“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.