What is alternative comedy anyway? You may think it’s all young left-wingers in the underground doing comedy that lacks joke structure, people doing ant puns while dressed as ants, and a man chucking bread slices into the audience. Well, you’re wrong! Okay, not entirely–there is a bit of all of those things in alt comedy and indeed on the Alternative Comedy Experience season 1 DVD, but you’ve also got libertarian and right-wingers, performers over the age of 25, and yes even people you’ve seen on TV. This ain’t your momma’s alternative comedy.
Well done, Stewart Lee for curating such an A-list roster of alt comics for the debut season of something not mainstream enough to be on telly, and well done, Comedy Central for putting it on telly anyway. In 22-minute installments, The Alternative Comedy Experience introduces us to 20 comedians from around the world showcasing their acts and giving backstage interviews at The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, Scotland. The lineup for season 2 has already been announced, and judging by the superb quality of direction, selection, and editing on season 1, it’s sure to be another doozy.
In full disclosure, I bought this DVD largely because it features two of my all-time favorite comedians, Josie Long and Robin Ince, and while there wasn’t much of their material that I haven’t seen before, you do not tire of witnessing the complexities of the conservative/liberal relationship boiled down to Josie long repeatedly slapping herself in the forehead; nor of Robin Ince adapting the voice of Carl Sagan. It’s high brow, it’s niche, it’s alt, you’ll like it. Or you won’t. That’s the thing about a having a collection of acts who, although all share something that makes them feel as though they naturally fit together, are so diverse: some of these will be your cup of tea and some of these will be tea belonging to other people. You can either be mature and listen to what every single comic has to say, even if they don’t appeal to your sense of comedic aesthetics, or you can be like me and fast-forward through Phil Nichol. I’d like to use the excuse that I am an anglophile and prefer British comedy to Canadian comedy, but Glenn Wool did a bang-up job, and Tony Law became my favorite act of the entire show. Yes, anti-liberal, pedophile haircut, suspenders and neck bandanna, Canada-boy Tony Law turned out to be just my cup of tea. I was as shocked as you are. But much of what he’s doing on stage is the sort of thing you will find at an alt show. He appears to not know when or how to start or end his show, he critiques himself ala Gaffigan during the set, and his crowd banter falls on its face. He winds up ending the set with a breakdown in the form of elephants.
In a lot of alt shows, there’s a frequent occurrence of something frowned upon by the mainstream comedy circuit, and that’s musical comedians. On this DVD, you’ll enjoy Isy Suttie playing guitar and singing a beautiful song in Welsh, Simon Munnery playing harmonica, David O’Doherty banging away at a keyboard and singing badly, among other musical acts. Props is another frowned upon device popular in the alt world. Just make sure you check your toys before you get on stage or you’ll end up Sam Simmons, the altest of the alt on this DVD, with a bubble gun that blows air. Simmons also uses presentation paper and bad drawings, as well as pre-recorded audio to play a game show with unexplained rules. I can’t say I followed what on earth was going on in this set, but it’s certainly the only place I’ve ever seen table tennis attempted with slices of bread for balls.
Okay, so I’d say of the selection of comics Stewart Lee picked out, David O’Doherty probably has the most natural talent, Tony Law was my favorite act, but Henning Wehn is the best comic on the DVD. His shtick is German nationalism, and he gets away with an assortment of faux-xenophoibic comments (we have to nuke China!) without genuinely offending anyone. My favorite line was during his interview: “I think my guiding principle of how I look on all aspects of life is common sense. If someone avoids tax, then the common sense approach is that man’s opted out of society. He should be tried in court by a judge, not by Sean Lock on a panel show.”
The DVD comes with an uncut version of David Kay’s set. David Kay is probably very funny. The pajama trouser scenario he sets up is absurd and hilarious. But I’m ashamed to admit my poor American ears could not wrap themselves around the Scottish accent fast enough to catch more than every third word. I’m under the impression that he’s funnier than Stephen Carlin, but I could understand Carlin’s Scottish accent much better. He’s recently retired from drinking alcohol and observes that if it’s true that bananas share 10% of their DNA with humans, and that beer has 5% alcohol in it, you are more a banana than a beer is alcohol.
Other highlights of the series:
- Josie Long wonders of the current government all got together and decided, “Hey guys, let’s set up a 1980s tribute government!” I know I’ve heard her joke before, but it leaves me in stitches every time.
- Boothby Graffoe’s hysterical and possibly even improvised depiction of a horse-drawn wedding, wherein they’d hired a horse with a yellow crayon rather than a photographer.
- Alun Cochrane describes a whippet as looking like the dog version of Bruce Lee.
- Andy Zalzman’s high-brow, ten-dollar worded observations on global economics
- Simon Munnery’s list of sequels to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, including The Santa Claus Delusion, The Love Delusion, and The Salad Delusion (There’s no such thing as salad; it’s just different ingredients on the same plate.)
- Maeve Higgins’ rom-com plot about a series of town massacres, the hapless young lady (played by Maeve) who survives them, and the fit journalist who interviews her after each bloodbath
- Paul Foot reads from index cards thoughts he calls his “disturbances,” but what’s more impressive about Foot is that he can get his biggest laughs from just a look