Arts: Thus spake the little mad man

It may border on insanity, but the League Against Tedium makes a curious kind of intellectual sense. And it's very funny.
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The Independent Culture
"ATTENTION, SCUM. You are nothing. Absolutely nothing. You are sub-worms. Behold superiority!" If a man dressed in a red shirt constructed from plastic roses and a bearskin trapper's hat addressed you thus on the street, you'd start walking briskly in the opposite direction, all the while lamenting the breakdown of the care in the community programme. But on stage, this figure is cheered by audiences, and lauded by critics as "brilliant" and "unique".

It is certainly safe to say that you will never before have seen a comedy act like The League Against Tedium. A demented, ranting, megalomaniac uber-entertainer, he derives pleasure from the audience's pain. He zaps them with currents of cod-Nietzschean aphorisms and insults. "You scurvy lot," he sneers, "people like you should be thrown back into the sea so you can evolve a little more." All this is accompanied by dissonant images projected onto a huge screen and controlled by his "glove of power".

The League's maxims flow in a stream of consciousness, almost like Surrealist automatic writing. "That which does not kill us makes us stronger - Frosties, par exemple... Thought: beware the smile of the waiter - it means he's pissed in your soup... A thousand years ago, I shat by a river. Thus London... We are all brothers. Hence, war... If you were given the choice, what would you say? [Silence]. That is why democracy must end." He is a tinpot dictator who didn't get out enough as a teenager and spent too long with his nose in Thus Spake Zarathustra.

On a comedy circuit dominated by cheery blokes doing routines which proclaim "love me, love me", The League seems determined to be despised. He is a refreshing blast of alienation, the very antithesis of ingratiating "have you ever noticed?" comedy. His alter ego, Simon Munnery, the idiosyncratic character comedian who is also responsible for the only socialist left in the country, Alan Parker, Urban Warrior, explains the thinking behind The League. "I just wanted to do something different. The League comes from someone who has done stand-up for a quite a long time and got bored with it. People are fed up with comedians pretending to like them. They get that all the time on TV - `hello, I love you'. I wanted to create this bizarre being, a mad, Nietzschean, camp superman. Put together with the visual technology, I know it's overambitious. But people say they want something different, so I'm providing it. You don't want to seem dull and normal. What's funny about that?"

"I'm pursuing a certain track," he continues, before adding with a nervous laugh. "I just wish someone else would do it as well to reassure me that I'm right. I feel like I'm inventing the wheel very slowly. When the man who invented the umbrella used to walk around Hyde Park with it, for a couple of years people would laugh at him. We now accept umbrellas as normal, but at the time people said, `what is all this about?'. I feel like that man."

The inspiration for The League, who is appearing at the suitably arty venue of London's Institute of Contemporary Art over the next three weeks, came from Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. "I liked the conciseness of the aphorisms and their similarity to advertising," says Munnery. His favourite is: "The disappointed man speaks. I listen for an echo, but I don't praise." "That's insane and beautiful. Nietzsche is much funnier than people realise."

Hmm, all this talk of Nietzsche sets alarm-bells ringing - could this just be the biggest fraud since the emperor paraded in his new clothes? On stage, The League pre-empts such criticisms: "What's that you're saying? That I'm wasting your time? What activity am I keeping you from? Are you perhaps building cathedrals on the sly?"

For his part, Munnery contends that people do "get" The League. "What is there to get? It's a bloke talking. It's absurd. He is not deliberately obscure. There's no point in saying something if it's not understood. I think it's accessible to anyone - there are lots of good jokes and visuals. Everyone is in on the joke: they think, `we're being used', and they like that."

All the same, especially in a country as suspicious of intellectuals as Britain, isn't it all a bit, well, brainy? One comedy critic called The League "an arrogant little twerp". Again, Munnery is quick to leap to the defence of his creation: "A couple of years ago, a journalist wrote in The Independent on Sunday that `maybe The League is funny if you know a lot of Nietzsche'. Meanwhile, the Daily Star said it was `a mad, mental laugh'. It's too intellectual for The Independent on Sunday, but gut-wrenchingly funny for the Daily Star."

But what about all the references to Nietzsche, hardly light reading, even for PhDs in Advanced Philosophy? "They're not references," Munnery argues. "They're just things I've nicked. Stealing from the rich to give to the poor is a fine old English tradition."

Wiry, with bottle-bottom specs, the 31-year-old Munnery makes for an intriguing interview. A graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge, he is manifestly bright. But he enjoys subverting the interview set-up by toying with notions of meaning and tone. Often it is hard to tell where Munnery ends and The League begins. As an unreadable blend of the two, he portentously declares that The League is "a parody of Man. He sends up arrogance by showing it in all its grandeur. It takes arrogance just to get out of bed in the morning. That's violence against the day."

Hard to dislodge once he has mounted his platform, he carries on: "We're all like The League. He's someone with a high opinion of himself, and psychological tests confirm that people have a higher opinion of themselves than other people do. People overestimate the amount of control they have and what others think of them. Depressed people are sane - the rest of the world is madly happy. Good luck to it, but it's doomed."

Again on the border between himself and his creation, Munnery reveals that The League's ultimate aim is to play Wembley Stadium. "Supporting the Rolling Stones?" I venture. "No, they can support me. The League is the only act that could play Wembley Stadium."

Munnery is well-versed in this faux-tyrannical behaviour. At the beginning of his Edinburgh show, Cluub Zarathustra, last year, The League disinfected the audience with spray-guns before making them all don dunce's caps. "Those caught without caps were asked to stand at the front and teach," Munnery recalls. "Why not? We're surrounded by media flatterers who tell us that we know something. The fact is that we know nothing, and we flatter ourselves by the very act of speaking. Why do men speak? Why do dogs bark? Are they worshipping the moon? Ramble, ramble".

This is hardly the sort of conversation that normally fills the air of London restaurants. But it is of a piece with a performer who lives up to the old cliche of daring to be different. You may not like The League Against Tedium's show; you may not even understand it. But you cannot say it's derivative, because nobody, but nobody, has a mind quite like Simon Munnery's.

The League Against Tedium appears at the ICA, The Mall, London, SW1 (0171-930 3647) on 2, 9, 16 December

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