When the Comedy Store threw open its doors, it rewrote the joke book.
Julian Hall celebrates 30 years of mirth – and 10 comedians recall their first, nerve-wracking, appearances there.
The Independent, 18th May, 2009
Once dubbed “Comedy’s Unofficial National Theatre”, The Comedy Store is 30 years old this month. Quality control has been the enduring grace of the Store that set about separating what Don Ward, the co-founder and owner, described as “a lot of chaff from very little wheat” when it first opened in Soho on 19 May 1979.
The Store was born of the desire of two men, insurance salesman Peter Rosengard and Ward, a club owner and a former comic, to bring the American stand-up scene to the UK after they had both taken trips to LA’s Comedy Store in 1978. The London club became to comedy what The Roxy in Covent Garden was to punk music – a cradle for invention and insurrection.
“We had every reservation about it working,” says Ward. “There was no scene, but we created one. When we met Alexei Sayle, an angry Liverpudlian with the sharpest sense of humour ever, I knew we had something special. To this day, I say he was the original and the best.”
That scene was, of course, alternative comedy, a title that even some of the alternatives couldn’t rest all that easy with. However, their legacy was set: the mother-in-law jokes had had their day. The political bent of Sayle, and others like Tony Allen, cradled a new politically correct, freeform observational and self-referential brand of comedy that found a more populist mouthpiece in Ben Elton, whose generation (including Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and French and Saunders) came through the Store before being swallowed whole by TV and establishing themselves as the publicly known vanguard of alternative comedy.
The appetite of TV for alternative comedy, tensions between Ward and Rosengard (who eventually quit to go back to insurance), and the rise of other clubs like Jongleurs threatened to usurp the Store’s place in history. The ship steadied, however, and The Comedy Store subsequently nurtured every trend that followed, from Jo Brand’s downbeat persona to Eddie Izzard’s fanciful sojourns.
Meanwhile, the Store was home to The Comedy Store Players, which brought Paul Merton to the fore, and to the topical troupe The Cutting Edge, of whom Mark Thomas was a founder member. A more recent residency that has proved hugely popular is Andrew Maxwell’s FullMooners, a late show that has something of the night about it with its werewolf theme. In another, the King Gong show, punters are encouraged to have a go (after booking in advance). Talent scouts mooch in the shadows waiting to pounce.
The Store moved in 1993 to its present, purpose-built site on Oxenden Street, Piccadilly and celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1999 with Ward opening the Manchester Store. The recently announced venture in Mumbai, which will be initially populated by British comedians, was the 30th anniversary’s special event. In between times, a venture in Leeds was short-lived, lasting just eight months. “I’ve always thought that small is beautiful to some extent,” contends Ward. “This isn’t sour grapes, but to have a Store in every city – like a certain other club – means that you can’t maintain a high quality.”
Ward is clearly talking about Jongleurs here, and indeed, Jongleurs have had a fluctuation of fortunes. There are now also a plethora of other clubs that offer different approaches, more oriented towards sketch or character comedy or less mainstream stand up. It’s possible to make a living without playing the Store. However, the allure of the Comedy Store still holds, as generations of comics testify (see right). Certainly, there is an authority about the place without it ever being stuffy or too reliant on former glories.
There are of course plenty of former glories to choose from, and among the highlights of three decades for Ward was the first time Robin Williams walked into the club. “He came down in ’81, bought a ticket and told Alexei he wanted to go on. We agreed that he could go on early in the second half and that we would get Lee Cornes on afterwards if he went badly. In those days we had about eight acts on in each half because people would die horrible deaths. So he went on to do five minutes and he was still there forty-five minutes later with the audience baying for more. I was sitting with Bud Friedman, the US impro impresario and when he saw Williams he said, ‘wow, you have Robin Williams, how often do you have him?’ ‘Most weekends’, I told him.”
Such bravado has contributed to the Store’s cachet – and is part of the reason why it still retains its vitality.
First Store gig: Opening night, 1979
The opening night was an exceptional night but it wasn’t taken seriously by the media; they were interested in it as a faintly ridiculous talent show. The night itself was very wild, everyone was drunk and it didn’t get started til midnight. I knew the whole thing would fall apart if someone didn’t force them into behaving themselves, so I was very aggressive from the start. And very honest. If I wanted an act to fail, I was horrible about them. No one had seen that kind of honesty before. I was the first modern MC in the sense that it wasn’t just about introducing the next act. You set the vibe.
First Store gig: 1985
It was the mecca of the circuit. I really wanted to play there, but they were a bit unsure of me. They asked me to do a try-out. I thought I was too established to do that, but I did one anyway and I got regular work thereafter. With the midnight show, the audience were waiting to turn on someone. So if you were waiting to go on and the act before you did really well it might well be that they would turn on you. Equally, if the act before you went down the pan, the chances were you would get away with it.My first show went down well. Or at least Fanny the Wonder Dog, who I was performing with at the time, went down well.
First Store gig: September 1986
My first visit was my first gig. Luckily, the people before me were really crap, so I had the advantage of being a pleasant surprise, I suppose. Everyone had made the mistake of trying to involve the audience, but if you don’t have the skill to do it, the audience become embarrassed. They were asking, ‘Anyone here from Hackney? Or Islington?’ It met with complete silence, so I used that and followed up with ‘Is anyone here from Finland? No? That’s my act fucked then.’ It got a laugh. I came away thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do now.’
First Store gig: 1988
My first three solo gigs were all late night on Friday, and they always seemed to be after Jerry Sadowitz, after whom the room would still be shaking. You had to be combative if the audience got belligerent, especially late night on a Friday, which was a bear pit. The old Store was a difficult room to play as it was – it was like two rooms, basically. I suffered some terrible deaths there but at least the audience was real, whereas Jongleurs was very hooray Henry. Playing the Store was about pushing through the fear barrier; no one would talk to you until you had cracked it. After I did, Bob Mills summed it up when he turned to me and said: “Well, I suppose I can talk to you now.”
First Store gig: 1999
I used to ring up the Store to get open spots and whenever Don Ward picked up I would say, ‘Sorry, wrong number’ and put the phone down. On the first night I played the Store the main thing I remember was being utterly terrified in the dressing room. There was this act doing press-ups and going, ‘ooh oooh yeah’, and all this self-motivational stuff. I was hunched up on my chair, trying to take up as little space as possible. The gig itself went OK, but my knee was doing Elvis thrusts and I kept thinking, ‘Well as long as my knee is shaking, my voice won’t be.’ Whenever I go back, it surprises me how small the stage is; on the night I thought the audience was a thousand deep.
First Store gig: 1999
It’s a big night, like the Olympics of open-spots and I’d never been as excited about anything. The first gig I did was really good; I really stormed it with just basic stuff. I still have the ticket somewhere. In fact, I had the VHS tape of it for a while and I still marvel at my physical condition then, wearing this tight T-shirt that my toddler can fit into now. Anyway, I thought I was going to be an overnight sensation but the second gig was a horror story. I’d invited a lot of friends that night and I still haven’t had the guts to speak to some of them since and I had Don literally ignoring me. I had nightmares about him afterwards, and would think that I saw him in the street or something. It took years for me to get back to the Store, but when it eventually went right it was amazing; you can go from zero to hero in 20 minutes.
First Store gig: 2001
I would liken the first Store gig as the first gig with the big boys; you move from the junior school of open-spots, where you find incredibly friendly and supportive people, on to senior school, where you are being judged on your merits rather than, ‘Oh you’ve given it a go, well done.’ I did my first gig there within a year and a half of starting. It’s amazing how long it takes to get five minutes of one-liners. You had to do exactly five minutes – if you didn’t, you weren’t coming back. I passed through other clubs pretty quickly, but The Comedy Store was always a treat. When I get a break from manic touring, I go back there and hang out. Seeing people, including some of my favourite comics like Adam Bloom, John Maloney and Sean Meo, do 20 minutes of their best stuff at the Store is an absolute joy.
First Store gig: 2002
I left my first Comedy Store gig until quite late because I was gigging outside of London – in fact the Amused Moose was the London gig for people at my level – and the Store always struck me with fear. So I’d admired it from afar, really. Then, when they brought back the King Gong show [an open-mic night for budding comedians] I decided that was the easiest way to do it. I came second on the night to [musical act] Ria Lina. We had to come out and say why we should win. I just said that Rina should win, because it felt really awkward to say why you were the best. At the end of the show, Johnny Vegas came up to me like a drunken tornado and said: ‘I think you’re funny: do you want to do some gigs with me in Nottingham at Just the Tonic?’ So that was the result of the evening. How jammy was I?
First Store gig: 2002
It’s an iconic moment standing in front of that logo and performing at the Store. It’s one of those things that comedians tick off. I was based in Manchester when I started, so if I travelled for open spots it was all about the North-west or maybe Newcastle and Scotland. By the time I got to do the Store I had been going for a long time, which I think helps. I was at a point where I didn’t get nervous anymore, but the Store is somewhere I still get nerves. I’d heard lots of horror stories about how unfriendly people were in the dressing room, how you had to prove your mettle before anyone would speak to you. It was all bull. It went swimmingly in the end, but when you do your first gig there you still have to have Don give you a critique of your act. It’s quite terrifying. He told me not to be so dirty, good advice in life generally.
First Store gig: 2004
Don is really precious about the London Store, justifiably so, and the Manchester Store is a kind of breeding ground. He saw me and gave me my own show up there, Alan Carr’s Ice Cream Sundae, but it took me a while to get to London. You’re up with the big boys when you do get there, what with Chris Rock having rolled up for secret gigs and Jack Dee trying out new material. I was on with Russell Brand for my first gig there. The audience have a sense of kudos too, and there’s a sense of mutual respect that they have chosen The Comedy Store rather than one of those chicken-in-a-basket ones. What’s funny is that when you’re at the London Store everyone is in jeans and T-shirts chilling out, but in Manchester it’s a night out. Women are in backless dresses and Jimmy Choos and have been having their hair done all day.