I was rifling through boxes of stuff in the attic looking for a book I needed for some research and, as is always the case, I got entirely distracted by finding something else. In this case, it was my dusty cache of stand-up comedy videos from the 90s. I never got round to finding the book.
Stand-up was my passion in the 1990s. When my mates were listening to the Stone Roses, I was watching Sean Hughes. I distinctly remember some college pals going to an Inspiral Carpets gig in Middlesbrough in 1992 and I declined an offer of a ticket because I'd spent what little available money I had on a Jim Tavare gig.
I don't know where it started, really. I loved The Mary Whitehouse Experience on Radio 1, and remember seeing David Baddiel and Rob Newman on TV for the first time - separately, I might add. Baddiel was on First Exposure, an ITV late-night vehicle for brand new comics; and Newman on Stand Up, a cheap but excellent no-frills Manchester-based show with the same premise. I remember nothing else about First Exposure - other than Arthur Smith was the host, as it was the only episode I ever saw, I was ratted at the time and it was gone 1am, though I did manage to press the record button when Baddiel's name came up. But Stand Up was a series shown midweek which I videoed deliberately, and I still have all the episodes on unlabelled VHS somewhere.
Newman and Baddiel were consummate comics, although when you watch their early performances away from each other you'd never believe that Newman was the fiercely intelligent anti-capitalist and political animal, and Baddiel the laddish, teetotal football nut. Baddiel was doing marvellously sneery religious and political material, and Newman was impersonating Rick Astley, Ben Elton, Melvyn Bragg and that bloke who presented Rapido. Much of their solo work made it into the MWE, adapted into sketch form or even occasionally voiced by someone else. I never once saw Baddiel perform on his own on TV once he was on the MWE.
In my video collection, there are VHS performances from Frank Skinner and Eddie Izzard. Each have done several performances for release and I think I have them all. These are the only two comedians who have made me laugh so much that I end up in fear of my life.
When Frank Skinner did Spring Street Theatre in Hull, home of the Hull Truck and where I got all of my stand-up fix in those early days, I wasn't so much in stitches, but in need of them as I felt my stomach had been ripped apart through laughter. Skinner gets stick for his TV work, and in some cases rightly so (Blue Heaven, Shane, that weird perma-guest slot on the crap latter version of Wogan) but give him his own material, no broadcasting regulations and an audience who have actively paid to see him, and there is a master at work. His autobiography is also one of the funniest works of non-fiction to be had.
Izzard I knew less about, due to his contradictory policy of not appearing on telly, thereby making him famous for not wanting to be famous. I went to see him at Spring Street on the strength of one appearance on the hit 'n' miss Loose Talk, Radio 1's comedy successor to the MWE which only seemed to work when Kevin Day was very angry or Nick Hancock had bothered to read the papers.
He was mesmerising, and remains one of the best recalled comics from that lush and prolific early 1990s uprising, probably because he was apolitical and untopical in his material and therefore if you don't actually know the jokes, his act isn't dated. Skinner's like this too - he didn't touch politics or newsy stuff - and you could watch either of them on their earliest VHS releases and still go along with the gags. Izzard's debut video, Live at the Ambassador's, is a work of art. It also has one of the greatest review quotations on the front - "a verbal, life-enhancing, unreproducable humour". I'd go and see both of them again like a shot - a big shame Skinner's extensive tour last year didn't include Hull.
The aforementioned Jim Tavare gig was a weirder one. Tavare was someone I'd first seen on Stand Up and by the time I got my ticket for his Spring Street appearance in 1992, he'd done a semi-regular slot on Paramount City and also wowed Montreal at the Just For Laughs event. He's the guy whose act consisted of straight, deadpan gags and one-liners mainly surrounding his permanent prop, his double bass. He wore a performer's tail suit and white tie onstage and would often go long periods without actually playing the bass, just talking about it. The stub of my ticket (I so wish I'd kept my stubs) said on the back that he had "the comic timing of Eric Morecambe". That was a tad generous, but he was still a good turn. Despite his TV exposure, the crowd at Spring Street that evening wasn't massive (it wasn't a massive place full stop, though Skinner and Izzard almost filled it) and he sat at the bar with his audience afterwards, nattering away.
