Alternative comedy

Alternative comedy is a term that originated in the 1980s for a style of comedy
Comedy , as a popular meaning, is any humorous discourse or work generally intended to amuse by creating laughter, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in...

 that makes a conscious break with the mainstream
Mainstream is, generally, the common current thought of the majority. However, the mainstream is far from cohesive; rather the concept is often considered a cultural construct....

 comedic style of an era, and typically avoids relying on a standardised structure of a sequence of joke
A joke is a phrase or a paragraph with a humorous twist. It can be in many different forms, such as a question or short story. To achieve this end, jokes may employ irony, sarcasm, word play and other devices...

s with punch line
Punch line
A punch line is the final part of a joke, comedy sketch, or profound statement, usually the word, sentence or exchange of sentences which is intended to be funny or to provoke laughter or thought from listeners...

s. Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt is an American stand-up comedian, writer, actor and voice actor. He is best known for portraying Spencer Olchin in the popular sitcom The King of Queens, voicing Remy from the film Ratatouille and Thrasher from the Cartoon Network original series Robotomy.-Early life:Oswalt was born...

 defines it as "comedy where the audience has no pre-set expectations about the crowd, and vice versa. In comedy clubs, there tends to be a certain vibe—alternative comedy explores different types of material."

United Kingdom

The Official History of London's Comedy Store credits comedian and author Tony Allen
Tony Allen (comedian)
Tony Allen is an English comedian and writer. Best known as one of the original "alternative comedians" Tony Allen's artistic career had taken many radical turns before he temporarily abandoned his Speaker's Corner "Full-Frontal Anarchy Platform" in May 1979 for the stage of London's Comedy Store...

 with coining the term.

Alternative comedy came to describe an approach to stand-up comedy that was neither racist nor sexist but free-form and devised by the performers themselves. This style won out in a 'civil war' against more traditional comedians who had initially played London's Comedy Store, Soho, from its opening in May 1979.

Traditional club comics of the time had been reliant on trite jokes which often targeted women and minority groups. The alternative that developed was more like comedy's answer to punk
Punk rock
Punk rock is a rock music genre that developed between 1974 and 1976 in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Rooted in garage rock and other forms of what is now known as protopunk music, punk rock bands eschewed perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock...


Alexi Sayle, the Comedy Store's first MC
Master of Ceremonies
A Master of Ceremonies , or compere, is the host of a staged event or similar performance.An MC usually presents performers, speaks to the audience, and generally keeps the event moving....

, provided angry character comedy satirising the left. Fellow-MC Tony Allen broke the taboos of personal and sexual politics while actor Keith Allen confronted audiences in a fearless series of 'put-ons' and was a big influence on the early cabaret scene that was about to emerge.

From of these onstage battles, Tony Allen and Alexi Sayle founded "Alternative Cabaret", with other Comedy Store regulars. Their aim was to establish several alternative comedy clubs in London in addition to their flagship venue at The Elgin, Ladbroke Grove, from August 1979. Its core members were Jim Barclay, Andy De La Tour
Andy de la Tour
Andy de la Tour is an English actor and screenwriter. He has appeared in such films as Plenty, Notting Hill and the Roman Polanski version of Oliver Twist. He has also written or appeared in such television series as Boon, The Young Ones, Bottom, Peak Practice and Kavanagh QC...

 and Pauline Melville
Pauline Melville
Pauline Melville is a Guyanese-born writer and actress. Her mother was English, and her father Guyanese. Her first book, Shape-Shifter , a collection of short stories, won the 1991 Commonwealth Writers' Prize , and the Guardian Fiction Prize.The book consists of a number of short stories dealing...

, stand ups who shared a background in radical fringe theatre.

The pair also brought alternative stand up to the Edinburgh Festival for the first time in August 1980 with "Late Night Alternative", at the Heriot Watt Theatre. Returning with a full show in 1981, 'Alternative Cabaret' was the critical comedy hit of that year.
The Comedy Store now began advertising itself as 'The Home of Alternative Comedy' with 'Alternative Cabaret' listed by London's weekly Entertainment Guide, Time Out as its main show.

Those tours established the idea of running comedy shows in small venues around London, and thus sowed the seeds of the network of pub-based gigs that grew in the capital and across the UK throughout the 1980s.

