The Comic Strip

Ian Hamilton

Raymond’s Revuebar is usually thought of as Soho’s superior strip club. It stages not mere skin shows but Festivals of Erotica, it sells Dunhill or Lambert and Butler cigarettes, and it gets itself listed in the daily papers under Theatres. Svens and Ottos have no need to look shifty when they sidle into Raymond’s. This is no quick stop-off for provincial wankers. Raymond offers leisured pornography for the international connoisseur.

This summer, though, the joint has worn a faintly puzzled look. At the front door, visitors have been greeted with two contrasting slabs of art-work – one celebrating the genteel enticements of les girls, the other showing a large Blitz-vintage bomb descending on a city centre. The bomb carries a chalked slogan: ‘Have a nice day.’ On the night I went there, the tuxedoed bouncer was having a hard time explaining to the punters that Raymond’s Revuebar was now in fact two theatres. ‘Turn right for the Festival of Erotica,’ he’d instruct the plumply cufflinked; ‘Upstairs for The Comic Strip,’ he’d tell anyone in jeans. Raymond, you see, had leased his Boulevard Theatre to an ‘alternative comedy’ ensemble, and for two nights a week his de-luxe foyer had become a jostle of conflicting styles. The bouncer boasted that he could tell at a glance who’d come for what: the problem was making sure everyone ended up in the right place.

The idea of satire in a strip club began a few years ago with the Comedy Store in Meard Street: here, on weekend evenings, amateur comics were invited to try out their acts on audiences made tolerant by the sleazy ambience and the prospect of a late-night drink. Most of the seven Comic Strip performers had built up small reputations at the Store (or at the Elgin pub in Ladbroke Grove) before moving into Raymond’s. For them, this was a step-up to the big-time: four pounds a ticket and a stone’s throw from Shaftesbury Avenue. Raymond’s, though, was still ‘alternative’ enough for them to mount a show which Shaftesbury Avenue wouldn’t even dream of putting on: a show more ‘offensive’, I would think, to those who use words like ‘offensive’, than anything les girls were offering next door.

The Comic Strip’s compère and guiding star is a Meard Street veteran called Alexei Sayle, a portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with a convict haircut, a Desperate Dan chin and an Oliver Hardy silkette suit well-buttoned at his bulging gut. A rock version of the theme from Crossroads starts the show, and Sayle hurtles onto the stage, spraying the audience with saliva, sweat and a deluge of fucks, cunts and bastards (flat ‘a’ – bas-tards!). A big man who can move like lightning; a pathologically aggrieved pub lout who’s read some books; a ‘cheeky monkey’ from the Kop. Sayle’s posture is manically contemptuous, his rhythm a hysterical crescendo of obscenity with spat-out satirical asides. Both the stance and the timing are near-perfect, and within seconds he has the audience agape. Most of them, it seemed, had never been called cunts before.

‘Silly fuckers from Hampstead and Islington’ who have been conned into paying ‘four fucking quid’ in the hope of seeing something ‘alternative’ (Sayle whines this in a poncey voice), or ‘political’ (this in a yobbo-radical-type grunt): so much for the fans. You’ve come to the wrong place, Sayle taunts. Just because he happened to look like a ‘fucking East German playwright’ they needn’t expect any Berlin-in-the-Twenties significance. His own philosophy of life was simple: all you need is ‘to have a fucking good grip on your temper – cunts!!

If anything was to be learned from a night out at The Comic Strip it was that bad language still has an awesome potency. It was obvious to everyone that Sayle was getting laughs for some really rather thin material, but the laughter never stopped: the hectic speed and the vein-popping intensity of his delivery was part of the secret – but it was the ‘fucking’ element that really guaranteed his triumph:

I can’t understand why they’re always picking on the Afghans – fucking nice dogs. Who ever heard of fucking Toxteth – Tox-teth [saliva spray] before the fucking riots, eh? That Willie Whitelaw, half-man, half fucking bumblebee, the wanker. The proceeds of tonight’s show are going to my favourite London charity: ‘Help a London Child – kill a Social Worker’. Toxteth – two hundred fucking years some of those cunts have lived up there. What about the fucking Soho Vikings, eh ...

