11 May 2012

'I see you have found your Nietzsche' - Cluub Zarathustra and the destruction of comedy history

Robert Wringham, You Are Nothing: Thee fyrst and onlie hystorie of Cluub Zarathustra (Go Faster Stripe, 2012).

Apropos of nothing, Robert Wringham (website here), editor of the very fine New Escapologist magazine, has written a book about Cluub Zarathustra.

What's Cluub Zarathustra? you ask (unless [a] you already know, or [b] you don't tend to express curiosity about things). Well, we aren't going to tell you. However, nor are we going to say, 'BUT ROBERT WRINGHAM WILL IN HIS BOOK,' because he won't. Not really.

This should not be understood as a devaluation of You Are Nothing, but instead as a mark of success in terms of its apposition to its subject. What Wringham makes clear right off the bat is that not only did he never see any of the Cluub's shows, but there is, precisely, no historical quiddity of Cluub Zarathustra. There is no anchoring metanarrative of Cluub Zarathustra, no greatest hits, no 'Seven Words You Cannot Say on TV' or 'One Leg Too Few'. There seems to be no way of actually understanding the Cluub. Nine-tenths of the references in Wringham's text comprise recollections from performers and audience members whose accuracy cannot be verified, and is frequently doubted by their narrators. Subtending this doubt is a sort of incredulity regarding whether the Cluub ever even took place. Cluub Zarathustra, therefore, countermands any legislation but its own: the egomaniacal solipsism of its demagogic host, The League Against Tedium, survives in its legacy as an archival rupture - something indelible to the history of post-alternative comedy but for scarcely-discernible reasons. Trying to understand Cluub Zarathustra, we become the sub wormes the League always said we were, doomed to be guillotined by our own existential and intellectual dullness. One cannot imagine someone like Frankie Boyle being satisfied which such an unquantifiable, unprofitable legacy - but that's why Frankie Boyle is a shitty comic. Oh look, someone with a disability - HAHAHAHAHAHA.

At no point does Wringham do anything so tedious as to attempt an encyclopedic definition of the Cluub. A couple of semi-plausible facts are ventured - '5th July 1994 - Simon Munnery and Roger Mann launch Cluub Zarathustra at The Market Tavern [in Islington]. Stewart Lee and Kevin Eldon join the troupe soon after' (25) - and various performances at the Cluub are described with equal parts admiration and incredulity. Among these is Kevin Eldon's measuring routine; we reproduce Eldon's recollection of it here because it is one of the more oft-quoted performances at Cluub Zarathustra, and thus detracts as little as possible from the novelty of almost all that a reader will encounter in You Are Nothing:

'Once, I was dressed in oilskins, reading from a book, and walking around measuring the room [to] absolutely no response. When I came off, the others were just standing there shaking their heads. The worst things were that we never rehearsed properly or worked anything out at all. [We] did stupid, unamusing pieces of stupidity for the sake of it. People hated it and us. These were also the best things.' (43)

We learn that Simon Munnery's League Against Tedium (twin brother of Alan Parker: Urban Warrior) burnt money onstage, in front of his performers (who, with the notable exception of Johnny Vegas, were never paid). We learn that Munnery and Richard Thomas drove a £300 Reliant Robin from London to Edinburgh in August 1997 with the intention of driving it straight onto the stage to announce the Cluub's opening at the Fringe, only to discover, after 19 hours of automotive exertion, that it was too large for the theatre - a sublime exergue to the lucrative use of same in Only Fools and Horses. We learn many wonderful things, but most of all learn nothing.

Our enduring ignorance concerning Cluub Zarathustra is sporadically alleviated by Wringham's tentative delineation of the hauntology through which the Cluub excelled aesthetically. Accessed voices - both deliberately and accidentally accessed - abounded in the Cluub's performances. Points of reference Wringham teases out of his interviewees include Dada and Beckett (the principal names given to the Cluub's almost absolute performative opacity), Brecht, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wagner (especially the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or 'total work of art', to which Beckett and Brecht were themselves no strangers). And yet, tellingly, Munnery resists any straightforward model of 'influence':

'"They're not really influences," Simon Munnery tells The Times when asked about Wagner, Samuel Beckett and the rest. "They're people I steal from. If you're a comedian you're entitled to steal from great literature and take it into the filthy world of jokes."' (120-21)

