Cluub Zarathustra: British Comedy’s Best-Kept Secret

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide

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Listen up. I want to tell you about the best-kept secret of ’90s British comedy.

In the mid-nineties there was a thing called Cluub Zarathustra. On the surface it was a weekly London comedy club, but it was also something of a self-contained phenomenon, which meant it would be exported twice to the Edinburgh Festival and would eventually land a big-budget telly pilot at Channel 4.

The club (or Cluub) saw some of the most exciting, experimental and downright weird comedy to ever grace the fringe. This is not hyperbole. Traditional stand-up was banned, and over the years it would feature sketches, opera, pyrotechnics, stunts, melting ice, and jelly in the shape of human faces.

Thousands of fans attended over the years. These brave souls were shouted at, insulted, drooled on, physically carried around, graffitied with lipstick, and had secret messages burnt onto their retinas with flash guns. Probably not your typical night out in Islington.

Presided over by Simon Munnery as ‘The League Against Tedium’ (a sort of homemade Caligula-come-panto dame) and populated by a stable of misfit savants like Roger Mann, Stewart Lee, Kevin Eldon, Julian Barratt, Sally Phillips, Kombat Opera and Johnny Vegas, all banned from covering traditional comedy formats, the flavour of entertainment on offer was very weird.

Perhaps the weirdest thing however, is that Cluub Zarathustra remained comedy’s best kept secret for the next fifteen or so years. For all the avant-garde performance, the public sadism, the famous entertainers on the roll-call, for all of the people who visited the Cluub, and for the remarkable experiences they had there, the Cluub was all but forgotten when it finally closed its portcullis in 1997.

Simon Munnery became one of the Fringe’s finest and most respected performers. Stewart Lee became very famous for his live stand-up and for the televised Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. Sally Phillips went on to do Smack the Pony. Julian Barratt teamed up with Noel Fielding to give us The Mighty Boosh. Kombat Opera’s Richard Thomas went on to create Jerry Springer – The Opera. Roger Mann escaped from comedy and went to live abroad.

Many of the ideas that lead to such famous comedy milestones were tenderly incubated here at Cluub Zarathustra.

Because of the mystery surrounding such an amazing comedy anomaly, I was desperately keen to find out about it. There were no official recordings, no bootlegs, very few press reviews, and given that it happened before big comedy industry and widespread internet fandom, there was hardly any documentation about it at all. The only way I could find out more would be to ask the people who saw it, and the people who were in it.

In 2010, I decided to interview Stewart, Simon, Roger and others from Cluub Zarathustra’s inner sanctum to find out exactly what went on at the Cluub and how its legacy would bleed into the comedy scene we know and love today. I would also track down a few audience members who were able to dredge up their recollections of Cluub Zarathustra as if they were repressed abuse memories. And then I put it all together in a book.

The book is called You Are Nothing and is published by that wonderful comedy media kitchenette, Go Faster Stripe.

Given that it was such a long time ago and most of the participants were drunk at the time, this is probably the wonkiest and least reliable history book ever written. But it’s all we have. So read it and shut up.

Buy the book here.

Cluub Zarathustra: British Comedy’s Weirdest Secret

Originally published at Splitsider

“I had no idea who he was,” says Marc Maron on WTF. “I had to do a cram course on him… I felt like an idiot because I don’t know much about British comedy.” He was referring to Stewart Lee: one of Britain’s most interesting and integral stand-ups, perhaps best known for his against-the-grain demeanour and deadpan delivery. In a later episode, Maron also meets Lee’s contemporary, Simon Munnery, described on the podcast, not unfairly, as “different”. For the duration of both interviews, Maron seems simultaneously baffled and delighted, like a baby coming to terms with a heron.

There’s a certain flavour of British comedy – perhaps epitomised by Munnery and Lee – that has never successfully exported to North America. Goodness knows we’ve tried. We’ve sent it to your comedy festivals. We’ve tried to get it on your telly. We’ve even had small victories by smuggling our writers into films like Borat and shows like Veep. But for all our efforts, the kind of comedy I’m talking about has never been taken to the American bosom, preferring to embrace, as you do, mechanical bulls and Toddlers in Tiaras instead. That’s what you like.

So what is this weird comedy? Well, we might call it ‘alternative’ if we’re being generous, but ‘alternative alternative’ would be more accurate: a secret comedy lineage of names like Richard Herring, Waen Shepherd, Dave Thompson, Tom Binns, and Sally Phillips. But it all started with Cluub Zarathustra.

