PRESS ARCHIVE: Comedy Babylon
First published in Select, March 1993
Comedy Babylon
Story by Andrew Collins
Photos by Tim Paton

So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star? Don't be so stupid! Flog that guitar and learn some jokes instead. The '93 road to sex, drugs, adulation and depravity is stand-up comedy Rob Newman and Dave Baddiel rake in 300 grand a tour - each, Sean Hughes' female fans crave an 'Inflatable Sean' sex doll. And Eddie Izzard gets to wear women's clothes. Wahey!

So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star? Don't be so stupid! Flog that guitar and learn some jokes instead. The '93 road to sex, drugs, adulation and depravity is stand-up comedy Rob Newman and Dave Baddiel rake in 300 grand a tour - each, Sean Hughes' female fans crave an 'Inflatable Sean' sex doll. And Eddie Izzard gets to wear women's clothes. Wahey!

"Do we give out home numbers?"


"Dave's and Frank's"

"Who wants them?"

"Steve Coogan."

So Steve Coogan's on the blower, he's after phone numbers for Dave Baddiel and Frank Skinner. This is Avalon, the management promotions company that handles said emergent comedy superstars. The question is - do they give out home numbers?

"We don't give out home numbers," states John Thoday, Avalon's big cheese, officiously.

"But it's Steve Coogan. Surely it's OK to give them to Steve Coogan?"

No, not even Steve Coogan.

It's Christmas and he probably wants to wish his stand-up mates a merry one. But this is business. This is comedy.

How much do you earn? Rob Newman and David Baddiel made £300,000 each last year admittedly from touring, which is a grueling lifestyle even for stand-up comedians - but that's clear, untouchable profit. The pair of them clocked up 75 gigs in 1992. Four of these were Hammersmith Apollos; 30 of them were extra dates. Between them, Rob and Dave grossed a cool million. Laugh? I nearly retired.

If you're part of the ever-growing consensus that reckons music is an ailing artform, no longer the stuff that threatens or affirms life, no longer the stuff that dreams are made of, about as vital and central to your week as Top Of The Pops, then comedy could be your salvation.

The comedy industry is boom-booming. The frantic re-release of vintage TV sitcoms on video and BBC's ever-expanding Radio Classics cassette range are easy pointers to comedy's current bankability. Newman and Baddiel's pre-Christmas History Today video has now moved 80,000 units, outsold in the specialist charts only by the latest Billy Connolly compilation. Their two mammoth, sell-out offensives had rock promoters drooling. Ned's Atomic Dustbin did a comparatively bijou tour in November - it cost around £200,000 to put on, and, says manager Tank, the band "just about broke even".

"With a rock 'n' roll band, you're paying the management 15 per cent, the agent 10 per cent to book the tour, and, on top of that, 25 per cent to the promoter," reasons John Thoday. "A band who are perceived as successful can be on tour with £100 in their pocket each week because they're not really making any money." Avalon act as promoter, agent and manager for their vast armoury of acts. When you think that Rob and Dave's merchandise was taking more than £3,000 a night on the autumn leg, while none of the major T-shirt companies would even touch their spring tour, the wind changes are pretty clear. Thoday's desk now contains six letters from would-be, wised-up merchandisers.

So, ten years down the line from the punk-style revolution of "Alternative" comedy and its rarefied, defiantly left-wing charm, and the whole game's blown wide open. The have-a-go ethic has been married to the very real possibility of sex, drugs and on-the-road kicks, not to mention fame, fame, fatal fame. Is it not now entirely possible that the starstruck teenager will be picking up the hairbrush and pretending in the bedroom mirror to be a standup comedian?

Who wouldn't want to be Sean Hughes? They call him "The Morrissey Comic", as if Morrissey wasn't comic enough on his own. But Sean cuts a far less flamboyant, vaudevillian, devil-may-care figure in the world of comedy.

On the two successful theatre tours he conducted following Channel Four's Sean's Show in 1992, Sean made a point of selling T-shirts at significantly reduced prices - £8 rather than the standard £15 - which, when you consider he shifted more than 4,000 on the latter hop, is a dramatic self-inflicted profit drop. He also bought a load of his own videos at cost (£7.50) then flogged them for a tenner each, £3 cheaper than the shops, again doing himself out of easy money.