This gesture of purloinment is telling. Confuse it not with the sort of unacknowledged joke theft practised by Dane Cook and Joe Pasquale: what Munnery is stealing, audaciously, is the notion of aesthetic propriety itself. He carries into the very physical, somatic zone of comedy performance (the underbelly of a certain philosophico-canonical logos, if you're a twat) hastily grabbed chunks of the archetypalism on which a certain idea of 'great' literature and philosophy bands erect. This jesting abduction perhaps finds its apogee in Cluub's Zarathustra's reinvention of the invention of the wheel. Performance artist Dave Thompson explains:

'I played a caveman, [...] who wore nothing but pink furry pants and spoke like a normal contemporary person. I'd walk onto the stage while Simon was The League Against Tedium, and present him with a round piece of wood that was clearly a crude wheel. I'd tell him I'd just invented it, but couldn't think of a use for it. The League Against Tedium would hold it like a drinks tray, and hand it back to me, telling me that was its application: to hold drinks. I'd thank him and walk off.' (117)

Even the concept of the 'Foole', so important to Shakespeare in its unimportance, is fiddled with in a manner that is gratifyingly needless.

Before Chris Morris honed it into television perfection, Cluub Zarathustra was practising a sort of ramshackle 'culture jamming'. In its performances, iterable historical and cultural intertexts become mutated as they fall into the Cluub's demented purview. We could consider it in terms of John Oswald and 'Plunderphonics', not cited as an influence on the Cluub, but a movement which certainly squats in the same aesthetic filth. Tropes and archetypes recur throughout, but something has always gone wrong in their teleportation into this context - it's like The Fly in cabaret form. Cluub Zarathustra was an exercise in the frustration of an ideal of iterability - the ideal that animates anecdotal comics like Michael McIntyre (an obligatory pot-shot, but one he fully merits), who would seek to reduce any singularity of experience into a homogeneous transparency. This aesthetic politics survives in Munnery's stand-up work, when he asks his audience, 'So, anybody here from anywhere?'. Jacques Derrida, who grappled with J.L. Austin's hugely influential categories of constative and performative utterances for several decades, arrived late on at a formula for the ethical inadequacy of the 'performative' - that is, the utterance ('I pronounce you husband and wife', etc.) which seems to do something - which is relevant here:

 'Wherever there is the performative, whatever the form of communication, there is a context of legitimate, legitimizing or legitimized convention that permits it to neutralize what happens, that is, the brute eventness of the arrivant. Put another way, if in a certain manner performativity encounters the event produced by language, it is also that which neutralizes the eventness of the event. [...] That which unforeseeably affects us implies a retreat of all performative authority.'
Jacques Derrida, 'Performative Powerlessness - A Response to Simon Critchley', trans. J. Ingram, Constellations 7:4 (2000), 467.

It is a lack of any real self-definition, let alone any ipseity, that offers Cluub Zarathustra a line of flight from performative legitimation. This lack is easy to miss, because it hides behind the overdetermined, quasi-fascistic didacticism of The League Against Tedium's stewardship of the Cluub; this survives into its bastard, nomadic offspring, the Golden Rose of Montreux-nominated Attention Scum!. At no point does the Cluub communicate anything at all - it doesn't even do anything like communicate a systematic incommunicability, a hallmark of the Mighty Boosh's fairly tedious live shows post-colossal fame. Everything in Cluub Zarathustra has irreversibly polluted its origin to the point of total and utter misrecognition. When we read about Simon Munnery, on stage, dividing a worm in two with a guillotine (apparently only once) in the late 90s, tellingly obtuse Cartesian questions remain: how much survives? How authentic is the part that dies? How much of an 'original' corpus, or site of expression, needs to be killed, tortured, deformed or mutated before an activity becomes unethical, criminal, or wrong? Again, these questions did not go unnoticed by Samuel Beckett, who himself had a barely deictic narrator named, or un-named, Worm. Cluub Zarathustra never gets around to asking its own constitutive question, if it ever had one.

Wringham sensitively brings out this crucial auto-immunity of Cluub Zarathustra, illustrating how crucial to its phenomenon was the fact that it can never be said to have taken place. Aside from a couple of TV scripts, photographs and posters, there is almost no documentary evidence of Cluub Zarathustra - it has excised itself from time and survives as a trace in the works of many of its most prominent graduates: the use of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue as the pre-set music for Stewart Lee's 90s Comedian show; Kevin Eldon's incisively parodic performance poet, Paul Hamilton; the homemade aesthetic of the Mighty Boosh's stage and TV sets; Kombat Opera. As Wringham puts it, the Cluub's members now manifest themselves as 'an estranged family of trickster gods' (18); Cluub Zarathustra was this family's flickering, palimpsestic, parasitic pandemonium.

