What is Cluub Zarathustra? Read Robert Wringham's very excellent book You Are Nothing.
In 1994, comedian Simon Munnery started a comedy group in Islington, London called Cluub Zarathustra, a collective bent more on experimentation and breaking the expectation of audience/performer interaction than on entertaining. Munnery’s compere character at the Cluub was The League Against Tedium, pictured above left. The League, wearing various hats that showed his superiority in one way or another, berated his fellow comedians and the audience, calling them worms. The other performers (and many of the audience members who returned weekly and were in on the joke) obeyed the League to the letter out of cult-like devotion. The League often carried a sword–the sword of Dst:ny–mounted with a camcorder with a live feed to the onstage screen. Sometimes he donned a cloak made of paperback novels made for him by fellow Zarathustrian Dave Thompson. He had a monkey as a servant, which increased to three monkeys–See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Play no Volleyball–in the television pilot.
Although the League appeared in many formats after Cluub Zarathustra, from solo Edinburgh Fringe shows to a couple television shows like Either/Or and FuturTV, Simon Munnery doesn’t do the League character anymore. He does other characters though, like the League’s long-lost left-wing twin brother Alan Parker, Urban Warrior. He does a bit of traditional standup now, but always experimenting, whether with format, technology, or paper cut-outs.
Roger Mann, one of the founding members of Cluub Z, was a staple performer with character acts like Edgar Allan Poo and The Foole. He frequently did double act routines with fellow Zarathustrian Kevin Eldon. One of Roger’s solo acts consisted of a slideshow of how to safely French kiss wild animals.
Roger has since moved to a town near the Pyrenees and has made a career for himself in IT. In You Are Nothing, Roger Mann tells Robert Wringham that he didn’t really enjoy acting and comedy: “I think I reached a point where I was just not any good, and I struggled to get bookings that would pay the rent…. At the same time, I got a proper job as an IT contractor and I realised I was quite good at it and often actually enjoyed it, so there was never any point going back to live comedy.”
Kevin Eldon was another staple Cluub Z member, with character acts like his all-too-sincere poet Paul Hamilton (pictured above left). One time, Kevin’s entire routine was measuring the dimensions of the comedy club room with a tape measure. Sometimes when Simon Munnery was away, he would compere the show as Paul Hamilton, or as a ad-libbing double act with Roger Mann. Unlike his double act partner, Eldon did not quit comedy after the Cluub Zarathustra pilot failed to get commissioned. Instead, he now appears in pretty much every televised comedy show of any value. He still works with Stewart Lee on his sketch shows. He most recently voiced Danger Mouse’s sidekick in the Danger Mouse reboot and appeared on Game of Thrones. He still does plenty of stand-up, many of it character-based. Unllike the League Against Tedium, Eldon’s Paul Hamilton character has not gone into retirement and in fact even has a biography out.
Stewart Lee joined Simon Munnery, Roger Mann, and Kevin Eldon shortly after it began and immediately started taking some of the creative wheel. One of his segments was the brilliant sketch with Kevin Eldon where they spoofed Spartacus by asking whether he preferred snails or oysters, and Monster Munch or Dorritoss (sort of a Lee & Herring thing where they like to mispronounce words like Doritos). With some of his Lee & Herring fame leverage, Stewart Lee did everything he could to get the Cluub Zarathustra TV show picked up for a full season, even inviting BBC to “insert more money” at the end of the pilot episode, but it just didn’t happen.
These days, Stewart Lee is still working with sketch-based comedy. His current Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is a hybrid standup/sketch television program. Before that, he did a few sketch shows for TV and radio with Richard Herring, like Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard Not Judy. He continues to do standup comedy and support the alternative comedy scene, such as his venture The Alternative Comedy Experiment, which ran for two seasons on Comedy Central UK.
Sally Phillips was a regular performer at Cluub Zarathustra, another of the League’s brainwashed minions. One memorable sketch is a Nativity scene where Sally is enduring great, long labor pains behind a screen as she gives birth to baby Jesus, with the three wise men standing out front looking increasingly uncomfortable.
