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 Callum Scott
Having recently finished my degree at Leeds University, I wrote my dissertation about the use of irony in stand-up comedy and I thought I’d write an article or two basically summing it up in case anyone on here was interested. When people talk about the ‘irony’ used by comedians, the most common type of comedic irony is double-voicing, in which the comedian essentially creates two ‘voices’ - a ludicrous voice, which is used to say something outrageous; and the comedian’s actual voice in which they chastise the ludicrous voice and reassure the audience that they don’t mean what they said. This is exactly the same use of irony that can be seen in the ‘so wrong it’s right’ attitude of ‘lads’ mags’ such as Loaded and FHM, which explains the fact that Jimmy Carr won 2011’s Legend award; it makes sense that similar kinds of humour would have similar audiences. There is a divide in opinion as to whether this form of humour is lowest-common-denominator, and used as an excuse to make offensive statements, or a simply another form of subverting the rules of comedy.
The reason I mentioned Jimmy Carr is that his humour best exemplifies this kind of irony. Here’s one of his jokes I transcribed to show you what I mean:
“you can say pc’s gone mad and no-one minds people quite like it if you say pc’s gone mad political correctness has gone mad they like that but if you say pc’s gone fucking spastic like a mong rapist people get quite chippy”
Comedy relies on shared knowledge between the audience and comedian - part of the appreciation of comedy comes from the audience recognising these shared cultural tropes and feeling included in the joke. In the Carr joke, the audience will recognise ‘PC gone mad’ as a stereotype, many of them may agree with it. By using the so-called ‘ludicrous voice’ to replace ‘mad’ with a string of words that would be considered incredibly un-PC to say the very least, Carr essentially satirises the stereotype of ‘PC gone mad’ by implying that people who identify with ‘PC gone mad’ are actually the most reactionary people in society. Carr therefore identifies himself with the idea of political correctness by showing what happens when it is ignored.
Another element of this type of irony is the acknowledgement of offensiveness in a joke. It seems from a study I conducted that by admitting that a joke is offensive, an audience is more likely to deem a joke acceptable than if a comedian makes an attempt to deny that the joke is offensive. Another example from Jimmy Carr:
“this next joke is just a simple piece of word play it’s just a little turn on a very common phrase yeah just a little bit of wordplay the joke’s not about about what the joke is about if you follow me it’s about the wordplay yeah you know it’s gonna be offensive if it comes with a little warning beforehand they say there’s safety in numbers yeah tell that to six million jews really london really a round of applause cause to my mind that should be the most offensive joke not just in the show but in the world ever”
Carr admits the joke is offensive, and even shifts the onus of blame to the audience for applauding it. By admitting that a joke is offensive, a comedian distances themselves from the ideologies behind it. Any attempt to defend the joke is essentially a defence of the ideologies contained within the joke. This is another way Carr uses two ‘voices’ to distance himself from the jokes and show an awareness of offensive topics and how to use them.
Whilst Carr doesn’t fit any of the more romanticised images of ‘alternative comedy’, its purest definition (an awareness of the ‘rules’ of comedy and a willingness to subvert them), suggests that there is an element of alternative comedy in the use of this kind of irony. Carr takes an offensive topic, uses it to make a joke, and then chastises himself and even the audience for appreciating it. The joke has a desired effect, and the audience come away with the impression he didn’t really mean it. This double-voiced irony isn’t consigned to Jimmy Carr; it can be seen across mainstream comedy. Micheal MacIntyre’s ‘man drawer’ routine creates an image of the man of the house as protector and provider, and undermines this stereotypical view of masculinity by confessing to his own inadequacies. Does this mean that even the most mainstream acts can be considered alternative? Does it mean that alternative comedy is no longer a relevant idea?
Sorry this was a little dry, I wanted to get my theories out the way so I can talk about my opinions in the second part.
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
By Thom Milson
I just finished reading a fantastic article in the New York about the brilliant Patrice O’Neal and what it means to be a comedian. The article talks about the Tragic death of Patrice last November; the reactions to his death by comedians; Patrice’s personal thought on his career, and what a comedian should be trying to achieve. To say this article had a profound effect on me would be a vast understatement: it’s changed the whole way I think about comedy.