"Oh, I could make an absolute packet," he says, "but I'm not into taking money off people for the sake of it."

He turned down the knee-jerk Christmas book deal last year, holding out for the possibility of putting out a volume of his own poetry in '93 (which now looks likely). And, had it not been for his high principles, Birds Eye French-bread pizzas might now have been inextricably linked to Sean's puppydog face. He even cut off his nose to spite The Face, by refusing to supply the magazine with a list of his ten favourite songs. "I don't do lists," he insists.

Sean's got bigger things on his mind, like the fact that he spotted five Jehovahkill T-shirts in the front row of one of his recent shows. He's uncomfortable with the Rob Newman-style teenybop audience, and is considering playing over-18 venues in favour of "a more mature audience. I know there are a lot of intelligent 16 year-olds out there, but I don't want them coming because they think I've got a nice arse. I'm not interested in that."

Later, in the Crouch End Abbey National, a flustered mum approaches Sean to sign the back of a paying-in slip for her nine-year-old daughter, Mary. Sean blushes.

"I know that the people who like me absolutely adore me," Sean gamely admits

You could, presumably, have endless sex then?

'That's one of the reasons I don't like going to parties - because you do end up getting drunk and horny. I fall in love very quickly, and then realise that it's not love and I hurt people, but not on purpose. I wouldn't take advantage in that sense, but there are moments when, if someone wants to shag me and I want to shag them, I don't think I'm doing any harm to anyone really."

The Morrissey comparison rears its ugly head again here, because a lot of today's (male) youth comedians set themselves up as lonely, unexploded hormone bombs. "Here's a good one - I REALLY DESPERATELY NEED A SHAG! Geddit?" Sean's archetypal line "Has anyone ever got that lonely that you pick up the telephone to see if it's working?" is, first and foremost, a brilliant and sincere life observation. It's also an invitation.

"Rob Newman is a very pretty person, so girls are bound to throw themselves at him," observes Eddie Izzard, the undisputed king of live comedy. The Back To The Planet of stand-up, he has built a huge following without doing any telly, and now commands a lot of negotiating power.

"But I haven't got the screaming teenagers, which is great. Some people obviously indulge in the groupie thing - Hey, let's get shagged! But is it empty, is it real?

"Yeah, throwing tellys out of the window and shagging groupies, I know it's there and I could push it that way if I was more tragic.

"I said to Sean, You play it tragic, you're bound to get the 17-year-olds. Or the 13-year olds. I could do that, but I think it's essentially bullshit."

Ben Watt-lookalike Stewart Lee, co-writer of sometime Select telecom terrorist Chris Morris's On The Hour and "most-likely-to" newcomer, said, "People seem to want to shag you if you've been on stage, and when I first started doing student gigs I thought, Wow, this is great, a kid's fantasy! Then, all of a sudden, you realise that there are people who want to shag comedians the same way as there are people who want to shag pop stars, and it starts to get a bit unpleasant. You'll suddenly find yourself with somebody who's had everyone else."

Stewart's warning-sign groupie experience concerns going back to a fan's flat and finding a picture of Sean Hughes' face stuck up in the bathroom with swear words all over it - but he doesn't like to talk about it. He once saw girls from Newcastle on the Hammersmith roundabout after a Rob and Dave gig. It was 5am with school in the morning.

'They hang around, deludedly imagining Rob's gonna come out and say, Come home with me. This is not going to happen."

As for rock 'n' roll mayhem, Stewart recalls touring with Jim Tavare, very much "driving round Cardiff looking for a B&B. Jim once spilt a cup of tea down the back of a TV and broke it. We took the paintings of cats off the wall and drew obscene pictures on the backs of the paintings. If Rob and Dave are Carter, I'm Mint 400".

It's not all adoring fans. A man who claimed to be in touch with aliens wrote to Stewart during a run of Radio Four's Lionel Nimrod's Inexplicable World to say, "You're so shit I expect you like the Manic Street Preachers."

