Life out here doesn’t mean isolation from the Überkultur of the metropolis. It is true that great ballet or world class orchestras don’t seem to make it (for fairly obvious reasons) but ‘alternative comedy’ certainly does. So it was that in one week we have been treated to visits from Simon Amstell and Stewart Lee: both on tour, the latter ostensibly to try out new material on a grateful but suitably unpredictable audience as we ‘edgies’ tend to be. It is also worth noting that the rail service enables access to interesting events such as Grayson Perry’s recent appearance at the Royal Institution on the topic of What is Art Best At?
Grayson isn’t of course an alternative comedian – though he does make amusing and provocative remarks whilst standing up wearing a frock. Equally, the other two artistes share Grayson’s skill in giving us the opportunity to consider some serious issues whilst – in Amstell’s case at least, allowing a glimpse of their personal anxieties. As it happens, both Grayson and Amstell share a take on gender stereotyping if not the way they express their preferences. Amstell and Lee have something serious to say about racial and sexual prejudice and Grayson and Lee really don’t like sloppy thinking and artists (of all sorts) who operate studios and ‘mass produce’ art or ideas. All three performers named names
In truth, the description of ‘alternative comedy’ often used as a synonym for ‘stand-up’ is at best a baggy and inadequate portmanteau for a diversity of offerings from comedians of all styles. Anyone who doubts this should contemplate the origins and career trajectories of many of our best known names. Way back, Arthur English, Dave Allen and Tommy Cooper could all claim ‘alternativeness’ (but not always, as in Allen’s case by standing up) if by that is meant a mould breaking approach to changing ideas about what is funny. Or if not changing, recognising what truly amuses the public and challenging the authorities to deny them a platform to express it.
Ultimately, much humour depends on dissidence. That is, breaking taboos and mentioning the unmentionable. This has been the case for millennia as the Greeks and Chaucer and George Formby knew and is in fact closely allied to satire. Sadly much contemporary alternative comedy and satire seems to depend on being able to combine the words ‘fuck’, ‘Tory’ and ‘banker’ into a handy social allusion.
Fortunately our three subject protagonists are better than that. Perry invited us to consider Art in an iconoclastic way. Without denying its essential role in feeding the human imagination he was able to propose its almost equal value as a wealth creating ‘asset class’ and more commonly as a therapeutic exercise for the artist him or herself whether amateur or professional.
Amstell has taken Freedom as the theme for his tour. His shtick is really built around his vaguely Jewish gay son character. Quite where freedom came into the narrative escapes me. But he was strong on the merits of autism and the honesty of expression the syndrome dramatized. So having asked why ‘cunt’ should be a pejorative term given that organ’s life admitting role he went on to denounce lager and cake bloated female audience members scuttling out for a pee as bitches and to titillate us about a beautiful and depraved and heavily oiled youth over whom he fantasised at the expense of his real life partner. Amstell did this with such charm and uninhibited sensuality, (he is a very lovely boy indeed as the responses of the women in the audience demonstrated), that even grouchy old heterosexual men like your correspondent smiled indulgently and recalled our schooldays when we recruited the prettier juniors as study ‘fags’ – although being a Welsh public school, anything sexual was severely prohibited and the Town girls, always amenable to a Coca Cola and scotch and a fumble were regarded as the proper recourse for young men’s desire.
Stewart Lee trusted his audience enough to warn us his first set would be long enough to warrant a free bladder relief pass. He confided that he was exercised by demands for him to do Muslim jokes. He is of course the doyen of ‘alternatives’, if only because he knows how to think aloud in a way that treats his auditors as part of a conversation and takes all of us to the edge. It can be a surreal encounter. In this gig we were invited to contemplate the issues in a mixed ethnic neighbourhood of displaying the St George’s flag defiled (amongst other things) by a cat named after a UKIP MP and the emissions of a wet dream. Of a less scatological turn were the brilliant narrative and various alternative scenarios of offence based on seeing a Muslim woman on a bus sit on a copy of the Jehovah’s Witness newspaper The Watchtower.
It’s hard to say how representative of anything we audiences were other than as paying witnesses to the people on stage. Were we cultural stereotypes – metropolitan sophisticates, Guardian readers, edge residents, lefties: or, as Stuart Lee suggested people with nothing better to do that night? Observationally, we were multi-generational; a little older and more posh for Grayson a little more female for Amstell, a little younger for Lee. There was more booze in Cornwall, but London had the only snogging couple.
What united us was that we had paid money to be there because we expected something from the actors. As Amstell & Lee pointed out to the occasional iPhone snapper – you can use TV for that. This is real life, and in Amstell’s words ‘this is all about me!’ To get to The Hall for Cornwall (or to London) you have to get your car out and drive somewhere. In return we had solid points of view that gave us something to think about, albeit wrapped up in witty performances. For all Amstell’s confessions about his homo-erotic fantasies and Lee’s surreal shit on flag adumbrations, the only dodgy moment was Grayson Perry lifting his foot onto the podium to show off his bizarre shoes. I worried about what might become visible under his skirt. But bless, despite the absence of stockings or tights only a calf showed. Which suggests that alternative comedy still has a way to go.