Cluub Zarathustra was a midnight London cabaret show dedicated to atypical and experimental comedy. It was set up by Simon Munnery and his comedian friend Roger Mann. Stewart Lee joined the team a little later, along with a comic actor called Kevin Eldon. Simon hosted in-character as The League Against Tedium: a pantomimish Nietzschean dictator whose bizarre pronouncements (“A punch in the gob lets a fat man know his status!”) set the tone for the evenings. At the Cluub, straight stand-up was verboten and the performers were encouraged to branch out into avant-garde areas of performance. “We aim to fascinate, not entertain” was their backstage mantra.

Over the years, Cluub Zarathustra saw skits so outlandish that they’d have stumped even Monty Python. It would have been more at home in a pre-war Berlin cabaret bar, but even that doesn’t fully capture the tone. It was as wonky as a homemade spice rack, yet it was daring, experimental and ultra-modern. It saw opera, pyrotechnics, dangerous stunts, melting ice, weird short films, high-tech gadgets, and a selection of gelatin desserts shaped like human faces.

The audience were tormented en-masse by The League Against Tedium and his assorted minions. They were shouted at through bullhorns, insulted, drooled upon, physically carried around, graffitied with lipstick, and forced to wear demeaning hats. “You Are Nothing,” they were told. And, apparently, they loved it.

A genius thing about Cluub Zarathustra was the way they dealt with hecklers. One such method (still talked about by comedians today) was “The Cunt Ray”.

“It was known as the Cunt Ray,” says Simon Munnery, “but it was [actually] called the Self-Knowledge Impregnator. ‘Cunt Ray’ ruins the surprise of the joke.”

If someone heckled, a siren would sound, Munnery would shout “Activate the Self-Knowledge Impregnator!” and a large black box would be carried on stage. The device was equipped with a camera flash bulb behind a cleverly stencilled sheet of gauze. They’d point the device at the heckler and – boom! – it would burn the word “CUNT” onto their retina. “It’s probably illegal nowadays,” says Munnery, “Health and safety.”

Cluub Zarathustra started a chain reaction which lead to the development of much of the best British comedy of recent years, including the controversial Jerry Springer The Opera. Cluub Zarathustra is, quite simply, where it all began.

It’s a terrible injustice that nobody knows about it. Even though some of the biggest players in current British comedy were involved (Johnny Vegas, Harry Hill, and Graham ‘IT Crowd’ Linehan to name but a few), and thousands of people saw their shows in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival between 1994 and 1997, hardly anyone can remember that Cluub Zarathustra ever happened. It never got filmed (aside from an unbroadcast pilot, which didn’t really work) and it was before the days of digital posterity. Thanks to a weird incident involving a PhD researcher being committed to a psychiatric hospital, even the original scripts and photography were lost. The only way you’d ever hear about the Cluub was if you were lucky enough to meet someone who saw the show or someone who was in it. So that’s what I did, thoroughly and systematically. I interviewed everyone I could find with a connection to the show – comedians, audience members, theatre critics, TV producers – and I wrote about it in a book.

So, yeah. If you’re interested in tragically obscure, outrageously experimental, and deeply influential British comedy, why not buy my book? Please buy my book. I need this. Sorry about the Toddlers in Tiaras thing.

You Are Nothing by Robert Wringham is out now. It is published by Go Faster Stripe, a Welsh media production company who specialise in DVDs, CDs, and books by comedians who tend to be overlooked by the mainstream. Robert Wringham is an English comedian, writer, and magazine editor currently living in Montreal.

Thom Tuck Goes Straight to DVD

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide

Walt Disney’s Lion King 3, Thom Tuck explains, is a straight-to-video ‘parallelquel’ alternately known as Lion King 1½. That is, it’s a non-cinematic entry into the Lion King movie franchise, the events of which, unlike those of a sequel or a prequel, take place alongside the timeline of the original. Got it? To make matters even more confusing for the film’s presumably pre-teen intended audience, there is a fourth-wall-breaking storyline in which Lion King characters watch The Lion King in a cinema and are eventually joined by Mickey Mouse, Snow White and a parade of other popular characters in a universe-crossing meltdown of all natural laws.

I listen to Thom’s review with slack-jawed incredulity. How can a production from a studio as prestigious as Disney be so staggeringly and weirdly bad? I struggle to believe it and vow to check Wikipedia for verification. But, of course, it is all too real, and so are the other fifty-three cash-in productions covered by Thom in the show. Like a comedy Joseph Smith, it is very much to his credit that he discovered this plethora of non-canonical oddness and saw fit to bring it along for analysis.

These reports from the strange world of the Disney spin-off are tremendously entertaining, especially when performed with such cartoonish charisma, but there’s an unfortunate expectation that we have intimate knowledge of the more iconic Disney films. There’s even a Little Mermaid singalong, to which I think we’re genuinely expected to know the lyrics. To be fair, the show’s marketing has attracted a number of Disney fans to the room but many of us (including a woman lambasted for not knowing what The Return of Jafar might be) are left a little alienated.

