The comedy landscape in 1980s Britain was defined by the contrast between the old guard of controversial working men’s club veterans versus the vanguard of alternative comedy. While acts like Bernard Manning represented the traditional comedy establishment, Black comedian Lenny Henry embodied the new wave challenging outdated sensibilities.

The Dominance of Old School Stand-Ups

In the early 1980s, comedians like Bernard Manning, Jim Davidson and Frank Carson still dominated the scene. Performing in working men’s clubs across Britain, their acts were often racist, sexist and reliant on vulgar innuendo.

Manning’s abrasive style, full of slurs and insults aimed at minority groups, epitomised this breed of comedian. Despite frequent accusations of bigotry, Manning remained a major draw on the club circuit into the 1980s. His Northern persona and foul-mouthed jokes made him a working class favourite.

Other veterans like Davidson and Mike Reid also toured the clubs frequently in the early 80s. Their acts targeted minorities, women and homosexuals in a crude, provocative way that would become unacceptable later in the decade. Carson likewise drew groans with his famous catchphrase, “It’s the way I tell ’em!”

Rise of Alternative Comedy

By the mid-1980s, a punk-inspired wave of comics had emerged to react against old fashioned bigoted humour. They did this by creating an alternative comedy scene, often performing in fringe clubs and fearlessly embracing taboo topics from a progressive stance.

Trailblazers like Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, and Alexei Sayle honed their craft at London’s Comedy Store. They favoured anarchic, experimental styles that lambasted the establishment.

Lenny Henry was a major breakout star in this movement. As one of the few prominent Black acts, Henry boldly explored Britain’s systemic racism and advocated for greater diversity in the arts through his comedy. His focus on identity and challenging stereotypes made him a household name.

Other pioneers of alternative comedy included Keith Allen, Tony Allen, and Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, who introduced a groundbreaking female perspective to the scene.

YouTube player

Comedy Invades Mainstream Television

Through the 1980s, the alternative comedy scene rapidly exploded into the mainstream through television. Sketch shows like The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents, and The Lenny Henry Show brought an irreverent, anti-establishment energy to British screens.

The Young Ones in particular, starring Mayall, Edmondson, Planer and Sayle, hilariously satirised Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and instantly became a cult classic. French and Saunders broke new ground for female comics with their show.

These shows launched the careers of comedy mega-stars like Ben Elton, Hugh Laurie, and Robbie Coltrane. However, variety shows like Live from Her Majesty’s continued booking old school club comics like Manning and Davidson as well.

By the late 1980s, nearly all the major names from the alternative scene had broken through to TV fame, including Harry Enfield, Jo Brand, and Jack Dee. But the original punk ethos lived on in their embracing of edgy material and counter-culture spirit.

Enduring Cultural Significance

While alternative comedy largely displaced the old working men’s club circuit by the late 80s, Manning remained unapologetic for his crude, bigoted jokes up until his death in 2007. He came to symbolise a bygone era of comedy.

Figures like Manning and Henry highlighted the vast generational gap between old school stand-ups and the new wave of progressive, experimental comics. This schism profoundly influenced British humour for decades to come.

Some posited alternative comedy went too far in censoring material deemed offensive. And critics like Ben Elton later accused the movement of betraying its radical roots. But overall, its impact on widening the scope and diversity of British comedy was undeniable.

Female Comedians Break Through

French and Saunders spearheaded a wave of groundbreaking female comics in the 1980s. Their sketch show smashed sexist perceptions of women being confined to basic supporting roles in comedy. It proved that unapologetically funny women could captivate audiences.

By the end of the decade, witty women like Victoria Wood, Julie Walters, Tracey Ullman and Jo Brand were household names. Wood created brilliantly observed sketch characters. Walters excelled as a comedic actress in shows like Girls on Top. Ullman launched her own eponymous show. And Brand’s deadpan style marked her as one to watch in the London clubs.

The female comedy boom dovetailed with alternative comedy’s progressive ethos. While sexist and misogynistic material still existed, the fresh energy of the 1980s comedy scene allowed funny women to unleash their talents from the shadows.

YouTube player

Lasting Influence

The alternative comedy movement fuelled innovation and diversity in British humour, paving the way for later stars like Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais. While a few politically incorrect old school acts still linger today, most comics have moved away from vulgarity and overt bigotry.

Many cite alternative comedy’s revolution as a pivotal transition toward more enlightened comedy. But some argue it also resulted in a homogenization of styles and stifled free expression.

Nonetheless, the giants of both eras left an indelible mark on Britain’s comedic voice. Figures like Manning, Henry, Mayall and French are still considered legends today, representing different sides of the same cultural coin. Their era reminds us that comedy often reflects wider societal tensions.

In bridging the working men’s clubs and radical fringe, British stand-up matured into an artform that could challenge and entertain in equal measure. The seismic shift toward inclusive humour in the 1980s can be felt in modern comedy’s embrace of diversity and progressivism.

For today’s audiences, Manning’s vulgarity may seem shocking. But studying this transitional decade provides insight into how far British comedy has come in expanding its scope and social consciousness.

🤞Don’t miss new stories!

We don’t spam! Read our Privacy Policy for more info.