Alternative comedy is a British comedy scene in the late 1970s and 1980s which would eventually go on to become mainstream in the 1990s and up to the present day.


Alternative comedy was formed around The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip clubs in London (later also Jongleurs as well as others). It provided a voice for anarchic young comedians who were opposed to the Thatcherite Tory government of the day. It might be described as a manifestation of punk attitudes which were common at the time, and some alternative comedians performed at punk rock concerts as opening acts, or at political rallies alongside punk musicians.

The comedy tended to rely not on racial or other stereotypes (which was the mainstay of The Comedians-style comics), or even standard jokes. Instead it used personal observation and intellectual humour, partly inspired by the early live work of comedians like Woody Allen and Tom Lehrer, as well as comedy from the British Satire Boom such as Beyond The Fringe. Spike Milligan and Peter Cook are seen by many as the grandfathers of alternative comedy.

Satire and current events also played a large part of the scene. Being a university graduate was de rigeur and the original Comedy Store host, Alexei Sayle, had been a univeristy lecturer.

Audiences at the comedy shows usually became part of the performance. Comedians were heckled and often their skill was measured not only on the quality of their jokes but on their ability to think up witty put-downs to silence the (usually drunk) hecklers. Jo Brand was particularly skilled at this and Ben Elton later would describe the rapid 'motormouth' style of his delivery as an attempt not to allow the heckler to get a word in!

Transition to mainstream

Alternative comedy spilled onto TV in the 80s and was supported by minority channel BBC 2 in the form of The Young Ones and other sitcoms. Channel 4 also hosted Saturday Night Live (UK) (later Friday Night Live), which effectively provided a TV platform for all those appearing at the Comedy Store at the time. Channel 4 also commissioned most of The Comic Strip pastiches as a central part of the channel's early development.

Eventually 'alternative' comedy would become mainstream, with the likes of Absolutely Fabulous becoming prime-time BBC viewing. In the early Nineties Ben Elton presented the UK TV chat show Wogan, in the host's absence, signifying that alternative comedy was to be thrust upon mainstream audiences whether they liked it or not. At one point, alternative comedy was hailed as "the new rock and roll", perhaps because many of its stars toured the country, playing massive venues previously reserved for rock bands, and made significant sums from merchandising of recordings of their TV shows and live performances.

Traditional comedy, characterised by Bernard Manning and Frank Carson, would be relegated to the sidelines in live venues such as working mens' clubs. Nowadays traditional comedians appear on television only as curiosities in mockumentaries, or as game show hosts.

Modern alternative comedy

It's debatable whether alternative comedy still exists, although there is still a strong scene of underground comedians supported by the likes of the Edinburgh Fringe and various live comedy clubs up and down the country. BBC Radio 4 also sponsors many up and coming alternative comedians, such as Ross Noble or The Consultants, via half-hour shows. One suggestion towards a definition of modern alternative comedy might be that it is popular but in a limited way (ie it achieves cult status). Recent examples include the League Of Gentlemen programmes.


Many people are criticial of alternative comedy and there is a strong generational divide between those who like and dislike it. Older people in particular find the swearing and no-holds-barred nature of alternative comedy to be offensive. The aggressive attitude of alternative comedians was also off-putting for many and shocking when compared to the measured and heavily styled delivery of traditional comedians. Modern 'alternative comedy', if it can still claim to exist as such, takes the form of comedians like Graham Norton, who rely on sexual explicitness and strong innuendo. Many people again many find this upsetting. Because of the controversial nature of many modern comedy stars, there is no longer the possibility of nationally appreciated comedy stars like Morcambe and Wise or Tommy Cooper, and accordingly many see alternative comedy as a poor replacement for the entertainment scene which predominated before its rise to power.

Notable names

Comedians from the era include: