News: Alexei Sayle on 35 Years in Comedy

Alexei Sayle

Anybody interested in recent comedy history should have been at I Say with Alexei Sayle, the inaugural "Comedy Conversation" at Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival earlier this week. It was an opportunity to see someone who wasn't just there at the start of modern comedy, but someone who can genuinely claim to have actually started it all off. And what makes him more interesting is that he has recently got back in touch with the stand-up comedy grass roots scene and thus has an interesting perspective and the ability to connect then and now.

Sayle's opening lecture/speech was actually quite short – only about ten minutes – but it concisely told his story and set out his stall. In the late 1970s he spearheaded a comedy revolution at London's Comedy Store, but, he observed, like all revolutions it contained the seeds of its own destruction. For Sayle the turning point was when his chums in The Young Ones were filming the Bambi episode with Oxbridge alumnae Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and co. "I thought these people were the enemy, but the others said, 'No that was just you. We never signed up for your class war'." 

From there Sayle talked about how alternative comedy in general and he in particular lost their way. There was plenty that comedy buffs will have heard before – such as how arena comedy is about as bland as comedy can get. "A comic could pack the front few rows with hirelings, put on a DVD and get a Romanian Big Issue seller to prance around on stage and no one would be any the wiser.’ He does, however have a soft spot for Micky Flanagan, who, he says, "occasionally hits the heights."

After his intro Sayle was interviewed by Festival founder Geoff Rowe and this was where things got more interesting. Sayle revealed more of himself and also revealed some interesting directions his career could have taken. I was intrigued to discover that the makers of ITV comedy talent search Show Me The Funny approached Sayle about being involved in the programme. Needless to say it didn't happen.

In some ways his career has been a series of things that didn't happen. His problem may have been that he was ahead of his time, a prophet before comedy was all about profit. He also has an ambivalence about fame/success that others are maybe less troubled by: "I oscillate between believing I should have been a bigger star and being amazed that anyone would listen to me at all."

As someone who has followed alternative comedy history closely I thought I knew the narrative but Sayle had some new takes on the established story. His early inspiration, he recalled, was seeing Dustin Hoffman playing Lenny Bruce in the biopic Lenny. He also recalled an early sighting of Richard Pryor in a mainly music film, Dynamite Chicken, financed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Alexei SayleSayle's perspective was distinctly - and at times literally - first person. He remembered how he landed the job as compere at the Comedy Store in 1979 after auditioning when he saw an ad in Private Eye: "I was the first person they saw. Or the first person they saw who wasn’t mad." Without him the scene might never even have started. "I saved their bacon."  

For some reason Sayle (picture left ©Bruce Dessau) reminded me of a portlier Richie Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers. Someone for whom authenticity was everything. He could at least see the funny side of his rigour, recalling how he had a misguided loyalty to the BBC when he made the Young Ones and as a result decided not to appear in C4's Comic Strip films – even though others in The Young Ones seemed happy to work for both sides. Sayle could not resist a barb at a rival here, noting that his absence from the C4 projects "allowed the rise of Robbie Coltrane because he got to play all the fat guys."

There were some real shocks in the chat. Sayle has a lot of time for Russell Brand, who he thinks is one of the few current comedians to have decided to be overtly political. "He’s seen that opportunity and really gone for it. He had much greater courage than I ever had." He is also a fan of younger non-conformist comedians including Robin Ince, Josie Long, Stewart Lee, Rob Newman, Daniel Kitson, Tony Law, Richard Herring, Isy Suttie, Alfie Brown and Paul Foot. "I think of these as my real comedy children and hopefully they will accept their estranged dad back into the family home". I was slightly knocked off my seat though, to hear that he has a lot of time for Frankie Boyle. Interestingly he doesn't think comedians should ever be aligned to political parties and doesn't think Eddie Izzard should stand as London Mayor on a Labour Party ticket. Better that they stand outside the system and speak "truth to power". 

It was inevitable that the subject of class would rear its head and towards the end of the interview Sayle aimed some swipes at the way the arts are being taken over by the privately educated who have all the advantages of properly equipped theatres at school. He had some particularly strong bile for Benedict Cumberbatch: "My cat could have been in Sherlock." Now that's a line that would have gone down a storm at the original Comedy Store. 




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