Comedy - Rock - Rock - Comedy - Just like that! A-ha ha ha! "Pop stars are frustrated actors, actors are frustrated comedians, comedians are frustrated pop stars," or so says jolly Essex stand-up Phill Jupitus, alias one-time ranter Porky The Poet, himself a cross-over on legs thanks to links with Red Wedge, Go! Discs ("I answered the phone there for four years and walked away a free man") and Billy Bragg (Porky conceived and directed '91's Brit-nominated 'Sexuality' video). "People say that Billy would make a great stand-up!" he adds. '"I see myself as comedy's answer to The Members..."

In his exhaustive book Didn't You Kill My Mother-In-Law?, the story of Alternative Comedy, Roger Wilmut notes that the new wave of stand-ups which grew out of London's Comedy Store were "returning to the beginnings of music hall. However, their immediate descent was not from variety but the continuing tradition of rock concerts." Right. Stewart Lee was inspired to take up the mike after seeing Ted Chippington support The Fall. Perrier-endorsed brummie Frank Skinner actually auditioned for The Prefects, who became The Nightingales. Lucky old Sean was in a band in Dublin with the blokes who became An Emotional Fish. In 1980, Yazoo took old-timer Arnold Brown with them on tour – he lasted up to four minutes a night.

John Thoday states "we treat comedians in the same way that bands are treated", and admits that he is "very interested" in band management himself. Stewart Lee reckons he "found his constituency" when he played Glastonbury and Reading last year, and describes himself and writing partner Richard Herring as "the Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding of On The Hour".

But it's not just the similarity of rock and comedy as industries, or the enormous overlap in audience, and the endless links its major protagonists have with pop culture that lend the cross-over its media sex appeal. It's the scandal, smokescreen and skullduggery.

Talking to a cross-section of viable youth-market comedians, the one thing that emerges is the guarded bitchiness and/or neo-Masonic protection between individual camps. The thriving pub cabaret circuit from whence they all came retains an in-built dignity and community spirit, but, once out of The Guilty Pea and into the realms of heavyweight management and BBC2, knives are drawn.

Rob Newman and Dave Baddiel would not be interviewed for this article because, say Avalon, "they haven't got any product out in February".

"What the fuck is product?" asks Hugh Dennis of Punt & Dennis, the less hip half of The Mary Whitehouse Experience. The pair are currently enjoying a (wait for it) 96-date tour off the back of the TV show's success. "We're not product!," Hugh says. "We try to be funny. The idea of product makes my flesh creep." The Mary Whitehouse Experience, 45 shows on Radio One then two series on BBC2, has launched both partnerships on the road to success. Before it, Punt & Dennis were known as Jasper Carrott's support act, but claim to have done "exactly the same sort of material" in Mary Whitehouse, just to a younger audience. "And now we're cult teenage comedians!" exclaims Hugh.

"We used to be Those Two Mainstream Wankers on Carrott. It's bizarre. We can't say we know all about indie bands or what's happening on the street - fuck, we just don't! And pretty soon, people are gonna get wise to that. Which might mean we suddenly get eight million viewers on ITV, or it might mean we die."

As for money, Punt & Dennis are suspicious of Rob and Dave's £300,000 profit, chiefly because the figure was supplied by Avalon. "A lot of talking-up goes on, we're not interested in that. I wouldn't want our agent to tell anyone how much we're earning! If you're prepared to stand up in public and say, These two are out to take your money, then fine. People are soon gonna be sitting in the theatre thinking, We're here to be made money out of. That leaves a sour taste."

While Mary Whitehouse was running, Rob and Dave had Avalon working full-pelt for them as a PR company, leaving the managerless Punt & Dennis feeling unrepresented. They even claim that Avalon put out a press release during the first series fanfaring a six million viewership when in fact it was a lot less. [Avalon refute this.] Hence, the eventual parting of the ways for the artificially thrown-together "foursome" - both pairs will have their own separate TV shows in '93 and '94.

"We have always been aware that we're not as fashionable as Rob and Dave. But fashionability and comedy are mutually exclusive!" believes Steve, with Hugh quietly adding "I don't want to go to my grave being proudest of The Mary Whitehouse Experience". Nor the cash-in single based on Hugh's perv character from the show, 'Take It To The Fridge (Milky Milky)', I'll be bound.