The new comedy got its own section, 'Cabaret', in Listings magazines, first in 'City Limits' followed by 'Time Out' on 21 January 1983. Other organisations, comics and entrepreneurs including, Maria Kempinska's Jongleurs and Roland and Clare Muldoon's CAST/New Variety added more regular venues bringing the number of gigs per week from 24 in '83 to 69 by 1987.

Just about every major British stand up comedian in the last thirty years started their career in alternative comedy clubs, including Ben Elton
Ben Elton
Benjamin Charles "Ben" Elton is an English comedian, author, playwright and director. He was a leading figure in the British alternative comedy movement of the 1980s, as a writer on such cult series as The Young Ones and Blackadder, as well as also a successful stand-up comedian on stage and TV....

, Jo Brand
Jo Brand
Josephine Grace "Jo" Brand is a BAFTA winning British comedian, writer, and actor.- Early life :Jo Brand was born 23 July 1957 in Wandsworth, London. Her mother was a social worker. Brand is the middle of three children, with two brothers...

, Jack Dee
Jack Dee
James Andrew Innes "Jack" Dee is an English stand-up comedian, actor and writer known for his sardonic, curmudgeonly, and deadpan style.-Early life:...

, Lee Evans
Lee Evans (comedian)
Lee Evans is an English comedian, writer, actor and musician.-Personal life:Lee Evans was born in Avonmouth, Bristol, England to an Irish mother and a Welsh father, Dave Evans, a nightclub performer. He left Bristol at the age of 13 and then went to The Billericay School in Billericay, Essex...

, Eddie Izzard
Eddie Izzard
Edward John "Eddie" Izzard is a British stand-up comedian and actor. His comedy style takes the form of rambling, whimsical monologue and self-referential pantomime...

, Harry Hill
Harry Hill
Harry Hill , is a Perrier Award–winning English comedian, author and television presenter. A former medical doctor , Hill began his career in comedy with the popular radio show Harry Hill's Fruit Corner.-Personal life:Hill was born in Woking,...

, Peter Kay
Peter Kay
Peter John Kay is an English comedian, writer, actor, director and producer. His work includes That Peter Kay Thing , Phoenix Nights , Max and Paddy's Road to Nowhere , Britain's Got the Pop Factor... and other independent productions which have included two sell out tours.-Early career:Peter Kay...

, Jimmy Carr
Jimmy Carr
James Anthony Patrick "Jimmy" Carr is an English-Irish comedian and humourist. He is known for his deadpan delivery and dark humour. He is also a writer, actor and presenter of radio and television....

 and Ross Noble
Ross Noble
Ross Markham Noble is an English stand-up comedian, brought up in Cramlington, Northumberland, England.Noble rose to mainstream popularity through making appearances on British television, particularly interviews and on celebrity quiz shows such as Have I Got News for You...


Meanwhile, other comics had left the Store with Peter Richardson to form The Comic Strip
The Comic Strip
The Comic Strip is a group of British comedians, known for their television series The Comic Strip Presents.... The core members are Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson and Jennifer Saunders, with frequent appearances by Keith Allen, Robbie Coltrane and...

 performing 'Comedy Cabaret' featuring double acts and sketch comedy, at The Boulevard Theatre, Soho in October 1980.

The Comic Strip included Manchester University and Drama School graduates Rik Mayall
Rik Mayall
Richard Michael "Rik" Mayall is an English comedian, writer, and actor. He is known for his comedy partnership with Ade Edmondson, his over-the-top, energetic portrayal of characters, and as a pioneer of alternative comedy in the early 1980s...

, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer
Nigel Planer
Nigel George Planer is an English actor, comedian, novelist and playwright.Planer is perhaps best known for his role as Neil Pye in the cult BBC comedy The Young Ones. He has appeared in many West End musicals, including Evita, Chicago, We Will Rock You, Wicked and Hairspray...

 and French and Saunders
French and Saunders
French and Saunders is a British sketch comedy television show written by and starring comic duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. It is also the name by which the performers are known on the occasions when they appear elsewhere as a double act....

 and aimed their talents at television. Ben Elton
Ben Elton
Benjamin Charles "Ben" Elton is an English comedian, author, playwright and director. He was a leading figure in the British alternative comedy movement of the 1980s, as a writer on such cult series as The Young Ones and Blackadder, as well as also a successful stand-up comedian on stage and TV....