Following Cluub Z, Sally Phillips was a regular on Lee & Herring’s Fist of Fun, sketch show Smack the Pony, and Alan Partridge. More recently, she was a regular on Miranda Hart’s Miranda and is continuing in the Bridget Jones’ Diary franchise.
The duo Kombat Opera, which performed outside of Cluub Z as Kombat Opera or Combat Opera, were two regular Zarathustrians, Lore (or Lori) Lixenberg and Richard Thomas. Together, they’ve done comedy-opera projects like Tourettes Diva (2000) and the award-winning Kombat Opera Presents… on BBC 2. In the days of Cluub Z, Richard Thomas would hypnotically play piano as Lore Lixenberg insulted members of the audience in an operatic singing voice. This was particularly effective if there was a rather naughty heckler in the audience. The League could just call out “Bring out the Opera Device!” and Lore would be wheeled out to insult somebody. You’ll see a rather grand version of this in the Cluub Zarathustra TV pilot. There is an entirely different take on the duo in the post-Z television series Attention Scum.
Johnny Vegas wasn’t a regular Zarathustrian, but when he did show up at Cluub Z, he was probably the only one to get paid, partly because Simon used to burn the proceeds in the final act to show that he didn’t think his minions deserved to be paid for their work. In a recent episode of RHLSTP, Johnny told Richard Herring: “I went down and did the live show as a genuine starving comic…I went on and did it, and afterwards, Stewart [Lee] approached us and went ‘You know this is a creative thing what we’re doing and none of us take any money from it, and I remember going, ‘I’m gonna have to take the money.’ And he went, ‘What we tend to do is put it back in and nurture it,’ and I went, ‘I’m gonna have to take the money,’ and I did. I took either forty or sixty quid off him.” Johnny also did the sequel TV series, Attention Scum, playing a newsreader who’s been awake for days.
Johnny Vegas is a character (created by Michael Pennington) that still shows up on chat shows, stand up specials, various panel shows or celebrity TV features, and sitcoms like Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy. He has an autobiography out called Becoming Johnny Vegas.
Julian Barratt also appeared at Cluub Zarathustra. He once did a sketch with Kevin Eldon, where Kev would say something like, “Good morning,” and Julian would say very poignantly, “Good morning…Mr. Jones,” “It’s a lovely day,” “Yes, it is a lovely day…Mr. Jones,” and so on. Of course, now Julian is best known for being half of the Might Boosh with Noel Fielding and will be appearing in Flowers opposite Olivia Colman.
Popular surrealist TV entertainer/writer Harry Hill also appeared on the Cluub Z stage, once doing both parts of a Quincy-style murder mystery, turning profile for each of the characters, arguing with himself over whether the death was a murder or suicide. Most recently, Harry Hill has his own big-budget film titled, appropriately, The Harry Hill Movie.
You know psychic medium Ian Montford who talks to ghosts (pictured above)? Imagine him on a stage popping out of a trash bin and doing standup comedy. They claim it was a nod to Samuel Beckett, as Cluub Z was meant to be quite high brow on the surface, very dada and all that, but it also could have been merely a pun on the the actor’s name: Tom Binns.
Frightened Father Christmas was probably not a Cluub Z staple character, but he was likely hard to forget, given that, wearing a gas mask, he would inappropriately touch members of the audience until Stewart Lee reigned him back in, whereupon Frightened Father Christmas would distribute sexually inappropriate Christmas presents to the audience. Given the envelope-pushing, inappropriateness of some of his standup shows, you might not be surprised to learn Frightened Father Christmas was played by Stewart Lee’s double act partner Richard Herring, who these days does an enormous amount of standup, writing, and podcasting. This past year, he performed all his previous standup shows in lieu of attending the Edinburgh Fringe Festival…as if that’d be easier.