And so on. It may not look much on the page, and has perhaps been imperfectly transcribed (Sayle’s-pace is about fifteen words a second) – but think how enfeebled it would be without the ‘dirt’. As Rick Mayall (on the Comic Strip bill as one half of a duo called Twentieth Century Coyote) patiently explained to me: ‘The rhythm – that’s one of the reasons why we swear a lot on stage. The rhythm of the thing is very careful – the laugh has to come just right. It’s almost poetic – if a sentence is not quite long enough before the laugh, we put in a “fucking”.’

He might have added that the swearwords also inject meat and venom, an illusion of anything-goes rebelliousness: if you can say that, then surely nothing’s sacred. It is only after the show is over that you register what hasn’t been treated with contempt. Women’s lib, gay pride, black power – indeed any cause likely to be favoured by the average ‘silly fucker’ from Islington or Hampstead. Such audiences don’t mind being mocked for their yoghurt and stripped pine – but it might have been a different story if The Comic Strip had ventured an assault upon their reflex liberalism. Rick Mayall acknowledges all this:

The next stage, yes, is to get to where you can take the piss out of anything. At the moment, though, with Brixton and all that you can’t go around saying: Who are these niggers with big fat lips? It would be great if you could. Short people, tall people, people with big ears, why not people with black skin? It’s when you get too specific – so it’s just blacks – that it gets wrong. At the moment I suppose we feel that you don’t take the piss out of the man at the bottom.

Mayall, who has written an MA thesis on Pub Theatre, teamed up with Ade Edmundson at Manchester University, and the pair of them spent a few years touring the college circuit before hitting London. Twentieth Century Coyote is perhaps the least ‘meaningful’ item on the bill: Mayall and Edmundson specialise in on-the-edge neanderthals like the Dangerous Brothers or (played by Mayall) the catatonic Kevin Turby. Kevin’s tour de force is a long, intricately plodding monologue about His Average Day. He gets up very late and goes down to Tesco’s where he buys some cornflakes which he then takes home and puts into a plate before sitting down at a table with the flakes in front of him ... etc. ‘I was just sitting there eating my cornflakes. I don’t know how many I had had. Fifteen, sixteen, maybe. I wasn’t counting.’ All this is delivered in a bombed-out monotone: you couldn’t really call Turby one of the unemployed because the simple business of getting through the day demands his total concentration, his entire stock of ‘resources’. There is, to be sure, a great army of the unemployed, but, as Turby makes clear, there is also an army of the unemployable.

Much of Twentieth Century Coyote’s act consists of making jokes about old jokes. The Knock-Knock routine, for example, is maybe the most easily graspable of all ‘response-jokes’. For the Dangerous Brothers, however, it’s a tough one: the brothers’ combination of low intelligence and a short fuse turns any sort of inquisition into a threatening ‘set-up’.

‘Knock knock, open the door.’
‘Open the door – who?’
‘Open the door please I want to come in.’
‘Open the door please I want to come in – who?’
‘Look, just OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR, WILL YOU?’

And by this stage the pair will come to blows – Mayall extraordinary to watch with his electrocuted stare and clockwork arms, Edmundson almost coquettish as his cringing victim. And the fighting, of course, isn’t custard-pie. It’s kneeing, nutting, nipple-twisting stuff: a punk version of the traditional music-hall chastisement.

