The League Against Tedium, the latest invention from Simon Munnery, is - depending on your sense of humour - either your worst nightmare or a riotous act. Munnery, famous for his armchair anarchist, Alan Parker - Urban Warrior, has invented a power-crazed loon destined for cult status.
He certainly has a good track record. Munnery won a Sony Gold Award for Best Radio Comedy for his Radio One series, 29 Minutes of Truth, in 1996. The same year, Alan Parker took up residence on ITV's Saturday Live and starred in his own BBC2 show, London Shouting, scripted with Father Ted writer Graham Linehan, and earlier this year The League Against Tedium broadcast a six-part series on Radio One to critical acclaim.
He struts around the stage like a tin-pot dictator, insulting the audience and his fellow comedians - a mutinous quartet of black-clad soldiers, including comedy buddy Stewart Lee. For props, he wears an over-sized military jacket, complete with swivelling, mini tanks on home-made lapels and a metre-long microphone, which he brandishes with aplomb. He tears into the audience with inflammatory sound- bites. "Attention, Scum. You are nothing. Absolutely nothing. Behold superiority!" It's egomania gone mad, and if you take offence, says Munnery, that's your problem.
"If a bloke in a stupid jacket, who's obviously an idiot, calls you a sub-worm, you can take offence, but I think that's funny," he explains. "He's Mr Loser, a little bloke with glasses who's quite good at wiring and this is his revenge on the world. It's that ego thing, where you push it as far as it will go and it becomes absurd. But you don't have to like it and you don't have to come."
The League Against Tedium's stage show, Cluub Zarathustra, is at Edinburgh this year. It consists of Munnery's ranting aphorisms, some fine comedy sketches, an "opera device" (a young woman sings insults at the audience and praises Munnery, a la Mozart) and a large, quasi-computer screen. "None of them work," he explains. "Man's attempt to control the world is doomed to failure! It's about ability constantly outstripped by ambition."
Munnery looks like the perennial student, more 19 than 30, with kittenish, pale-blue eyes behind heavy NHS specs. Clothes that look like they haven't seen the inside of a washing machine for years hang off his slight frame. He insists on wearing his military jacket for the photo and switches from self-deprecation to dictator- mode with baffling speed. "I made this outfit," he says triumphantly, pointing to his tank-enhanced epaulettes. ""This is an old British Rail waiter's jacket. I bought the tanks in a model shop in Camden and painted them gold. I put motors in them. Where do you get gold braid like that?" he says, flicking the gold fringes at his shoulders. "There's a special shop in Brewer Street and even they don't do proper epaulette braids. Epaulettes have gone out of fashion," he adds, with thinly veiled disgust.
Munnery is genuinely eccentric, a quality nurtured during his stint at Oxbridge. He grew up in Watford's cultural desert and went on to get two degrees: a first in Latin from Oxford, a third in Science from Cambridge. "I left college under a cloud. My first thought was to pay off my overdraft, so I did a series of meaningless jobs," he says sadly. "I just drifted into stand-up, it wasn't planned. I can't do anything else now."
Unless you like to laugh at jokes as they zoom over your head, you need to know your Nietzsche for Cluub Zarathustra. Munnery has borrowed heavily from the ranting aphorisms of "Thus Spake Zarathustra", written when the author was going mad with syphilis. His tin-pot dictator is definitely at the expense of Nietzsche's daft ideas of a "superman".
So is Cluub Zarathustra the opposite of "dumbing down", where only the well-read get the joke? "You don't have to have read Nietzsche to find it funny," says Munnery, baffled by such a suggestion. "Cluub Zarathustra is an interesting show from things that we find funny - the ideas of wit, power and arrogance. There's nothing to understand, just lights and colours and a bit of sound. I don't really know what I'm doing, just having a bit of a laugh."
He pauses. "The idea of the individual is a ridiculous idea. What makes you think you're an individual?" Umm, because I don't share a brain or body with anyone else? "You've got your parents' brain and body and your grandparents' brain and body. You're just passing your time on this earth. You will die. Do you not know? You're a guest, you won't be here long, you're just part of the human race!" He stares intently at me. I've met bus conductors who were more intimidating.
It's quite understandable that light humour from the super-educated Munnery is not for the majority, but Channel 4 seems to think there is an audience. They have commissioned Munnery and friends to write eight Cluub Zarathustra scripts, hopefully for transmission late next year.
"Seamus Cassidy [the former head of comedy] came to see it two years ago in Edinburgh," he explains. "He liked it and asked us to do a script and a pilot, and then Channel 4 went, 'We don't know.' It almost killed the whole thing, while everyone waited for them to decide and they couldn't. I'm bored with TV." He leans forward in mock-intimidation. "Television is wrong!"
Does he think his latest character will last until next year? "Well into the next millennium!" he expounds. "We will be part of a millennium special, which we will be performing on New Year's Eve, 1999, at either Wembley Stadium or my room." Yeah, but will he be as funny as Nietzsche?
Cluub Zarathustra is appearing at The Pleasance at The Edinburgh Festival until 30 August.Reuse content