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A buzzword (or, more accurately, “buzzphrase”) from 1980s Britain which, along with “yuppies”, “Thatcherism” and “le Bon”, has little relevance in the informationsuperhighwayover- loadedhighbandwebconnectedBlairBritaingirlpowered- NewLaboured 21st Century. This can, in part, be attributed to the fact that many of the alternative comics from the 1980s are now the comic mainstream in this new Britain.

Legend tells us that alternative comedy was born in Soho’s seedy Comedy Store, a club at which many of the country’s worst comedians could perform - and get away with it because they were doing “something new”. Indeed, in many instances, traditional build-up/punchline structure, and weary monologues about golfing and mother-in-laws were done away with altogether. In their place were sprawling rants about pooing and wee wee – and in the case of the female comics, endless routines about period pain – all peppered with liberal amounts of swearing, seemingly inserted into an act in order to make the performer appear cutting edge and radical. The Tory stranglehold on Britain provided material for many an alternative comedian.

Many became so incensed by Thatcher’s evil empire that they would often forget entirely their pre-rehearsed routines, and use the stage to promote their socialist ideals. One such “alternative” comedian was angry young socialist Ben Elton (now played by TV’s Mark Thomas). In the mid-80s, having “made it” as a stand-up, he got the gig fronting Channel 4’s comedy showcase Friday Night Live. Unfortunately Elton, not understanding his role as light-hearted host, repeatedly used the show to criticise the government. On one occasion he turned his attentions to The Daily Star for featuring a semi-naked 15 year-old Page 3 girl who, they’d promised, would whip her tits out upon her 16th birthday. Fine sentiment, Ben: wrong venue for it.

Years before, clearly sensing something of an emerging trend, the BBC had hung out at the Comedy Store, and invited some of the better performers in for a coffee.

The result was The Young Ones, a surreal and almost controversial BBC2 sit-com about house-sharing students, watched almost exclusively by under-15s who’d never before heard swearing on the television. It starred double act Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall as punk Vyvian and poetry-spouting virgin Rick, along with Nigel Planer as hippy Neil,  tage actor Christopher Ryan playing Mike Thecoolperson (after Planer’s comedy partner Peter Richardson dropped out), and Comedy Store mainstay Alexei Sayle dropping in once or twice per episode to deliver a desperately unfunny monologue. The show’s cameos read as a veritable who’s-who of British comedy, with guest appearances from Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, French and Saunders, Her Who Married Kenneth Branagh, and dozens more who you’d recognise from down the DHSS. Written by Elton, Mayall and his then-girlfriend Lise Mayer, watching The Young Ones today is a painful experience (nevertheless, the high point of mid-80s comedy was the Comic Relief charity extravaganza, at which a bewildered and clearly distressed Cliff Richard – dressed in red leather - was forced to perform with The Young Ones cast having just witnessed Rik Mayall pledging to “get my cock out”. “I think tonight that I’m the alternative,” sobbed a quivering Cliff).

Over the course of the decade alt-com evolved. Harry “Loadsamoney” Enfield – though admittedly, never really part of the Comedy Store crowd – stereotyped Greeks with the Xenophobic Stavros, and pre-dated Changing Rooms’ convicted DIY burglar Handy Andy by about 15 years with Loadsamoney. In 1989, however, Reeves and Mortimer more or less killed alternative comedy by proving that you didn’t need to swear and be political and rude as an alternative to mother-in-law jokes. You just spouted shite about putting rabbits under a petri dish.

For all their foul-mouthed socialist fury the alternative comedians of the early 1980s have become part of the establishment. Following a stint as Terry Wogan’s stand-in, Ben Elton has gone on to be a multi-millionaire author and playwright, Mayall and Edmondson an increasingly unfunny partnership, reprising their Rik and Vyvian act ad-infinitum with the dire Bottom, Nigel Planer voiced Magic Roundabout, Dawn French married the non-funny, adulterous pillar of British comedy Lenny Henry, Jennifer Saunders married Edmondson and has carved a million pound fortune for herself with Absolutely Fabulous, while Hugh Laurie is “wowing Hollywood” with roles in kiddie movies like 101 Dalmations, The Borrowers and Stuart Little… Mercifully, Alexei Sayle has been removed from television screens altogether.

There is no longer an “alternative comedy”. For better or worse, there is merely “comedy”. And whichever way your tastes turn, there’s still nothing funnier than seeing that clip of an elephant doing a poo on Blue Peter…

And then he did a wee and they all fell in it! Ha ha ha! Do you see?

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1.  Rik Mayall almost died recently, as a result of what?

2. What was the name of Nigel Planer’s cash-in book featuring his Neil character?

3. What was the name of the flop sit-com starring Alexei Sayle, and written by Father Ted’s Linehan and Matthews?

4. What rude word did Adrian Edmondson use on a live edition of the early evening chat show Wogan?

5. Which of these books has Edmondson not attached his name to?


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