Cluub Zarathustra has to be the single most important and influential movement in comedy of the 1990s. Without it, there would be no The Mighty Boosh, Smack The Pony, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, Jerry Springer - The Opera, Johnny Vegas, Harry Hill, Al Murray's Pub Landlord, or Jam. And yet it remains a deeply overlooked cultural (or cuultuural?) landmark. One of comedies greatest kept secrets.
Developed by Simon Munnery, Roger Mann and Stewart Lee as a Dadaist comedy club night at The Market Tavern, Cluub Zarathustra ran from 1994 to 1997, spurned traditional stand-up comedy in favour of the surreal and absurd (their creedo was 'we aim to fascinate, not entertain', and as such you were more likely to see The Actor Kevin Eldon dressed in oilclothes and measuring the room, reporting each measurement into a dictaphone than anything resembling a traditional joke) and was presided over by Munnery, in character as his self-aggrandising, deluded and weedy tyrant The League Against Tedium. The likes of Mann, Lee, Eldon, Sally Phillips, Richard Thomas, Lori Lixenberg and Julian Barratt performed alongside Munnery as his faithful fascistic acolytes clad in black militaristic garb. The Cluub houseband was Evangelista, featuring Al Murray on drums, and guest spots were regularly taken up by the likes of Harry Hill and Johnny Vegas, the St Helens comic being the only performer to regularly receive payment for his efforts. This was cult comedy performed as if it was a cult itself.
Following the Cluub's first excursion to Edinburgh in 1995, Channel 4 commissioning editor Seamus Cassidy enticed the cabaret to make this pilot; a twenty-one minute futurist extravaganza filmed at Ealing studios on a vast stage surrounded by Z banners and emblems and a giant ever watchful projection of The League's face, Big Brother-style, his eyes swivelling around the room. At any given command, The League could invoke rapturous applause from his devoted and clearly faked audience, deeming the real audience surplus to requirements and beneath contempt. Between his proclamations came testimonies from The League's cult, a beret-wearing Roger Mann and Sally Phillips attesting to the fact that, before discovering the Cluub, they had a 'withered leg' or were 'bald'. As they speak, the silhouette of a pacing, demanding Munnery can be seen, ensuring their praise of him and the Cluub is suitably effusive. Master storyteller Edgar Allan Poo ascends to the stage from the hidden depths below, amidst impressive pyrotechnics, whilst Lori Lixenburg appears as a 20ft tall steel Valkyrie known as 'The Opera Device' singing insults to France and Germany. The pilot cost £120,000 to make, big money in 1996, but still not enough: the pilot fizzles out with the legend 'INSERT MORE MONEY', the brainchild of Stewart Lee and an unashamed begging bowl for any potential series to follow.
The series was not to be, indeed the pilot was not even broadcast, and as such Cluub Zarathustra as a televisual experience remains a tantalising missed opportunity. Several of those involved cite the transition from cabaret night to TV production itself as being problematic and near impossible. Munnery felt the performers were too removed from the audience to make the pilot a success, whilst Cassidy, in Robert Wringham's excellent book on the Cluub, You Are Nothing, cites the decision to make it so big a production took away some of the magic that made Cluub Zarathustra a success in the first place; "For me, the joke was always that Simon was the annoying bloke who sat down beside you on the bus, only he'd actually managed to get it together and start this embryonic messianic cult. when they dressed him up in Victorian kit, and had a massive set, and a soprano in metal Brunnhilde gear, I wasn't at all convinced". It's true that something is altered when you take the inherent ramshackle live experience to the screen and the essential joke that originated in such a shambolic incubator surrounding the scum-baiting League and his loyal, brainwashed followers does seem a little lost when portrayed with a big budget, but Cluub Zarathustra remains a startlingly good and radically different example of TV comedy. See for yourself:
And then weep at the realisation that this is all we have. And then cheer that the BBC did commission Attention Scum! five years later. And then weep that they didn't recommission it. And then rinse and repeat until satisfied.