I always believed comedy was an art form and an important part of culture. Comedy is not just about presenting jokes for an audience, it’s about presenting ideas to an audience. Patrice O’Neal was one of a current crop of comedians that understood that these ideas didn’t need to be something the audience agreed with. In fact he preferred the ideas if they didn’t, and he respected comedians who had a strong point of view. If they didn’t, he wouldn’t talk to them.
"he had plenty to say about comedians who cared more about being liked than committing to their particular point of view: “Do you have a life philosophy? Do you have anything that says goddamn ethic? Any ethic, you piece of shit? If you don’t, don’t talk to me. I don’t even have to say sheep.”
His desire to discuss things that made the audience uncomfortable defined him as a comedian, and in turn highlighted what comedy is supposed to be about: a strong point of view. O’Neal constantly examined the role of the comedian and "wondered if the desire to be liked onstage might be coming from the need to protect a belief in oneself as a nice guy offstage. What if you weren’t that guy at all?"
When he had that realisation he was able to break free, just as many of the greats before him had. For this discovery to be able to succeed though, there needs to be an audience that is willing to give something to the performance themselves, rather than simply being a passive viewer. That doesn’t mean heckles, what it does mean is forgiveness, willingness to disagree, and an understanding that it’s still okay to laugh if they do disagree.
In fact, all comedy needs that type of audience to thrive, not just comics like Patrice O’Neal. Sadly it doesn’t seem to exist as much as it should here in the UK. The main reasons for this (In my opinion) are TV, and Gong Shows.
I’m not going to say that the comedians on TV are talentless, awful, or rubbish hacks. They’re not; they’ve clearly worked their way to being on TV, put their time in, and been successful. They deserve the credit that they get. What I don’t like about comedy on TV is that it is covers a very small spectrum of Stand-up comedy that exists live. I don’t really know why this is, but I would probably hazard a guess that channels such as the BBC do not want to face a great deal of complaints.
I mean there are some channels that seem to take risks such as BBC3 (and Channel 4 to an extent) but they seem to feature content that has already been proven in the US, such as Family Guy, which I imagine they still receive complaints about. What I would like to see is at least one regular comedy showcase that features home grown talent that is risqué and niche, even if Points of View do receive a ton of letters asking for it to be taken off the air.
Complaints are natural too. Not everyone likes the same things, and some things that some people love, others will find offensive. It’s just the nature of creativity. If you are offended you have the right to say so, but the party that offended you also has the right to say “I don’t care”. Comedy is subjective and should be treated as such. Not judged objectively X-factor style, like at a Gong Show.
Gong Shows really are the worst. They take everything comedy should be, and they mutilate it without mercy. In a Gong Show, A comedian has to go on stage to make an audience laugh for a specific amount of time (usually five minutes); if the audience don’t find them funny they can vote them off, and they will be “gonged”. Five minutes doesn’t seem a long time to have to beat, and it isn’t. In fact it isn’t enough time. Five minutes is not enough time for a comic’s act to breathe, become playful, and build. In a gong show it must be laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, and if the comedian says ANYTHING the audience doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with, they’re off.
How much I hate Gong Shows is another Blog post entirely, one which will probably appear on my personal Blog at some point, for now what I will say is that they remove the power from the comedian who is supposed to manipulate an audience, into a reversed situation that is not good for the growth and development of comedy.
I recently read a quote by James Woroniecki owner of 99 Club on the matter:
"The nineties saw a shift in the live comedy scene and not necessarily one for the good. Comedy clubs gradually became more commercial, focusing in particular on stag nights and the kind of comedians whose jokes would service a massive group of drunken lads…it was becoming increasingly difficult to find comedy clubs that treated their acts as artists and gave them a positive, supportive environment in which to practice their craft."
That quote is referring to NINETIES comedy, NINETIES. That’s two decades ago now. Why is this still happening? Why are comedians still letting it happen? That’s why the 99 Club was started. That’s why we started HOWL. To be a safe haven for the comics that are different and who often find themselves fighting with an audience who are too quick to dismiss them. Even traditional comics deserve this, not just “Alternative comics”. Comedians deserved to be treated as Artists not just entertainers, and we want to do just that, by providing the right audience so that comics can really be free to do what they want.