Rather more "old school" than Newman and Baddiel, Punt & Dennis reject the rock-style management/PR trappings of modern comedy. They're more concerned with the gradual career path, and are doing very nicely thank you. John Thoday will gladly tell you that he thinks Punt & Dennis have been "handled very badly" by their agents, Noel Gay, claiming that Avalon "more than doubled" the original fee offered by BBC2 for the first Mary Whitehouse series - "£1,500 for two shows, which their agent would've accepted".

The self-managed Izzard believes he was once "screwed over" by Avalon – it’s all to do with Gerry Sadowitz and a Friday-Saturday night slot at London comedy club Raging Bull (run by Eddie) – but again, Avalon deny any unethical behaviour. Eddie diplomatically says that Thoday "puts up an enormous front; Avalon are very good at promotion".

At the big press launch of Sean's Shorts, a "scum" photographer from the tabloids firstly asked Scan to drop his trousers for a wacky shot ("Fuck off!") then later sidled up to him with the address of a "sexy socialite" who was having a party the following night.

"He wanted me to get coked up to the eyeballs, fall into bed with some woman who wants to shag me 'cos I'm on telly and then have it all over the papers!" says Sean, confessing that he had to rip up the address immediately just in case he got pissed the next day and gave in to temptation...

The scum are interested, ergo comedy must be hot. They'll be sniffing round the TV comics for drugs stories, no doubt, and are likely to be disappointed - the rock world's publish-and-be-damned substance bravado has yet to catch on among the comics.

"I'm not a big druggie," says Sean. "I never actually liked dope, so I don't spliff out all the time. But I don't preach. I'm not pro-drugs and I'm not anti-drugs, the only thing I would say to young kids is don't take Ecstasy or acid."

He will admit, however, that the Glasgow gig on his last tour was somewhat marred by his constant sniffing onstage. Perhaps it's easier to be stoned and get away with if you're in a band.

"If it's not quite working, people are less prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt in live comedy," reckons Stewart Lee, a strict two-pints-before-show man.

"There isn't a lot of cocaine floating around at the sort of gigs I do. If Rob and Dave and Sean are stadium comedians, I'm more in your Bull & Gate league." Rumours of the comedy/coke relationship are rife, but chiefly among the established comics on TV, where "fun talcum" is as much a tradition as the test card.

"I've heard of performers doing comedy on 'E'!" gasps Eddie lzzard, "I've been out of it a few times, and I don't like it. You want to be able to go POW! POW! POW! and flip to something that's a million miles away. If your brain isn't there, it isn't going to happen. I've done speed before street-performing, years ago, and dope, but that just led to an incredibly slow joke. I fell asleep before the beginning of a show once in Holland."

If Eddie ever gets tabloid famous (which will be tough without television, and his first foray into that medium will be The Cows, a self-produced sitcom for '94 that he's not even in), then his own self-declared transvestism will be easy meat. Eddie wore a dress for the first time ever onstage in January this year, an important moment of fuck-you defiance which will continue.

"I am a TV and I don't have a problem with it. If you have a problem with it then you can see a psychiatrist, but I don't. If you don't like it, you can stuff it."

Infamy doesn't appeal to the supremely gifted Eddie anyway. "I've always got to be able to buy a bag of crisps for the rest of my life."

No such luck for the unholy trinity of Rob, Dave and Sean, though. Apocryphal tales of rock 'n' roll excess now clatter around behind them like tin cans tied to the back of a wedding car. Did Rob really smash up his dressing room after a duff gig at London's T&C2? Yes, but he claims he was merely "letting off steam". Did he and Dave really steal drinks, cigars and money out of the till in an unattended hotel bar in Preston on their last tour? Yes, but their tour manager put it all back. And was Rob actually banned from a chain of four comedy venues in 1991 after calling a member of the audience "a c***"? Probably, depending on who you ask. The Avalon story says that Rob was annoyed by a posh, drunken rugby club-type heckler while performing at a pub in Hampton Wick, so he whispered "Outside!" into his ear at the end of the set, booted his table and promptly left the building, pronto. The unofficial line includes Rob asking "How much do you earn in a year? I make more than that in a week, you working class cunt!" Either way, he was definitely banned from the Screaming Blue Murder clubs as a result. Stewart Lee says this is "typical of the old circuit's attitude" and applauds Rob for at least upsetting the applecart.

