Arts Review: The Alternative Comedy Memorial Society at the New Red Lion

Oh to be young, intellectual and liberal in the tens! That’s the dream. Life’s such a trudge; it spills over with hollow conformists; gormless miscreants that desaturate our world. The only escape from deadened senses is the North London media scene: venues that admit stylised humanity to celebrate a new and exciting branch of uniformity, the kind reimagined as militant individualism.

It’s powered by slipstreaming: positioning yourself in a wake of lifestyle vomit, hoping to become interesting by association. It’s like participating in a platform game in which you collect affectations as power ups. As a dullard with no personality to speak of, desperate for veneration from the kind of people I aspire to be, I can’t get enough of it.

Events I’ve attended in the last six months include a chance to shoot misandrist pornography, Ironocaust: a meet up for pseudo-intellectual liberals who’d like to articulate their class and social prejudices in a safe, ostensibly tongue in cheek environment, Wet Throat: an obscure wine and beer night, where bespectacled quaffers trade notes on alcoholic drinks that they now consider to be an extension of the self, and Last Chance Saloon: a date night for men who’d like to meet quirky fems; quirks they say detract from any underlying mental health problems that may have hindered their chance of finding love in the past.

Oh and there’s been comedy…

Alternative comedy, in its modern incarnation, rejects society’s deadening preoccupations; I refer to consumerism and domesticity, just as the classic version dispensed with misogyny and racism (see Trevor Griffiths’ play, The Comedians for a primer on the old divide). But comedy connoisseurs mustn’t fool themselves; their mirth merchants are conspicuously consumed.

The audience that turn up to events like ACMS, a night of experimental comedy (that’s experimental for the performers, not comedy itself) are the guffaw aficionados, people for whom comedians are idols. They take it very seriously, but then getting the right set of complimentary blot-ons to your personality is a serious business. Get it wrong and your carefully cultivated sense of self starts to subside. Reality after all, is a great leveller… the bastard.

Nothing wrong with a bit of idolatry, you might think, but sitting down to enjoy this mixed bag of yak yak peddlers, in a pub with the TARDIS’ doors, I wondered how these fawning hooters would react to a real world Gethin Price. Is that what they wanted? Or did they want to see their own values and attitudes reflected back to them, plus jokes, and if that was the point, were we any better off?

That there is a memorial society for Alternative Comedy suggests the form is dead and I suppose that as a movement, that’s true. The angry iconoclasts of the 1980s became comfortable as we all got more prosperous and less ideological, each and every one of them bought off; but before they fizzled out they’d succeeded in making mirth more middle class and self-conscious, supplanting the one joke, culturally illiterate proles as the comedy establishment.

As the alternative is now the norm, perhaps ACMS isn’t a lament for a lost movement but for an alternative of any kind; a time when comedy felt fresh, exciting, possibly even dangerous. What might the mission of this new chortle spring be? My pear cider (made with 100% real pear) and I agreed it could only be to get on television. The young bucks and does occupying these North London metrosexual hang outs hoped to replace the likes of Jimmy Carr an-, well, actually that’d be enough.

So what hope that the acts in Tuesday’s show might one day have their own six-part BBC series? Well, once you stripped out all the self-deprecation and material built around the erroneous idea that being consciously unfunny is the new funny, which it isn’t, then there wasn’t a great deal left.

One particularly troubling set was unworthy of the name; a lazy deconstruction of the racist and sexist jokes of another comedian, Paul Chowdhry. Aside from the obvious problem, that this isn’t strictly speaking an act, there was the worry that it was distinctly old hat. It was bad enough, you thought, that a modern comedian was still relying on unreconstructed misogyny and racism to mine laughs (had the original alternative scene been for nought?), but here was a neo-alternative act that leant on that material to fill their time. It was stultifyingly safe, not least because she was preaching to the converted; not a single view was challenged; but also laugh free: righteous indignation the substitution for jokes and original comment.

No less than three of the performers fell back on sub-Tim Vine groaners, ironically dispatched of course, to bulk out their set. Some of these gags, “AIDS: Silly Monkey”, were undeniably funny, and if it works why worry I suppose, but I did worry, because I’m a worrier. I worried I was being conned.

I could laugh at people not being funny, dildo in cheek, all night and I’d have a great time, but wouldn’t a better experiment have been to try and make us laugh with an original routine? Deconstruction works because it fluffs the crowd and leaves them with a post-coital afterglow. ‘Look,’ says Nathanial Taft, all tweeds and retro-specs, ‘I’m being unfunny on purpose. I’m that good that I’ve inverted your modest expectations, which gives the impression I’m in command of my material, and I’ve suggested that I have a sophisticated sense of humour, without proving it, justifying your decision to come and see me’. Not only that, Nathanial’s audience get to feel sophisticated, because they can see the mechanics.

Stewart Lee builds his routines around this idea but he’s rather better at saying something about comedy, his audience and himself. Acts that could be described as “embittered schlub”, “eager tadpole” and “Egg from This Life”, all showed a sense of comic timing and an ability to trade on the nervous tension they’d created, but there was no content. The closing act was lazier still, a routine about not having a routine. I didn’t have a routine either, but then I hadn’t been slipped fifty quid to entertain the room.

Of what remained, there was hope for the future; no politics or social comment you understand, we’ll have to wait a couple more years before austerity and social collapse radicalises these pools of spilt ejaculate and awakens their political consciousness, as it didn’t for Josie Long; but genuine laughs were on hand. Sarah Bennetto managed to be both charming and available, which is always appreciated, with a routine centred on her search for a fuck mate. A comedienne cliché perhaps, but turning the audience into a giant Guess Who board was a nice idea and she was endearingly kooky. I’d date her but then she’d have no material.

Rachel and Luke, a couple whose talent show act centred on the former getting the latter to jump through a hoop dressed as the dog he’d killed, was inventive and better for having a backstory. Luke assuming the character of the dog and fucking an audience member’s leg was a nice touch. You don’t expect a grown man to fuck your leg. That, I suppose, is comedy.

In fact, it was double acts that made the evening. The compères, John-Luke Roberts and Thom Tuck played well off each other; nice repartee and endearingly ramshackle, while Robin and Partridge, who one imagines met at a university club for students with ornithological names and realised they’d have to be either a comedy duo or a pair of wildlife TV presenters, stole the show with a polished and enjoyably madcap set that played like a demented stream of consciousness from a hive mind. Sure, they had the bad puns and consciously poor jokes but they could also boast energy and confidence. They made me laugh like a psychopath.

So that was ACMS, a comedy night that I left in a fucking hurry because I feared missing my train. I was flattered that I’d been part of a literate and cerebral audience, or something like it; immaculately dressed and well sourced from the city’s various art colleges and Soho based PR companies. I may even go again, up my cool load and contribute to comedy history, able to say I was there in the early days before these sprightly youths became fat on success and middle age. Yes, I’d be like one of the 17 people who attended the first Sex Pistols gig. Well, assuming the next one didn’t clash with my calligraphy and canapés Tuesday at Islington’s Art Factory.

ACMS takes place every other Tuesday: Go to for deets. Mention Is That All There Is and get £2 added to the price of your ticket.

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