I think it’s Kevin Eldon who calls the Cluub Zarathustra routines “events” because that’s what they are. They’re not standup bits. They’re not acts in a play. They are bizarre…occurrences. Cluub Zarathustra was a 90s comedy collective, fronted by Simon Munnery, who performed weekly in a club in Islington, London, later at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and later still on TV and radio. Simon’s motto (or one of them, anyway) was “We aim to fascinate, not entertain.” Despite getting a TV pilot and what I can only think to call spin-off TV shows and radio programs, there are many great “events” that did not survive, save in the minds of the Zarathustrians or the audience who attended. Luckily, Robert Wringham has done some journalistic digging and collected said memories into the one and only Cluub Z book, You Are Nothing. There are more than 50 events re-captured here, as well as a nearly full history, complete with sequence of events, projects, and performers. Let’s look at what Anglonerd considers the top 10 events.
Audience vs. The League Against Tedium
This first one is a bit of a cheat, as it’s not a singular event but a reoccurring dynamic between the audience and the compere. Hosting the show was the League Against Tedium, played by Simon Munnnery, a sword-brandishing elitist bent on reminding everyone–performers and audience alike–that they are mere worms to him. Besides “to fascinate,” another of Munnery’s goals was to challenge the expectation of audience/performer relationship. If you went to a Cluub Z show, you might have been spat at, sat on, sprayed with disinfectant, or slapped about the face with a salmon. You’d probably watch the show in a dunce’s cap and might even wind up singing an anthem about being a worm. Did the man like being hit with a fish? What happened when Sally Phillips drew on the audience with lipstick and which Zarathustrian, as it turns out, is allergic to lipstick? Find out in You Are Nothing.
The Opera Device
Occasionally, members of the audience would express their displeasure with the show. Having been whacked by a fish or scribbled on by Sally Phillips, I can’t imagine why. But the performers had a couple tactics to keep their sub-wormes in check. The first was a musical comedy duo called Kombat Opera. If a heckler got out of hand, the League could call out, “Bring on the Opera Device!” Singer Lore Lixenberg would then be wheeled out, and a lethargic Richard Thomas would start up on piano, signalling to Lore which insult she should prepare by the opening notes. Then, through opera-style singing, Lore would rip the heckler to pieces with melodic insults. If there’s one thing we learn, you should always keep 30-50 killer insults in your back pocket for day-to-day emergencies. Find some of Lore’s examples in You Are Nothing.
The Self Knowledge Impregnator
The second heckler-annihilating device Munnery crafted was the Self Knowledge Impregnator, which was a large box-shaped device they could wheel on stage, aim at the disruptive audience member, and then flash its lights so bright that the four letters the lights spelled out would be burned into the heckler’s retinas. (They nicknamed it the C*** Ray, but that ruins the joke.) It’s better in Simon’s own words:
Even getting into the comedy club was non-standard. Sometimes, particularly at the Fringe, the performers would already be in character as the audience was taking their seats. Some of the Zarathustrians would be dressed as soldiers, standing around the room like living statues, occasionally saying something to the new arrivals. The Opera Device would get involved. Roger Mann would stick his head disconcertingly out from a curtain and sing “Come as you are.” But most impressively, Ricky Grover briefly acted as the Cluub’s bouncer, picking up audience members off the floor and carrying them to their seats, all the while whispering threats into their ears. To find out what the performers did to the audience after the show as they filed out, pick up a copy of You Are Nothing.
The thing that probably got the audience the most upset, moreso than getting fish-slapped or the word c*** burned into their eyes, was when the League would call out the performers onto the stage at the end. He’d make a show of having the audience vote on which of his performers deserved to be paid that day, showing off the rather pitiful winnings of the evening. After the voting was finished, the League would declare none of them deserved it and light the money on fire. Reportedly, one time an audience member leapt from her seat to stop him. Full story in You Are Nothing.
Lee and Herring Double Act
Although Richard Herring wasn’t nearly as involved in Cluub Z as Stewart Lee was, the TV comedian duo did perform together at Cluub Z sometimes. Most notably, the time they read the real-life responses they received after mailing a bunch of celebrities about their campaign to legalize heterosexual anal sex, asking that the celebrity receiving the letter would please give a speech at the fundraising event they were hosting. The range of replies is hilarious, and you can actually read some of the responses in a footnote in You Are Nothing.
Roger and Kevin Double Act
Roger Mann and Kevin Eldon were a staple double act (although they did plenty of Zarathustrian “events” solo–see below). They did everything from a spoof of Simon and Garfunkle to a series of “I am speaking to you through” scenarios that included “I am speaking to you through a tankard” and “I am speaking to you through a piece of thin mesh or gauze.” You can also see the double act in the TV pilot where they play French factory workers. Well, Kevin’s character doesn’t so much work as he does annoy Roger’s character. The bit comes to a conclusion after the credits and after Stewart Lee has invited the execs to “insert more money.”
The Ice Man
Anthony Irvine used to do his act (essentially a sort of standup, talking about his day) whilst melting blocks of ice in whatever wild methods he could come up with. I told you Simon wanted his minions to “fascinate” and I don’t think there’s anything more Cluub Z than forcing your paying customers to sit in a room and watch H20 shift from one state of matter to another.
Edgar Allan Poo
In addition to the League Against Tedium, there were some regular characters on the Cluub Z stage. Roger Mann’s Edgar Allan Poo would come on reading a big book (the phone book) and proceed to tell a scary story ala a Vincent Price type character reading Edgar Allan Poe…except the stories, despite the gravity his inflection gave them, were all generally minor events or had punchlines at the end. Personally, I quite enjoy these. You can find one in the TV pilot and other sketches recorded in You Are Nothing.
A second reoccurring character was Kevin Eldon’s Paul Hamilton, poet. Hamilton seems to be a spoof of the over serious poets of the time. There’s no sense of humor in his face or inflection, but the words themselves are very funny, often because the poems are so bad yet have the ring of someone trying really hard and not knowing any better. This character survives today and you can read the complete works of Hamilton in the book My Prefect Cousin by Kevin Eldon. He’s also appeared on various TV spots, stage, and radio.
Please buy Robert Wringham’s most excellent book You Are Nothing: Thee Fyrst and Onlie History of Cluub Zarathustra from Go Faster Stripe for more amazing stories of what the stars of the British alt comedy scene used to get up to in the 90s. It will blow your mind. I don’t get any money for your purchase; I just really like it and think you will, too, or else why would you have read this far down the page?