Coyote operates a similar trick with the famous gooseberry joke, which is: ‘What’s round and hairy and goes up and down?’ ‘A gooseberry in a lift.’ Adrian Dangerous doesn’t get it. ‘How did a gooseberry get in a lift?’ he wants to know. ‘How do I know, it’s a fucking joke, it’s implicit.’ ‘Yuh, well, how does a fucking gooseberry push the button in the lift? Gooseberries don’t have arms.’ ‘Bastard, how many fucking gooseberries do you know?’ Nervous pause from Adrian, then (boldly): ‘Three.’ ‘All right then, let’s have the fucking names of these gooseberries you’re so matey with.’ ‘What?’ ‘Names, you cunt.’ ‘Names? Well, there’s Derek, int-there? Derek Gooseberry.’ ‘Derek Gooseberry. All right, where is he? Go and get the bastard.’ ‘He’s got a headache.’ ‘A headache! That’s very fucking convenient.’ Mayall is now advancing and there is a giggling masochism in Edmundson’s retreat – this time he’ll make the beating really bad. ‘Anyway the point is: Derek has got fuck-all arms.’ Mayall is now on the brink, eyes like ray-guns, both fists twitching: ‘So fucking what if he’s got fuck-all arms, he could have jumped up and NUTTED the fucking button, couldn’t he?’ and even as the first savage blow connects, Edmundson screams out his last request: ‘BUT HE’S GOT FUCK-ALL LEGS!’ And yes, the beating really is quite bad this time.

The Comic Strip’s other double act, the Outer Limits, is more hooked into the media than is Coyote, and more conventionally slick. Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer have been together now for eight years – ‘We do everything together. We piss into each other’s mouths’ – but for most of that time they played music, with the jokes as decoration. Now a lot of the jokes (many of them too esoteric for my tuned-out ear) are to do with current or quite recent pop: a big-band crooner’s delivery of hits by groups like the Stranglers and the Sex Pistols was greatly enjoyed by experts in the audience, and there was a funny routine about a music agent who has huge hi-fi speakers instead of pillars at the front door of his mansion. On the whole, I found it easier to get into their film and TV spoofs: a hard-core disaster movie in which a hijacker decides not to go through with it because the in-flight pic is Kramer versus Kramer, and a mincing version of Starsky and Hutch – ‘those soft-talking, go-getting, bum-kissing boys of the Nancy Squad’. Although Sayle at the beginning of the show had pronounced the Art of Mime to be a ‘Wank’, the Outer Limits are brilliant at turning four square feet of stage into worlds of their own invention: as if to prove this, they make their most dazzling routine a mock Space Invaders set-to. In persona and physique the two are well-matched – Planer cherubic and elastic-limbed, Richardson sly and demonic – and Planer, it should be said, would make a more than passable rock singer.

Peter Richardson is, in fact, the producer of The Comic Strip and he paces the evening with real skill. In between the frenetic stuff he places two low-keyed solo acts: one by Muppet writer Chris Langham, who has a cool line in ‘disabled’ jokes and does a gripping owl impersonation, and Arnold Brown, an appealingly depressed Scots Jew: ‘Two racial stereotypes for the price of one’. Brown is one of those ‘What am I doing here?’ comedians, doleful and wry, not really expecting the audience to pick up more than a third of his material. For Arnold, all is bleak – and barely worth the effort; his catch-phrase is ‘Why not ...?’ (as in: ‘I’m Arnold Brown, I come from Glasgow’ [lengthy pause] ‘Why not?’). He ranges from a deprived childhood (‘There I was sitting in my tenement, trying to work out the meaning of the word “serendipity” ’) to a still-deprived maturity. The recession is a kind of gift: it means that Arnold is living in a world he understands, a world of ‘second-hand food shops’ and ‘waiting-lists for people wanting to vandalise telephone kiosks’. A good deal older than his colleagues, Brown gloomily acknowledges that the times are bad enough for his time to have finally come. I hope it has.

And yet it is hard to see how The Comic Strip can ‘make it’ without cleaning up and thinning out their best material. They are already moving into the area of ‘alternative success’: an uncensored LP has just been released, a film is being made by the producers of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and the group is currently on tour around the revuebars of provincial England. The lucrative working men’s clubs are, they say, out of their range (‘they don’t like non-racist jokes – it’s still all niggers and mothers-in-law’), and it need hardly be said that television would try to turn Alexei Sayle into Les Dawson. Still, for the moment, they must surely be the funniest live act in Britain: they have spleen to spare and they are obviously having a good time. It would take a really silly fucker to predict what they’ll do next.