill’s style is also very much alternative in the traditional sense, it is obvious that one of the reasons he is viewed as alternative is the actual content of his material.
In the same way, Bethany Black rarely uses the techniques associated with the stylistic conventions of alternative comedy, but it would be difficult to find someone who wouldn’t describe her as such. Stewart Lee, the current king of UK alternative comedy in the eyes of many, disproves this rule, as his material often has little content in it that is personal, but it would be ridiculous to say that one must be ‘born’ an alternative comedian, or that it is dictated by one’s life experiences. There is an element of American influence in a lot of the alternative comedy that is more personal, whereas Lee’s comedy is inherently more ‘British’, and is still very much a response to mainstream comedy, as can be seen by the regularity with which he talks about it.
What I’m trying to say is that alternative comedy should not be defined by what it is as much as by what it’s not. It changes as what’s mainstream changes. It’s not necessarily true that what is alternative will always transition to the mainstream, but when people think about alternative comedy, the romanticised images I mentioned earlier spring to mind, of comedians who are personal, political, or even satirical of comedy itself. Considering the ideologies behind most alternative comedians, I don’t see any good reason why we shouldn’t stand by these ideas.
Callum also helps organise Pigeon Hole which is a monthly comedy night in Leeds.
By Michael John Sterrett
Last night was the second CUT-UP at Baby Jupiter Bar in Leeds and I’m still feeling a bit giddy. I’ll get to the reasons why in a minute but it’s probably best to first explain what CUT-UP is and why we (the HOWL comedy group) host the night. CUT-UP is essentially a new act, new material night for comics to come down to a small low pressure room and work on their act. For a public that expect slick, professional, rehearsed comedy a night like CUT-UP can seem rather odd, scary even. Yet for comedians nights like this are vitally important. Stand-up comedy is one of the few art forms that exist purely on stage and in the moment. You can go over your act in your head, practice in front of a mirror or even try to slip bits of it into everyday conversation (I find myself doing this sometimes and it never fails to make me feel like a total ass) yet until you get up on that stage in front of a bunch of often drunk strangers your material is simply an idea, a ghost waiting to be born.
Now here comes the giddiness part. Baby Jupiter is a delightfully bijou watering hole in the financial district of Leeds, sandwiched between gentleman’s clubs and lawyers offices. Once you descend a narrow flight of stairs and find yourself in the beautifully low-lit room you could be anywhere in the world. The hustle and bustle of Leeds city centre drifts away and as you huddle round a table with your comedy brethren, necking a pint and scribbling down your thoughts you find yourself approaching ‘the zone’. For athletes, surgeons, pilots and other professionals who are required to function at such a high level of competence the zone is most likely a place of intense focus and concentration. Whereas for a comedian (and I speak only for myself here) the zone is almost the complete opposite. It’s a fluid, hazy, weird and quasi-spiritual terrain that has an almost dream like quality. Ideas, ad-libs and fresh angles on your material appear from some deep recess of your consciousness. You might start riffing on a crowd members bad shirt, fall to the ground weeping like an infant, expound wild and dark theories on the evolution of man, offer to bang a girl in the front row or start doing your jokes in a fake old-timey accent.
The zone feels like being swept away by the rolling undertow and it’s phenomenal. Last night at CUT-UP I felt I was in that place. How did I get there? Well first of all it was HOT. Not cosy or warm, I mean summer-in-the-city-LA RIOTS-Predator Jungle hot. The kind of heat where you start losing your mind and liking it. Secondly, the crowd were great, a perfect combination of new and more established stand-ups there to try new stuff, and members of the public who had wandered in to grab a post work drink and found themselves trapped in a basement bar with a bunch of delirious degenerate whack-jobs. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly I was doing some really new, really personal material.
The two things that I hope to communicate through my comedy are vulnerability and honesty; the kind of searing vulnerability and honesty I see when a comedy god like Richard Pryor talks about growing up in a brothel or Louis CK vents about how much he loves his kids but can’t bare the grinding monotony of parenthood. These guys are masters and if I ever even vaguely approach their brilliance one day I could die a happy man. But it can be tough. Sometimes I come away from a gig feeling horrible, like I’ve exposed part of my soul to people who didn’t get it or didn’t deserve it, like telling someone you love them only to have them start texting and eating a cheese sandwich. But it’s what I want to do, it’s what I respect and want to achieve. I want to create an intimacy with the audience and take them places that they might not be willing to go. Take them to places even I might not be willing to go and then explore that new place together.
Apologies if this all sounds a bit new-agey but trying to dissect comedy is nigh-on impossible. I think what I’m trying to articulate is that baring your soul to an audience, whilst also keeping it funny is an emotional high wire act, and last night I felt like I got up on the wire. The heat, the crowd and the intense personal material I was performing put me in my zone. My hands started shaking uncontrollably (this rarely happens to me), at several points I had to sit down because I could feel my legs giving way, I was drenched in sweat and apparently at one point I began dancing. I can barely remember any of it. It has acquired a phantasmatic quality in my memory. Was it a perfect set? Lord no. Were there looks of confusion, fear and repulsion at points? Of course! But I felt like I was getting to the place I want to be as a comic. To have a night like CUT-UP allows this to happen. That is why these kind of nights are vital for myself and other comedians striving to do material that is funny but, most importantly, emotionally resonant and honest.
Follow Michael on twitter: @mjsterrett