The late 80s saw comedy explode with anti-establishment rants, surreal sketches and a new wave of performers who embraced chaos. Back then Simon Munnery took on the persona of Alan Parker – Urban Warrior, a power-crazed egocentric, which got him showered with awards.
Draped in military uniform and charged with a youthfully deficient grasp of socialist ideals, this outrageous character possessed dazzling self-belief worthy of any cult leader. “I still do Alan Parker,” Munnery tells me. “I’ve done him for so long and have so much material I don’t need to think about it anymore.”
Alan Parker transformed into the eccentric The League Against Tedium. His increasingly outlandish declarations would descend into the surreal and avant-garde. The audience would be berated and demeaned, in shows far from the cuddly confines of TV stand-up. This character’s compering of the wildly inventive Cluub Zarathustra went far to define the era’s flourishing alternative scene. Regulars at this lawless London night included Johnny Vegas, Stewart Lee, Harry Hill, and Graham Linehan. Comedy history’s annals have largely ignored this experimental riot of a club, beyond an over-ambitious (and ultimately un-broadcast) TV pilot, yet so many great names have sprung from its chaos.
Munnery has often displayed a tendency to push things to breaking point, just to experiment with different comic forms. “Sometimes I think my comedy has got worse,” he quips. “Perhaps I was much funnier when I was younger. But I think that feeling just comes from having done it for so long.” His love of boundary pushing might not endow him with legions of fans in our quick-fix easy access society. But give him the time and it becomes apparent comedy is just a vehicle for an astounding stream of odd and often conflicting ideas.A live performance isn’t the place for tired catchphrases and timid observations. It’s somewhere where you can indulge in complex abstractions and surreal characters. Of course stating that creates a certain expectation, which Munnery will probably shatter. “When I find something funny I want to share it with everyone. Occasionally I’ll try something which just doesn’t work. So I’ll leave it for a few years and make it work later.” His wildly imaginative shows do make him hard to quantify, so as a result the massive fan base he plainly deserves hasn’t caught on just yet.
The Munnery experience is at odds with the bite-sized DVD-friendly mainstream. No two shows will be exactly alike, as he constantly fine tunes routines and set pieces. As we talk he’s at home in Bedford, relaxing after a spot of shopping, genuinely humble and chatty. He’s the first to admit some of his boundary pushing doesn’t always work, but through sheer force of character he demands attention for his eccentric subjects. Reconstructing and reassessing language incessantly, there’s an undeniable spontaneous nature to his work. But comedy was never meant to be routine. From radical experiments with audience participation to tribute shows based around the work of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, he’s a perineal risk taker. Even his ‘plain’ stand-up is satirical, political and almost always surreal, defying logic with wild abandon. “It can be a testbed. I certainly get more licenses to experiment when in front of a crowd accustomed to what I do.”
He’s performed shows in restaurants, encouraged audiences to form discussion groups and recorded a surreal cover of The Orb’s ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. Munnery might just be the Heath Robinson of comedy, only equipped with a lot more hats. This comparison is reinforced by his love of using outlandish or improvised stage-props to prove his points. “At the moment the only prop I’m using is a device which demonstrates what the ‘New Can-Can’ is. It’s perfect for travelling, as it folds-up into a suitcase.” Now his new show presents us with a colourful travelogue, looking at the places he’s visited while touring around the country. From Cornwall to Castle Cary and Canada, there’s a wealth of experiences to be twisted into eccentric tales.
A comedy circuit staple figure for well over two decades, he’s occasionally bewilderingly metaphysical yet always intriguing. Clashing together the high-brow and plain strange, Munnery continues to experiment with silly sketches, odd cartoons, music and some sublimely silly props. He’s had TV shows, ruled the alternative scene and had Edinburgh Fringe hit after hit, yet hasn’t felt the need to amend his eccentricities just to fit in. “The critical success isn’t really as important as being happy doing it and entertaining the audience. It is nice to make a living doing it though.”
Simon Munnery ‘And Nothing But’ comes to The Old Market on Fri 5 Feb.