Arts: All the way to the bank

Twenty years ago the Comedy Store opened in London, bringing American- style alternative stand-up to the UK for the first time. Today, what was once edgy, angry and subversive has become big business

Alexei Sayle and Sandi Toksvig you will have heard of. But what about Nina Finburgh, Bill Beckett, Ed Shirman, Bob Flag, Brian Beck and Jon Jon Keefe? These were just a few of the wannabe comedians who replied to adverts in Punch, The Stage and the Evening Standard, got paid nothing and were present at the birth of alternative comedy as part of the first- night line-up of the Comedy Store on 19 May 1979.

Before the Comedy Store opened its doors above a Soho strip club, stand- up comedy in this country was middle-aged, middle-class and Little England in mentality. "The scene was dominated by the likes of Jimmy Tarbuck and Lenny Bennett," says Don Ward, the Comedy Store's founder. "I wanted to create a club that was based on the US stand-up circuit, which would have relevance to young people." So out went the mother-in-law and racist jokes and in came a new political agenda, fuelled by resentment of the Thatcher regime.

In hindsight, its success seems inevitable. The only real surprise is that no one had thought of it earlier. But at the time Larry Adler wrote off the Comedy Store as just "an undisciplined load of rubbish that would never catch on", and an early billing including Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer and French and Saunders pulled in only nine punters.

Don Ward admits that it was all a bit chaotic at the start. "French and Saunders died on their arse week after week, but they kept coming back for their pounds 15," he says. But after a while some comedians got better, some got well-known, and some got both. Within five years rival clubs such as the Banana in Balham and Jongleurs in Battersea sprang up, and the ever quick-off-the-mark TV producers thought money could be made, "even if the stand-ups did use bad language".

And that was really that as far as alternative comedy was concerned. Performers who had started out as the last word in cutting edge became mainstream fodder for the late-night TV schedules, working hard to hone their acts for the mid-evening TV slots. The clubs still thrived, of course, because there were plenty of people who had got to enjoy live comedy as an alternative to the mind-blowing tedium of most rock gigs, but for most comedians, the clubs had become less of an end in themselves and more a potential launchpad to TV and "loadsamoney".

On any Saturday night in London today there are around 250 different comedy venues to choose between, and in the UK as a whole, almost double that. Some are still little more than a dingy, smoky room above a pub, but this is less out of financial necessity and more out of the owners' belief that the public want to feel they are living a little bit recklessly. Make no mistake about it, comedy is an industry and for those in charge, an extremely lucrative one.

To be fair, some clubs have tried to retain the atmosphere of the early days. Despite having moved to a much plusher 400-seater theatre just off Leicester Square, Don Ward's Comedy Store has done its best not to dilute the brand. Comedy is what's on offer, and comedy is what you get. If you're very lucky you may even get an impromptu performance from the likes of Eddie Izzard or Bill Bailey, who just happen to be passing by. Even so, Ward is weakening as the pound signs beckon and he's thinking of opening another couple of Comedy Stores up north.

But he's got a long way to go before he matches Jongleurs, which was bought a few years ago by Regent Inns. It has now become the Asda of the comedy circuit, with branches in Camden, Bow, Leicester, Watford, Nottingham, Oxford and Southampton, and has a full-time team of 10 at its centralised booking call-centre. "We take between 6,500 and 7,500 bookings per week," says Nigel Pitman, a Jongleurs spokesman.

Nothing can compete with Avalon though, the company which represents some of the biggest names in the business, such as Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and Harry Hill, and has recently expanded into production and promotion. Don Ward calls Avalon "a bunch of strange, pontificating twats", which may strike a chord with anyone who has seen their staff parading at the Edinburgh Festival in identikit black shirts and with a vigour bordering on zealotry.

Not that Avalon care much what Ward - or anyone else - thinks. "We put on the biggest live comedy gig of all time when Newman and Baddiel played to 12,000 at the Wembley Arena," says James Harring from Avalon, proudly. "This prompted Janet Street-Porter to call comedy the new rock'n'roll." Avalon now runs The Comedy Network, which last year delivered over 500 nights of the Avalon experience into clubs and universities, and has been picked up by Channel 5.

It's hard to moan too much about the money. Posh Spice earns a fortune on little talent, so why shouldn't a comedian with plenty more earn a decent wage? Nigel Pitman reckons that a good club stand-up can make pounds 30,000 per year and that once you make it on to TV, the sky's the limit. And yet one can't help thinking that somewhere along the line, money has made comedy a little too safe and anodyne.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than on the corporate circuit. Businesses that would once have booked Paul Daniels for their annual night out now go for "yoof" appeal by booking stand-ups from the circuit. And stand- ups, who would once have sneered at an invitation from a company whose politics they despised, happily turn up because they can earn between three and 10 times as much for a set. Last Christmas, the corporate arm of Jongleurs took over pounds 1m.

"Companies such as Saatchi & Saatchi and Morgan Grenfell have approached us to organise events," says John Davy, Jongleur's managing director. "We do everything from booking the acts to briefing the comedians on the foibles of selected members of the company." The comedians know the rules and are happy to abide by them.

"The client gets what he pays for," says Bob Mills, the TV stand-up, candidly. "I was once asked, six minutes before I went on to mention a particular product in my act as it would give the sales force a boost. So I did." Isn't this all hideously un-PC for a right-on comedian? "Yeah," he admits with a laugh. "I often think back on conversations I had with Alexei Sayle 10 years ago about how comedy was going to change the world and I wonder where we went wrong."

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...