The expertise of Wringham's account is to mediate between this enduring ineffability and a certain formal rigour that ensures the book is far more than an extended essay or blog. This is mirrored in its tone, which evinces the infectious nature of the Cluub's aesthetic whilst never trying to imitate it. His account for the need for Cluub Zarathustra as a dyspeptic response to the culturally parched 'Cool Britannia' 90s is excellent:

'Lad culture, lottery money, commercialism, the rise of mass-production comedy factories. This body-comedic was the "stinking carcass" to which The League Against Tedium refers. There is something neutered and suspicious about comedy when all it can do is be your matey chum. Cluub Zarathustra would make you wear a dunce's cap, subject you to the weirdest monologues and dances you've ever seen on a Tuesday night in Islington, and then dribble on you.

It was the culture of optimism to which Cluub Zarathustra was an antidote. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, Simon Munnery's stable of misfit savants chose not to emulate their peers, but to revive and reinterpret a stratum of comedy history slightly beyond living memory. Their ongoing reference to Dada - a war-sandwiched, avant-garde European cultural movement - was the perfect counteragent to the sanguine 1990s.' (32)

Of course, lad culture, lottery money and so forth survived Cluub Zarathustra absolutely unscathed. Turn on Dave or Radio 1 at any hour of the day if you doubt this. Stewart Lee's stand-up comedy remains its most ardent critic, but his rigorous dissections of McIntyre, Adrian Chiles, Richard Hammond, Chris Moyles, Richard Littlejohn and Pear Magners will do basically nothing to dent those institutions on the only plane that matters to them - the fiscal. Performative powerlessness: hand-in-hand with the inarticulable sense that what Stewart Lee is doing (whatever that is) is somehow brilliant, goes its refusal to be what Maurice Blanchot would term 'committed' art. This is, of course, no bad thing.

Like any 'antidote' or 'counteragent', Cluub Zarathustra is disabused of any discrete self-identity, and can only be postulated with an impotent retrospection; it corresponds aphasically with a counter-metaphysical genealogy whose scattered stepping-stones include the Derridean pharmakon, Hélène Cixous's escarre, and Avital Ronell's tropium. Although not doing anything so insufferably pretentious as using this kind of theoretical framework, Wringham's text, governed from page to page by a democratic unauthorization, acknowledges the ante-contamination at work in his own source material. We have never encountered a documentary work so justifiably pleased with the manner in which it is hamstrung by the effects of intoxication upon its subjects' powers of recall. 

Comedy history abounds with juxtapositions of the fondly-remembered and the short-lived: Fawlty Towers is the frequently invoked example, but we might add, extemporizing, The Day TodayThe Office (UK), Freaks and Geeks and Party Down as further examples of shows whose enduring appeal is strengthened by their brevity. Cluub Zarathustra, however, was a little different. Dead in advance, a sort of atrophying return of the repressed, the unapproachable attic portrait of the self-satisfaction of much 90s comedy. The flipside, the genitalia, the shame of it.

Considering all of the above, it is understandable that Wringham devotes his final chapter not to Munnery, nor to Lee, but to Roger Mann, the self-imposed comic exile (and exilic comic), whose career burnt just as significantly and insignificantly as Cluub Zarathustra itself, and who became an IT contractor at the same time as the Cluub's commissioning as a Channel 4 TV series proved a mistake (albeit a spectacular one). Roger Mann is, by all - that is, all - accounts, an inimitable talent. And in a sense it is for the best that he is working at a little job in 'a South-European commune town in the vicinity of the Pyrenees' (185). With a handful of absolutely noble, brave exceptions (almost none of whom actually make any money), British comedy in 2012 doesn't do 'inimitable talent', any more than it did in the 1990s. There is, therefore, something satisfying about Roger Mann coming up with brilliant comic gems - at least a billion times funnier than anything Russell Howard will ever write - while he is fixing someone's computer, and then not bothering to write them down. 

An elegant, diamesogamous elegy to the unknowable and the absolutely singular, Wringham's book teaches us nothing: it is an elegy to the unteachable nothing, apropos of nothing.

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