A life insurance salesman and a man who once opened for Cliff Richard walk into a bar…it doesn’t sound like the start of a great gag, but Peter Rosengard and old-school comedian Don Ward are the two names you need to be au fait with when talking about the alternative comedy boom of the early 1980s. Without them, comedians would not be filling arenas and our TV screens today.
It was on a trip to Los Angeles in 1978 that Rosengard heard about a club called The Comedy Store. He had been looking at a house to buy in the Hollywood Hills and his real estate broker said he had to hurry away to do a stand-up gig. Fate, as it has an endearing habit of doing, had stepped in to change history.
Back in London, Rosengard realised there were no comedy clubs like The Comedy Store, so went about setting up one himself. Looking about Central London for a suitable property, he met Ward, who had a lease on an establishment called the Nell Gwynne Club in Soho.
There was a well-known striptease venue with a room going spare at weekends called the Gargoyle Club that had a fair bit of history. It had a mural by Matisse on the wall and the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VIII – had been an occasional patron. It was here that Ward and Rosengard opened The Comedy Store on 19th April 1979. The posters advertising the club encapsulated the high-stakes thrills of stand-up: ‘What’s the difference between skydiving and appearing at The Comedy Store? Answer: In skydiving you can only die once.’
It is said that comedy is all about timing. Less than three weeks after the Store opened, Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative Party to victory in the general election. So not only was there a new ‘alternative’ comedy venue, now there was someone for performers in the club to make jokes about.
On the bill
All that was needed now were some comedians. Rosengard found a compere, Alexei Sayle, a furious surrealist-Marxist Liverpudlian who responded to an advertisement he placed in Private Eye. Slowly, a scene of sorts started to coalesce. Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson arrived from Manchester University as a comedy group called 20th Century Coyote (later to become The Dangerous Brothers).
Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson, contemporaries at drama college, also pitched up as The Outer Limits. In the mid-1970s they created a show mixing rock and comedy called Rank, about a rock festival raid by the police, in which Planer played a hippy called Neil. If you want to bluff about your in-depth knowledge of stand-up, you will need to know facts like this. Why? Read on.
It was the right place, right time. Soho was starting to become fashionable, with the New Romantic movement setting risible and instantly forgettable sartorial trends. Walking down Old Compton Street, you might bump into Steve Strange dressed as a pirate at one end and Alexei Sayle in a tight-fitting mod suit and pork-pie hat at the other.
Sayle was paid £5 a night to link acts and rant about Jean-Paul Sartre, Ford Cortinas and Lenin. A gong at the side of the stage was hit when acts had outstayed their welcome; one of the team couldn’t find a flashing light to tell the acts when their time was up so picked up a small J. Arthur Rank gong instead. Some of the acts were so dreadful that it was said that even the bouncers heckled.
Before the beginning
There were some notable precedents for what quickly became known as ‘alternative comedy’. Two notable acts had swung open the door, in any discussion about the birth of the genre, the bluffer should definitely name-drop Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott, two natural storytellers who found their way into comedy in the mid-1970s via the folk-music circuit. But if you suggest that the absolute godfather of alternative comedy is Birmingham-born John Dowie, who did angry observational material before it became de rigueur, you will be on safe ground.
Another early adopter was Keith Allen (father of Lily). He already had some showbiz experience – having been a stagehand at the Victoria Theatre and once strutting onstage naked while Max Bygraves was performing.
The Comedy Store did not exist in a vacuum, though. When displaying your extensive knowledge of alternative comedy’s origins, be sure to mention other venues that offered a platform to this new wave of comedians.
The Elgin pub near Ladbroke Grove used to play host to cabaret events organised by subversive writer / comedian Tony Allen, who proved that anarchists can still organise things.
Meanwhile, over in South London, the Woolwich Tramshed – based in a former tramshed – used to run Fundation, featuring soon-to-be mainstream ex-PE teachers Hale and Pace.
In Archway, North London, there was the Earth Exchange, which attracted a right-on audience and even some vegans, if they had the energy to walk up the hill to the entrance. Paul Merton, Harry Enfield, Rory Bremner and Jo Brand all played early gigs there.
All in the name
As for the actual title of ‘alternative comedy’, Tony Allen has staked a claim to the term, having believed his gigs were an ‘alternative cabaret’ and thus the comedians were ‘alternative comedians’. According to his autobiography, I stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, writer, comedian and South Londoner Malcolm Hardee appeared at gigs at the Ferry Inn, Salcombe, billed as ‘Alternative Cabaret’ in 1978 to differentiate them from the mainstream shows at the nearby yacht club. Maybe great minds think alike. Or perhaps it was something in the air. Most likely of all, maybe it was just a coincidence.
But The Comedy Store was the epicentre of the movement. Gradually, the Store evolved from something chaotic and unpredictable into something one might venture to call marketable. Performers were no longer ranting polemicists; they were also entertainers.
Veteran comedian and host of TV’s Bullseye Jim Bowen was not impressed. He sniffily dismissed alternative comedy an ‘alternative to comedy’.
For more examples of Jim Bowen’s clever, comic wordplay, read The Bluffer’s Guide to Stand-Up Comedy.