The Birth of Alternative Stand-Up

Though the concept of speaking from stage with the intention of amusing an audience can be traced back to the courts of ancient Greece, stand-up comedy as we know it was born in the music halls of the 19th century. More accessible to the working-class masses than traditional theatre, music halls featured a wide range of acts in a relaxed environment where food and drink was served in the auditorium and audience participation was actively encouraged.

Billed alongside song-and-dance acts, music hall comedians were a family friendly mob. Later caricatured to hilarious effect by Paul Whitehouse’s Arthur Atkinson on 90s sketch comedy The Fast Show, comics such as Arthur Askey and Max Miller were famous as much for their chirpy, charismatic manner as for their actual material, which was strictly censored (with a coloured pencil that gave rise to the often-racy excised gags being termed ‘blue’).

As the rise of radio and television signalled the death of music hall, comics were forced to seek out a new market, which they found in the variety bills at working men’s clubs. These smoky dens of variety entertainment were at the heart of the working community, and a ready-made ‘circuit’ of them could be found in every industrial town. Escaping from the puritanical censors associated with the music hall meant that stand-ups could treat their new adult-only audiences to ‘blue’ material to their hearts’ content, and a new standard was set. The comedy of the working men’s circuit crossed over into mainstream culture in the form of The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, a TV showcase whose New Year specials became 70s institution. NextUp’s “Comedy History” archive offers a taste of the era from Wheeltappers alumni Jim Bowen and Frank Carson.

Revolution came in the late 1970s, when – buoyed by the cultural uprising of punk – a new generation of comics set about ripping up the rulebook and introducing leftfield observations on real-time political and social situations as an alternative to the straight set-up/punchline structure of the working men’s club format. Fostered in London clubs such as The Comedy Store, this new breed was heralded by art school students such as Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall (who had also introduced a groundbreakingly anarchic new mood to TV comedy with The Young Ones), and set a new agenda of Avant-Garde experimentation. Thanks to these pioneers, the 80s saw an explosion in the popularity of stand-up and the establishment of a whole new circuit of dedicated clubs. First-rate sets from veterans of the alternative comedy boom such as Simon Munnery and Sean Hughes can be found on NextUp.

The artform of alternative stand-up is young and vibrant, and yet also fundamentally rooted to its core ancestral value of making people laugh. Check out boundary-pushing contemporary shows by acts such as Ben Target and Tony Law for a sense of just how far things have come.

Set free from rigid preconceptions, today’s comics exist in a fertile creative playground. The NextUp catalogue aims to share a in a sense of the history of UK standup as, well as an opportunity to witness the stars of the future today.

by Stuart Boyland