During Zarathustrian days, Stewart Lee was flatmates with a drummer in a band called Evangelista and invited them to come along and play at the Cluub. They eventually became the house band. Each band member would stand in a different corner of the room, creating a badly mixed surround sound effect. Said drummer was none other than comedian Al Murray, or who you may know now as the Pub Landlord. Later, Zarathustrian Martin Pickles made a documentary about Evangelista.
Graham Linehan and Andy Riley
Graham Linehan, responsible for Father Ted, The IT Crowd, and season 1 of Black Books, and Andy Riley, cartoonist and writer for Veep and season 3 of Black Books, used to do a double-act type thing where they’d sing spoofs of Kraftwerk as Irish folk songs. It was titled–get this–Craftwork.
Imagine this, right. The hotshot Hollywood writer of Borat who now lives in L.A. and is one of the most sought after script-puncher-uppers in the business once acted out a sketch he called “Monsters in the Attic” on the Cluub Z stage, transforming himself into various kinds of monsters. Granted, before his career in America took off, he also regularly appeared as a homeless slob in Lee & Herring’s Fist of Fun TV sketch show and starred in a series of Pot Noodle adverts (pictured above left).
Universal Grinding Wheel
Here’s a weird one for you. You know those Jehovah’s Witnesses in the first episode of Black Books (pictured above)? Eamonn O’Neill and James O’Neill are brothers and make up two thirds of the actorly comedy trouble the Universal Grinding Wheel. As a trio, they regularly performed at Cluub Z. Allegedly, they once told the rest of the Zarathustrians that one of them had died, only to have him show up at the end of the show.
Not surprisingly, the now commercial animator Martin Pickles was doing film work even in the Zarathustrian days. He used to show off his recent Super 8 films to the crowd as a way to break up whatever live entertainment (or lack thereof) was going on during the show. Apparently, he had quite a good response to his films, including the one about a commuter who shaved off his face.
I’ve seen Waen Shepherd as his obnoxious surf rocker Colin Watson character in 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People and as the amusingly over-the-top TV hero on Hyperdrive, but when I read that he was a Cluub Z performer for more than one season, I did think, “Wow, him as well? Did anyone escape the gravity of the Cluub back then?” Shepherd was doing comedy songs back then, too. He had a series of spoofs that had the tunes of famous songs but lyrics about dog rape. These days, you probably know Perrier-winning Waen Shepherd as his rock composer character Gary le Strange.
Okay, so no joke, the guy who got fired as Tinky Winky on The Teletubbies for misinterpreting his character used to perform regularly at Cluub Z. In one of his routines, he wore pink, furry pants and acted as a caveman in with modern speech. Knowing he invented something wonderful but not sure what to use it for, he presents the League with what the audience can only assume will become the first ever wheel. The League, however, indicates that it is best used as a drinks tray. What Zarathustrians remember most fondly about Dave Thompson is, though, is his leotard-ed modern dancing.
From You Are Nothing: “Tim Richardson [walked] on stage to the sound of the shipping forecast dressed in a suit and with olive-laden cocktail sticks Sellotaped to his face; each cocktail stick held an individual message which he handed out to the audience.” Tim Richardson is, or should be, best known for essentially putting the Lee & Herring duo together in the first place, having performed in The Seven Raymonds with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, and has since become a landscape and garden writer and is the author of Sweets: The History of Candy.
Do you remember last year’s Britain’s Got Talent? David Walliams golden-buzzered on Lorraine Bowen to the next round for her original song “The Crumble Song.” Would you believe that in the 90s, Lorraine Bowen, who used to perform with Billy Bragg, was singing that exact same song on the Cluub Z stage? It’s true!
Now that you’ve read this post, you are obligated to buy Robert Wringham’s You Are Nothing: Thee Fyrst and Onlie History of Cluub Zarathustra, published by Go Faster Stripe. I’ve read it at least twice. It has way more funny anecdotes and mind-blowing moments than presented on this website. The kind of content it’s got, it doesn’t have to be well written but it is anyway, so that’s a special treat. You’re welcome. (Plus, you get a free Cluub Z pin to put on your shoulder bag or soccer jacket.)