, who then became The Store's next MC also became co-writer of BBC2's TV hit The Young Ones
The Young Ones (TV series)
The Young Ones is a British sitcom, first broadcast in 1982, which ran for two series on BBC2. Its anarchic, offbeat humour helped bring alternative comedy to television in the 1980s and made household names of its writers and performers...

 - as author William Cook noted, "After The Young Ones
The Young Ones (TV series)
The Young Ones is a British sitcom, first broadcast in 1982, which ran for two series on BBC2. Its anarchic, offbeat humour helped bring alternative comedy to television in the 1980s and made household names of its writers and performers...

 made him Alternative Comedy's hidden voice, Saturday Live (Channel 4) made him its most visible face." As 'The Comic Strip Presents..', the team altogether made 42 TV Movies for Channel 4 and the BBC.

If Tony Allen, nicknamed by comics and critics as 'The Godfather of Alternative Comedy' "was the theory of anarchic comedy" wrote comic Arthur Smith, "then Malcolm Hardee
Malcolm Hardee
Malcolm Hardee was an English comedian, author, comedy club proprietor, compère, agent, manager and "amateur sensationalist"....

 was its cock-eyed embodiment". Hardee was the much loved MC at the Tunnel Palladium, The Mitre, Deptford 1984-89 whose audience were famous for their vocal participation and wit. There he influenced the early careers of Vic Reeves
Vic Reeves
James Roderick Moir , better known by the stage name Vic Reeves, is an English comedian, best known for his double act with Bob Mortimer . He is known for his surreal and non sequitur sense of humour....

 and Bob Mortimer
Bob Mortimer
Robert "Bob" Renwick Mortimer is an English comedian and actor, who is best known for his double act with Vic Reeves...

, Simon Day
Simon Day
Simon Day is a British comedian most famous for his roles in the sketch show The Fast Show, sitcom Grass and a series of comedic adverts for Powergen.-Life and career:...

, Chris Lynam, Martin Soan, Harry Enfield
Harry Enfield
Henry Richard "Harry" Enfield is a BAFTA-winning English comedian, actor, writer and director.-Early life:...

 and many others to whom he gave their first gigs. He also found fame himself as part of 'The Greatest Show on Legs', his part in the legendary 'The Balloon Dance' as well as his many shows at The Edinburgh Festival.


Toronto has historically been a locus of alternative comedy. The ALTdot COMedy Lounge has been running since the 1980s, and alternative acts that made their start there include The Kids in the Hall
The Kids in the Hall
The Kids in the Hall is a Canadian sketch comedy group formed in 1984, consisting of comedians Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson. Their eponymous television show ran from 1988 to 1994 on CBC in Canada, and 1989 to 1995 on CBS and HBO in the United States...

, Corky and the Juice Pigs
Corky and the Juice Pigs
-Filmography:* 1996 - A Little Off the Top* 1996 - MadTV * 26 October 1998 - SketchCom -References:**...

, Jason Rouse
Jason Rouse
Jason Rouse is a Canadian comedian, primarily doing stand-up comedy. He has made performances for Showtime, HBO, MTV and BBC, and live shows as a headliner of Random Act of Violence and Jason Rouse & Friends at several venues in the United Kingdom, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and...

, Sean Cullen
Seán Cullen
Seán Cullen is a Canadian comedian. He is known for combining improvisation with mimicry and music. Cullen has been described in Time as the "vanguard of comedy's next generation". He is best known for voicing Four, Five & Seven in Seven Little Monsters. -Career:Cullen entered into the public eye...

, Shaun Majumder
Shaun Majumder
-Life and career:Majumder was born in Burlington, Newfoundland and Labrador to a European descended mother from Newfoundland and an Indian father. He started his entertainment career as an announcer for the YTV game show CLIPS, and soon was hosting the network's popular morning kids show Brain...

, The Minnesota Wrecking Crew
The Minnesota Wrecking Crew
The Minnesota Wrecking Crew is a Canadian sketch comedy troupe, featuring members John Catucci, Josh Glover, Mike 'Nug' Nahrgang and Ron Sparks. They all met as members of The Vanier Improv Company...