His support act, whose name was in the tiniest lettering ever on the posters and tickets, was one Al Murray. Back then he did gun impressions and sound effects of animals in pain or death throes. Not for the faint-hearted, but it was as skilful as it was disturbing, and it was the sort of shock comedy you could laugh at with deliberate discomfort. He said in the bar he got constant complaints from animal rights types, but rightly added that only crazy people complained about non-existent cruelty to non-existent animals. He also joined Tavare onstage at the very end for a strange performance of Bolero - Tavare on bass, a lad picked out from the audience on violin (one single note) and Murray playing a manual typewriter. He later supported Skinner on his first major UK tour and a star grew. Tavare, whose face has got more pained as he's got older, had a Channel 5 show, I think, and did the Sketch Show with Tim Vine and Lee Mack.
In the video collection is Alan Davies - Live at the Lyric. I bought this in 1996 on the strength of his Loose Talk appearances and although it's good, I've always felt there's a tiny something missing with Davies. He's a good storyteller and his onstage persona is easy to like, but he rarely made me laugh, I mean really laugh in the way Skinner or Izzard did. This performance was in his imperial just-turned-30-with-shaggy-hair-and-boyish-eyes phase, when he was a target for female fans. He was another one who cultivated his following from lacking telly appearances rather than seeking them, and he was genuinely very good on Loose Talk, at time when third-string comics such as Nick Wilty and Pat Condell were replacing the achievers like Skinner and Hancock. Davies is someone who I find myself tolerating on QI now, rather than actively liking, and fellow QI-ers make me feel unclean if I declare this.
There is a Mark Thomas video in the cache too - Sex, Filth and Religion. Thomas is known as the uncompromising and unconventional political crusader to the masses (that's if the masses have ever noticed Channel 4) but his stand-up act, certainly on the video I own, was more blatantly about how far his shockability could take his audience. He said himself at the start of the show that some members of the audience wouldn't make the whole journey with him. Wildly explicit and comprehensively ignoring every taboo which exists, he came with an 18 certificate thanks to an act which even some 18 year olds wouldn't have been ready for. But I never thought he was anything short of brilliant, and the energy he put into making his point was always admirable. This performance was at a theatre in Balham (they're always London performances, these videos) and I never saw Thomas live. I certainly wouldn't have taken any girlfriend to see him, no matter what I knew she was capable of...
Other comics of that ilk I enjoyed... Lee Hurst, chirpy and rapid-fire and one of the easiest to like as a person as well as performer... Bob Mills, who was unabashed in being less left wing than many of his contemporaries, leading to the infamous snub from Mark Steel (eugh) and Jeremy Hardy at the Comedy Store when he had the nerve to do a three-minute slot on a Jimmy Tarbuck-helmed TV show... Mark Hurst, a great performance comic who I heard many times on the Radio 1 output before finally seeing him on an educational video, doing his act and explaining his use of language behind the scenes... Richard Morton, the camp-and-straight Geordie singer comic whose gag about Tom Jones and Listerine still makes me cringe and crease at the same time... and Sean Hughes, the very first of the new breed I saw at Spring Street (after watching him win the Perrier at Edinburgh via Channel 4's extended coverage - even then I was one of only about 20 people who attended his gig in Hull) and who never quite seemed to get funnier as he got more experienced; the 1990 version of Hughes has never been bettered, and I can't recall if he ever released a video.
Lastly, I consider it the greatest fortune of my life that I saw the immortal Bill Hicks onstage. I spent too much money travelling from Darlington, where I was at college, to see him, and he just completely blew the place away. I think if you are a comic who scares the audience as well as amuses, educates and enlightens them, you have a gift few can replicate and nobody can make artificially. There were other American comics who made me laugh back then - Jon Stewart, Larry Amorose, Paul Provenza, Will Durst, Jimmy Tingle - but Hicks wiped the floor with them, then spat on the floor and wiped it again. And I couldn't bear Denis Leary - as charmless as it is possible to be.
Which of this decade's emerging stand-ups do it for you? Frankie Boyle seems very good, though I do wonder whether the political climate makes it harder for comics to devastate their public and try to make a difference in the way that the ammunition was always there for Hicks and those who accompanied him in his crusading ways. I hark back to the Skinner and Izzard ilk of comic - maybe it's time for the timeless to make a return.