Alternative Comedy

 Upright Citizens Brigade

Alternative comedy is a term coined in the 1980s for a style of comedy that makes a conscious break with the mainstream comedic style of an era. The phrase has had different connotations in different contexts. In the UK, it was used to describe content which was an ‘alternative’ to the mainstream of live comedy, which often involved racist and sexist material.

In other contexts, it is the nature of the form that is ‘alternative,’ avoiding reliance on a standardized structure of a sequence of jokes with punchlines. American comedian Patton Oswalt has defined it as ‘comedy where the audience has no pre-set expectations about the crowd, and vice versa. In comedy clubs, there tends to be a certain vibe—alternative comedy explores different types of material.’

In an interview with ‘The A.V. Club’ after his performance in the 2011 comedy-drama film ‘Young Adult,’ Oswalt stated: ‘I had come up out of that whole alternative scene, which was all about, ‘Don’t try it, man. Just go up and wing it.’ I think a lot of that comes from insecurity. It’s that fashion of improv and amateurism that comes from the insecurity of saying to the audience, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go well, because I didn’t even try that hard to begin with.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s why you’re not [trying]. If you actually tried hard and it sucked, then you’ve got to blame yourself.’ So that’s what makes it hard for some people to sit down and actually just do the fucking work, because doing the work means you’re making a commitment.’

The official history of London’s Comedy Store credits comedian and author Tony Allen with coining the term. However, in his autobiography, the late  English comedian Malcolm Hardee claims to have coined the term in 1978. Alternative comedy came to describe an approach to stand-up comedy that was neither racist nor sexist but free-form and devised by the performers themselves. This style won out in a ‘civil war’ against more traditional comedians who had, initially, also performed at London’s Comedy Store on Dean Street in Soho, from its opening in 1979. Traditional club comedians of the time often relied on jokes targeting women and minorities. The alternative comedy that developed from these clashes was more like comedy’s answer to punk.

In New York City, much of what is called alternative or ‘downtown comedy’ is performed outside of traditional comedy clubs in theaters, such as Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB), Magnet Theater, The Creek and The Cave, and the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT), as well as cabarets that host comedy only occasionally. The comedians at these shows offer character-based humor or surreal humor, as opposed to observations of everyday life or more polemical themes. In addition, many alternative comics such as Demetri Martin and Slovin and Allen use unusual presentation styles, opting to play music, give Powerpoint presentations, or act out sketches. Many alternative comics such as Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, and Todd Barry also perform in mainstream comedy venues. The now-defunct Luna Lounge in New York’s Lower East Side was home to a celebrated weekly alternative comedy stand-up series called ‘Eating It’ from 1995 to 2005, co-created by Garofalo, which featured a changing line-up including Louis CK, Jim Norton, Ted Alexandro, Todd Barry, H. Jon Benjamin, Greg Giraldo, Patrice O’Neal, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Vowell, Mike Birbiglia, Marc Maron, Dave Chappelle, Roseanne Barr, Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, and numerous others, until the property was sold and the building razed.

Russian-born American comedian Eugene Mirman started a show called ‘Invite Them Up’ at Rififi, a bar in New York’s East Village in 2002. The popular weekly show, co-hosted by Bobby Tisdale, never advertised or listed its performers. Comedians such as Demetri Martin, Aziz Ansari, Pete Holmes, Jon Glazer, Jon Daly, Reggie Watts, and musicians such as Bright Eyes and Yo La Tengo all performed on the show. It spurred a host of other weekly events at Rififi hosted by Nick Kroll, Jon Mulaney, Greg Johnson, Larry Murphy, and Jenny Slate. The venue was a hotbed of alternative comedy until complaints from neighbors about one of Rififi’s dance parties, ‘Trash,’ got the bar closed down in 2008.

Journalist Warren St. John said that the ‘inspiration’ for alternative comedy in New York City is the Upright Citizens Brigade. The group originally formed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea in 1999. Four years later, in 2003, several performers at the UCB spun off their own theater, and formed the PIT. St. John also argues that one reason why unusual comics can succeed in New York City is that they don’t have to tour part-time, as many of them also work as writers on local comedy television shows such as ‘The Daily Show’ and the ‘Late Show with David Letterman.’

Patton Oswalt cited Dana Gould as the originator of the alternative comedy scene in the early nineties, who also cites Janeane Garofalo as another progenitor of the scene. Beth Lapides started the Un-Cabaret shows, which was the flagship of the alternative comedy movement. Other contemporaries of the scene included Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Greg Behrendt, Andy Kindler, and Kathy Griffin. Oswalt was essential in pioneering the alternative comedy on the West Coast. He created ‘The Comedians of Comedy tour,’ which played across the US in independent music venues intermittently from 2004 to 2008. The original tour was hosted by Oswalt, and featured Maria Bamford, Zach Galifianakis, and Brian Posehn.


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