, Ron Sparks, Levi MacDougall, Tim Polley, Harland Williams
Harland Williams
Harland Williams is a Canadian actor, comedian, author, artist, musician and radio personality.-Personal life:Harland Reesor Williams was born on November 14, 1962, in Toronto, Ontario, to Lorraine , a social worker, and John Reesor Williams, who worked as a member of the Ontario Provincial...

, The BOOM Show, Asiansploitation, The Sketchersons
The Sketchersons
The Sketchersons are a sketch comedy troupe based in Toronto, Ontario. They are winners of the 2007 Canadian Comedy Award for best Sketch Troupe, an award they had been nominated for each of the 3 years prior...

 and many more.

New York City

In New York City, much of what is called alternative or "downtown comedy" is performed outside of traditional comedy clubs in theaters, such as Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre
Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre
The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre or UCB Theatre is an improvisational theatre and associated UCB Training Center with locations in Chelsea, New York, the EEast Village, New York and Hollywood, California.....

 (UCB), Magnet Theater
Magnet Theater
The Magnet Theater is an improvisational comedy theater and improv school in New York City. It has shows seven nights a week, many of which are consistently selected as editor's pick of the week in Time Out New York and The Onion....

 and the Peoples Improv Theater
Peoples Improv Theater
The Peoples Improv Theater, or The P.I.T., was established in New York City in 2002 by Ali Reza Farahnakian. Currently located at 123 East 24th Street near Madison Square Park, The PIT's shows include improvisational comedy, sketch comedy, and other forms of theater, all working together to raise...

 (PIT), as well as cabarets that host comedy only occasionally. The comedians at these shows offer character-based humour or surreal humour
Surreal humour
Surreal humour is a form of humour based on violations of causal reasoning with events and behaviours that are logically incongruent. Constructions of surreal humour involve bizarre juxtapositions, non-sequiturs, irrational situations, and/or expressions of nonsense.The humour arises from a...

 as opposed to observations of everyday life or more polemical themes. In addition, many alternative comics use unusual presentation styles, such as (Demetri Martin
Demetri Martin
Demetri Martin is an American comedian, actor, artist, musician, writer and humorist. Martin is best known for his work as a stand-up comedian, contributor on The Daily Show and for his Comedy Central show Important Things with Demetri Martin.- Early life :Demetri Martin was born to a Greek...

, Slovin and Allen
Leo Allen
Leopold Rufus "Leo" Allen is an American stand-up comedian and writer from Detroit, Michigan, known as one half of the comedy team Slovin and Allen.- Career :Allen has been performing stand-up comedy since the late '90s...

) opting to play music, give Powerpoint presentations or act out sketches. A few alternative comics such as Todd Barry
Todd Barry
-Biography:Barry was born in The Bronx, New York, and grew up in Florida. In 1999, his Comedy Central Presents aired. He wrote, directed and starred in the short film Borrowing Saffron , which co-starred H. Jon Benjamin. He has made a variety of guest appearances on shows like Dr...

 also perform in mainstream comedy venues.

Warren St. John said that the "inspiration" for alternative comedy in New York City is the Upright Citizens Brigade
Upright Citizens Brigade
The Upright Citizens Brigade is an improvisational comedy and sketch comedy group that emerged from Chicago's ImprovOlympic in 1990. The most recent incarnation consists of Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh...

. The group originally formed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea in 1999. Four years later, in 2003, several performers at the UCB spun off their own theater, and formed the PIT. St. John also argues that one reason that unusual comics can succeed in New York City is that they don't have to tour part time, as many of them also work as writers on local comedy television shows such as The Daily Show
The Daily Show
The Daily Show , is an American late night satirical television program airing each Monday through Thursday on Comedy Central. The half-hour long show premiered on July 21, 1996, and was hosted by Craig Kilborn until December 1998...

 and The David Letterman Show
The David Letterman Show
The David Letterman Show was a live morning NBC talk show hosted by David Letterman from June 23 to October 24, 1980. The show originally ran for 90 minutes, then 60 minutes from August 4 onward.-Background:...

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