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
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable