From The 90's to Sarah Squirm: The Evolution of Alt-Comedy
Let’s start with this: There has always been alternative comedy, in the sense that we’ve always had weird funny people doing things that exist outside of whatever was passing for mainstream at the time. But capital A Alt-Comedy may have started at an Elvis Costello concert in the early 1990s.
Mostly unknown comedians Dana Gould and Janeane Garofalo went to check out Costello at L.A.’s Universal Ampitheatre and noticed something both familiar and strange about the audience. The comics checked out their fellow crowd members and thought:
“Where are these people? Why don’t these people come to our shows? These are our peers, these are our friends.”
Hip young audiences had largely given up on stand-up comedy in the early 1990s and ironically, the comedy boom of the 1980s was to blame. “The tourist bus would meet people at the airport,” says Gould, “take them to Magic Mountain and drop them off at the Improv.”
Whereas a Jerry Seinfeld had once been “alternative” himself -- musings on everyday minutiae were a left turn from the previous generation’s jokes about mothers-in-law and the wife’s lousy cooking -- he, Jay Leno, and others ushered in an era of copycat imitators anesthetizing audiences with an endless litany of “Did you ever notice?”
Gould, Garofalo, and their peers were interested in trying something new. “It was Janeane who said, like, ‘I want a place where I can bomb if I have to,’” remembers Gould. “And there was no place. So we went out to look for our audience in the way that folk musicians in New York in the Sixties went out to look.”
So in summer 1991, Garofalo, Gould, and other young comics started performing in a tiny upstairs loft at Big & Tall Books in Los Angeles. “And although the gig lasted only a year at that location,” says comic/comedy historian Wayne Federman, “it uncorked a new aesthetic in comedy for both performers and audiences.”
Like the concurrent 1990s alternative music scene, alt-comedy appealed to niche audiences -- college, underground, regional. And unlike the over-rehearsed sets at the nation’s corporate club chains, the comedy was oddball and raw, with a focus on self-confession over set-up/punchline.
And there was a rule at those first Big & Tall shows: You couldn’t do material that you had performed before. “You’d write it that day,” says Gould, which is the origin of Garofalo’s famous habit of bringing a notebook on stage with her.
“Stand-up got less ‘jokey’ and even more personal and experimental,” says Federman. To put it simply, it was stand-up for comedy nerds, “not drunk tourists steered into clubs by aggressive street teams hustling discount coupons.” Often there were no punchlines, at least not in the traditional sense. The laughs came anyway.
Bob Odenkirk credits Garofalo for making the scene happen. “She did it first. She made it cool,” he says. “Most of all, she brought everyone together. She refuses to be the touchstone for this new form of comedy, or claim to be the first to do it, or take any blame at all for what would become most of the comedy you see today. But I assure you, she was the spark.”
The alt-comedy scene soon caught fire, growing on both coasts at places like Largo in Los Angeles and Luna Lounge and Rafiki in New York. Comics whose style likely didn’t stand a chance at the local Giggle Hut started making names for themselves -- Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Marc Maron, Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mitch Hedberg, Karen Kilgariff, Todd Glass.
In the midst of all this, askew sketch comedy also took hold. David Cross and Bob Odenkirk started doing live shows in L.A., including versions with names like The Three Goofballs and then The Cross/Odenkirk Problem. HBO, which at the time had an especially good nose for what’s coming in comedy, signed them up for Mr. Show, alt-comedy’s first foray into mainstream television. (As mainstream goes, Mr. Show was still off to the left, airing at odd hours, often in the middle of the night.)
You can guess what comes next. Just like Seinfeld’s new-wave observational style became the norm, so did alt-comedy’s shaggy, confessional approach. In fact, it’s probably the dominant style of comedy today. Which begs the question: If alt-comedy is now mainstream comedy, is there a new alternative?
You bet, argues Brooklyn-based comic (and ComedyNerd scribe) JD Roberson, although it can be hard to define. He describes it as “any form of comedy that is beyond just a person telling jokes into a microphone” (which, to be fair, sounds very much what Garofalo and Company were up to in the early 1990s). Today’s alternative comedy scene has gone way more Andy Kaufman, says Roberson, which could mean doing comedy in character, incorporating music and multimedia, or using new mediums like TikTok to deliver laughs.
From finding the comedy in gore to accusing Colin Jost of harassment on Saturday Night Live, a comic like Sarah Squirm (AKA Sarah Sherman) may point the way to how comedy continues to find new directions.
As her Instagram posts make abundantly clear, “Sherman isn’t shy about tossing out jokes with disconcerting verbal imagery, and she’s equally adept at creating and playing with truly gruesome visuals for laughs as well.”
With cringe-inducing reenactments of different types of body hair being removed and candid discussions of subjects she calls “painful, gross and undiscussed by society,” Sarah Squirm shows aren’t for mainstream audiences -- which is exactly the ethos that started the alt-comedy scene in the first place.
That doesn’t mean the future of alt-comedy has to provoke visceral discomfort in order to push the art form forward. “I think a big draw of alt-comedy,” says Roberson, “is really just realizing that live comedy can really be whatever you want it to be.”
For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:
17 Comedies That Feature That One Nerd (You Know The One)
For ComedyNerd exclusive content and more, subscribe to our fancy newsletter:
Top image: Netflix