Cluub Zarathustra: British Comedy's best-kept secret

Robert Wringham
Robert Wringham
May 2012

Cluub Zarathustra. Image shows from L to R: Unknown, Kevin Eldon, Unknown, Roger Mann, Lori Lixenberg, Sally Phillips, Simon Munnery, Richard Thomas, Stewart Lee. Listen up. I want to tell you about the best-kept secret of 90s British comedy.

In the mid-nineties there was a thing called Cluub Zarathustra. On the surface it was a weekly London comedy club, but it was also something of a self-contained 'phenomenon', which meant it would be exported twice to the Edinburgh Festival and would eventually land a big-budget telly pilot at Channel 4.

The club (or 'Cluub') saw some of the most exciting, experimental and downright weird comedy to ever grace the fringe. This is not hyperbole. Traditional stand-up was banned, and over the years it would feature sketches, opera, pyrotechnics, stunts, melting ice, and jelly in the shape of human faces.

Thousands of fans attended over the years. These brave souls were shouted at, insulted, drooled on, physically carried around, graffitied with lipstick, and had secret messages burnt onto their retinae with flash guns. Probably not your typical night out in Islington.

Presided over by Simon Munnery as The League Against Tedium (a sort of homemade Caligula-come-panto dame) and populated by a stable of misfit savants like Roger Mann, Stewart Lee, Kevin Eldon, Julian Barratt, Sally Phillips, Kombat Opera and Johnny Vegas, all banned from covering traditional comedy formats, the flavour of entertainment on offer was very weird.

Perhaps the weirdest thing however, is that Cluub Zarathustra remained comedy's best kept secret for the next fifteen or so years. For all the avant-garde performance, the public sadism, the famous entertainers on the roll-call, for all of the people who visited the Cluub, and for the remarkable experiences they had there, the Cluub was all but forgotten when it finally closed its portcullis in 1997.

Simon Munnery became one of the Fringe's finest and most respected performers. Stewart Lee became very famous for his live stand-up and for the televised Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. Sally Phillips went on to do Smack the Pony. Julian Barratt teamed up with Noel Fielding to give us The Mighty Boosh. Kombat Opera's Richard Thomas went on to create Jerry Springer - The Opera. Roger Mann escaped from comedy and went to live abroad.

Many of the ideas that lead to such famous comedy milestones were tenderly incubated here at Cluub Zarathustra.

You Are Nothing - Book about Cluub Zarathustra. Because of the mystery surrounding such an amazing comedy anomaly, I was desperately keen to find out about it. There were no official recordings, very few reviews of the events, and given that it happened before big comedy industry and widespread internet fandom, there was hardly any documentation about it at all. The only way I could find out more would be to ask the people who saw it, and the people who were in it.

In 2010, I decided to interview Stewart, Simon, Roger and others from Cluub Zarathustra's inner sanctum to find out exactly what went on at the Cluub and how its legacy would bleed into the comedy scene we know and love today. I would also track down a few audience members who were able to dredge up their recollections of Cluub Zarathustra as if they were repressed abuse memories. And then I put it all together in a book.

The book is called You Are Nothing and is published by that wonderful comedy media kitchenette, Go Faster Stripe.

Given that it was such a long time ago and most of the participants were drunk at the time, this is probably the wonkiest and least reliable history book ever written. But it's all we have. So read it and shut up.

Buy the book here

 
James Acaster interview

James Acaster interview

An interview with 'low energy' stand-up comedian James Acaster, who has been having a great year. Read

What's your rapper name?

What's your rapper name?

Find out what your rapper name is, via this tool designed by Curtis from TV sketch show Cardinal Burns. Try It

Clubbed To Death

Clubbed To Death

A funny satirical short story featuring the characters of new book Clubbed To Death reacting to a problem. Read

Manford in The Producers

Manford in The Producers

Jason Manford is to star as Leo Bloom in the new UK tour of the hit Broadway musical The Producers. Read

Miranda to end

Miranda to end

Miranda Hart has confirmed that the two Christmas specials of her hit sitcom will be the show's finale. Read

Stand-up course diary

Stand-up course diary

A blog from Craig Beadle discussing what caused him to decide to sign up to a stand-up course. Read

At Last The 1948 Show found

At Last The 1948 Show found

Two missing episodes of pre-Monty Python sketch series At Last The 1948 Show have been discovered. Read

Brendon Burns on RHLSTP

Brendon Burns on RHLSTP

Outspoken stand-up comic Brendon Burns is the guest on this week's episode of Richard Herring's podcast. Listen

Still Game Live on TV

Still Game Live on TV

Hit stage show Still Game Live will be broadcast on television in November, on BBC Scotland. Read

Kirsty Wark sketch show

Kirsty Wark sketch show

Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark will host a new sketch show skewering the possibilities of the future. Read