'The devil gets into him sometimes" comments Eddie, whose business partner Pete Harris was the very chap who banned him.

A story appeared in London's Evening Standard before Christmas proclaiming 'The Death Of Alternative Comedy" after its author (the wife of Viz publisher John Brown, ironically) was thrown out of the Jongleurs cabaret club in Camden for constantly shouting down stand-up Bob Mills for being sexist. His eventual retort went along the lines of "If you don't shut up, luv, I'm going to fuck you!" Her hysterical reaction to this got her ejected from the premises.

"You start to think to yourself, well, what's comedy all about?" ponders Sean. "Are we just here to make lots of money and do drugs and fuck people, physically and spiritually?"

At the moment, that's certainly how it looks. As Viz character Student Grant chucks out his old Vic 'n' Bob videos in favour of the Milky Milky T-shirt and "That's you, that is" catch-phrase mania, you wonder to yourself how long you can maintain this uphill allegiance to tiresome, unglamorous, straight-edge bands. It's all lightshows and re-releases, anyway.

"Rob and Dave have forged a new path, and there aren't many bands doing that," says John Thoday, as close to Led Zep's heavyweight manager Peter Grant as comedy gets. "They're in tune with the youth the way the Rolling Stones were in tune with the youth in the'60s. Where's the band doing that? It's not Take That is it? Bands don't know what the fuck they're doing.'

All aboard for Comedy Babylon, then, kids! We'll get laid, pissed, stoned, fall in love, swap clothes, have a fight and torch the place! Could be a laugh.

Cast of characters

Rob Newman
Cambridge-educated sex god of new comedy scene, built reputation as impressionist, then, via unusually "on-the-pulse" pop material evolved bedsit angst-merchant persona. Once romantically linked with Mags out of Fuzzbox.

Dave Baddiel
Cambridge-educated proto-stude New Lad with intellectual lavatorial bent, Broadcaster in own right on BBC2's A Stab in The Dark. Mates with The Sundays, unfairly tagged as "a wanker". Contrary to popular belief Newman and Baddiel are not a double act.

Sean Hughes
Irish Perrier Award winner (1990) with monologue style that takes in Morrissey and Samuel Beckett. Channel Four's Sean's Show now usurped by BBC's wackier Sean's Shorts. Sings on next Bubonique record.

Eddie Izzard
Steadfastly live "word-of-mouth" stand-up phenomenon with inimitable rambling delivery and transvestite trappings. Has only ever done ten minutes of telly and proud of it. Now manages indie band The Wasp Factory.

Stewart Lee
23-year-old would-be sex symbol, Oxford-educated (at same college as Tallulah Gosh and Andrew Eldritch, The Jazz Butcher), described as "New Rob Newman" in '92 Glastonbury programme, Erstwhile On The Hour contributor, he is now ensconced in own Radio Four series Lionel Nimrod.

Phill Jupitus AKA Porky The Poet
Essex stand-up/compere all-rounder who has a shady past as ranting post-punk polemicist. He has directed three Billy Bragg videos (including 'Sexuality'), supported The Housemartins, and worked for Go! Discs.

Steve Punt & Hugh Dennis
Cambridge-educated double act who made name on various Jasper Carrott TV shows. Dogged with "crap ones off The Mary Whitehouse Experience" label, but have since forged an unlikely career as hip live ticket and sitcom fodder (ITV's You, Me And Him).

Picture captions:

Pic of Rob Newman onstage:
"Hello, Preston! Are ya ready to laaaaugh? And, like, hey, consider the inherent godlessness of the universe?"

Pic of Rob Newman's routine pages in dressing room:
See? Even comedians have set lists!

Pic of Punt & Dennis:
Punt & Dennis: Are these men really the crap ones off The Mary Whitehouse Experience?

[NOTE: This is a slightly edited version of the article as published in Select, amending or removing short sections which Avalon were originally displeased by.]