The Disney analysis is complemented by seemingly real stories from Thom’s past, each about how a girl “broke his heart”. The two narrative strands dovetail nicely without explicitly crossing over and so form a nicely opaque storytelling device. Unfortunately, his romantic gestures leave us a tad cold: we would gladly have been entertained by his neediness if he’d demonstrated more awareness of it, but it appears we’re supposed to sympathise. Through this miscalculation, these sections end up feeling a bit creepy.

An excellent one-man show, albeit compromised by the unnecessary opening of a romantic Ark of the Covenant. Instead, I could have stood to hear more about the parallelquel world of Tarzan II, which apparently takes place not just alongside the original movie but inside one of its songs: an extraordinarily clever thing to drag into the comedy arena.

Markus Birdman: Dreaming

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide

It is an almost exclusively female crowd at Markus Birdman‘s penultimate Fringe 2011 performance. Most of the room has been booked by a single hen party and they are in high spirits. As we file into the venue, their ringleader says something about “hiding the weed”, and the ticket collector sighs the sigh of a man getting ready to bounce his one-hundredth drunk of the month. But the Festival is almost over and we can all go home soon.

Fortunately, the tipsy audience and the arse-end-of-the-fringe-effect are not problems for Rockabilly dad Markus Birdman, who is an extraordinarily likable and energetic performer. Something that sets him apart from many other comics is that his act is not built on vitriol but on a kind of spiritual generosity. He’s willing to let things go. Even when he talks about existential disappointments or feigns frustration with his mid-life lot, he doesn’t seem particularly bitter. It is refreshing to spend time in the company of an act who is neither fizzingly excited about an issue or on a mission to set everything right. He discusses various sources of urban dissatisfaction, but it doesn’t seem to compromise the gleeful pleasure he takes in so many of the world’s good things.

Structurally, the show is a tad wonky. I’m not sure whether the kernel is supposed to be a personal life reassessment after his fortieth birthday and coincident life-threatening stroke or whether it was a lecture about following your dreams. Did one inform the other? I wasn’t sure. This doesn’t particularly matter: the show is less of a concept album than a gentle romp through the events that have characterised Birdman’s year.

Particularly pleasing is a routine about how he mistook his stroke for a hangover. He says there is something wrong about our British urban lifestyle when waking up partially-sighted is conceivably the result of a night on the piss. Tonight’s swigged-up audience are evidence of this problem, contributing non-sequiturs and making weird remarks, but Markus handles the squiffy women with a gentlemanly charm and ease.

Each chapter of the show is introduced by a pre-recorded jingle, each of which is low-fi and clownish and very funny. An impressive outing for the Birdman.

Asher Treleaven: Matador

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide

Clown Prince Asher Treleaven doesn’t like racism. But, ever the pedant, what really angers him is inaccurate racism. When someone wishes him luck “eating dog meat and hanging out with Chinks” in Vietnam, Asher is too shocked and afraid of confrontation to point out that the correct slur is actually “Gooks”. There’s little worse in life than erroneous bigotry.

This is why Asher created The Matador: a superhero capable of challenging surprise encounters with racists. Alas, The Matador’s faux-Spanish accent and impressively bulging crotch implicate the character as a stereotype, signalling that even the most well-meaning of us can be, unexpectedly, a tiny bit racist.

Asher is the ambassador of a delightfully homemade world. His circus-schooled prancing and precision preening takes place on a set made from greengrocer grass, plastic roses, a garden gnome and a lawn flamingo. In a story about being lost in the Vietnamese jungle while wearing nothing but a pair of swimming trunks, he reports that scooching along the floor of such a jungle results in “crud and ants and biscuit crumbs” being collected in the trunks. Somehow, it is perfectly reasonable to expect biscuit crumbs on the jungle floor of Asher’s mind.

For all his lampooning of traditional comedy stylings (“Hey shit head. Hey dick leg. Where do you work? Fuckin’ shit place?” he says to nobody in particular on the front row) he is a surprising dab-hand with observational comedy. He points out in a very throwaway fashion that sheep have human teeth. If you think about it, sheep really do have human teeth. But how did he notice that? And how do we recognise it?

Perhaps the show’s stand-out set-piece is a song about rednecks to the famous show tune, My Favourite Things. Not only is the unexpected musical number a comprehensively-researched list of slurs, it is a fairly breathtaking feat of memory.

Matador tackles the important issues of racism and tolerance head-on, but surrounds them entertainingly with a surreal hedge maze of playful stories and one-liners. A well-handled and enjoyable fourth solo show.