Stewart Lee’s The Alternative Comedy Experience is a showcase of alt comics performing standup at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Each act is broken into segments and scattered throughout the two-disc set of half-hour episodes. Between standup clips, we are taken backstage for interviews between Stewart Lee and various comedians on the bill. After two seasons of the The Alternative Comedy Experience, the show has been cancelled. Stewart Lee is reportedly not all that distraught (nor indeed surprised after witnessing the birthing pains of his Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on BBC). A program about alternative comedy on a mainstream channel like Comedy Central–it’s surprising anyone had the guts to air it at all.
>> Read my review of season 1.
“Writing comedy without doing standup is a bit like chucking stones down a well.” –Stewart Lee
Season 2 may not come with a fancy, glossy booklet of comedian bios, but it does add 30% more acts to the bill, including Red Dwarf‘s Hattie Hayridge, wondering if she was a shoplifter, what would she nick; Michael Legge doing sidesplitting jokes about how he gets mistaken for Dave Gorman; and physics graduate Helen Arney singing a song from the perspective of the sun. Of course, a lot of your favorites from season 1 are back: Josie Long is doing her noir detective voices; Isy Suttie is hiding behind gravestones doing her down-a-well voice to scare church-goers, and Paul Foot is back with his “disturbances.”
“If you don’t know what Mrs. Brown’s Boys is…can I be you?” –Michael Legge
But what is alternative comedy? Well, it’s anything that isn’t mainstream, and at the moment, observational standup about everyday life is mainstream. Alternative can be anything else, from musical comedians like David O’Doherty singing about a man who had a wank on a bike or Grainne MacGuire rapping about bellies, to self-aware comedy like Tony Law falsifying horrible mainstream banter with the audience, to science-driven presentations such as Robin Ince reading Darwin or Helen Arney singing about animal sex. Since the Fringe audience is partly made up of some mainstream people, it’s useful for Fern Brady to start with mainstream jokes that degrade into…racist nipples (you had to be there). Mainstream audiences on the circuit are often made up of stag nights and hen dos, so when a group of men shows up at this taping for a stag party, the alternative/intellectual audience groans, and Josie Long must battle through the stag’s behavior.
“This is outside my skillset!” –Josie Long
We’ve got some politics in: David Kay on Scottish independence, Ginger and Black singing their comedy activist songs, and Paul Sinha on gay marriage. Simon Munnery‘s Alan Parker comes up with radical solutions to radical problems. Bridget Christie imagines a surreal, just funeral for Sir Stirling Moss, who fell down a lift after being sexist.
“I’m like this at home. I’m like this at kids’ parties. Parties I go to with my two small children. I’m not a feminist children’s entertainer. –Bridget Christie
Overall, though, Kevin Eldon steals the show. Kevin, who you’ve seen in absolutely every TV show ever (not to mention films like Hot Fuzz), is a musical comic, which already comes with a stigma to get over. If you’re not a brilliant musician like Isy Suttie (who can play guitar and hop at the same time) or who just doesn’t try to sing or play well like David O’Doherty, you run the risk of trying to be both a relatable comedian and untouchable rockstar–a recipe for disaster. However, Kevin is so weird, he’s funny. His song about potholing…WTF? But his song made up of famous catch phrases is the highlight of the entire season. And don’t even get me started on Paul Hamilton, Eldon’s alter ego, who reads poems like “Eddie don’t like furniture.” In a flash of brilliance, he breaks the audience down into section A and section B (as many comics do), leaving section C for just one man, causing him to say his assigned line solo.
Season 2 also includes Henning Wehn, Stephen Carlin, Andy Zaltzman, Maeve Higgins, Susan Calman, John Hegley, Kevin McAleer, Nish Kumar, Trevor Lock, Liam Mullone, and Helen Keen.
I have one complaint about the series. I feel there is a problem with this format. I understand why they break each act into short segments–It’s mainstream TV, so they want to keep the bits short for the attention span of the average viewer–but some comedians, especially alt comics, have a certain flow or long-form structure built into their act, even if it’s a 15-minute slot. How can you break it into pieces? It’s disrespectful to the comedians/writers to assume their show is just a series of gags. What about callbacks that exist over different episodes, that would have been aired on Comedy Central on different days? The editing avoids any problems with that–as a viewer, you are not conscious of the broken structure–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there or could have potentially been there depending on any particular comedian’s act. For the same reason I thought that The Very Least Worst of Robin Ince was, though interestingly experimental, denying the evolution of emotion and flow (and the breakdown in sanity) by showing segments of the performances out of order.
The Alternative Comedy Experience season 2 is available in region 2/PAL on DVD from amazon.co.uk.