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."

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