COMEDY / Top of the bill (less 15%)

The lucrative stand-up business is sewn up by two agencies. James Rampt on profiles the Pepsi and Coke of live comedy

On a freezing cold Thursday last week, the Comedy Store off Leicester Square in London was brimming with young execs loosening their ties and rocking with laughter. Away from the stage, the Comedy Store Diner was doing a very healthy trade in desi gner burgers, and the bar was shifting a lot of exotically-labelled lager. The Comedy Store logo - a cheesily grinning mouth - might have been modelled on the owner's face as he surveyed the takings.

This is just the sort of evening when the agents, managers and promoters will swoop, hungry for more stand-up fodder to feed into the ravenous jaws of the touring circuit.

The two biggest fish in this small talent-teeming pond are Avalon, run by Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner, and Off the Kerb, run by Addison Cresswell. As well as managing acts, and organising tours, they are now spinning off into television, video and books. They have fingers in more pies than the late Fanny Craddock.

But their bread and butter remains the live circuit - Avalon, for instance, stages 400 gigs a year through the National Comedy Network. Most of the best of comedy's big live draws of the last 10 years have signed with these two. The 17-strong Avalon roster - including the ubiquitous Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and Rob Newman - keeps the company in swish offices in a highly desirable West End location. In the past, Off the Kerb has signed Julian Clary, and its current list boasts Jack Dee, Lee Evans andMark Lamarr.

The stakes are high, and Off the Kerb and Avalon are keen rivals. Every year at the Edinburgh Festival they take to the streets and wage an aggressive flyposting campaign. But that, they say, is as drawn as the daggers get. "Addison once threatened to kill me," Allen-Turner laughs, "but other than that we do get on very well." Hmm.

Both agencies have comedians beating down their doors to join. After all, no one wants to spend the rest of his (rarely her) career doing unpaid, five-minute open spots in dingy pubs in front of one man and a truculent dog. Every stand-up aspires to the Big Bucks League. Someone like Jo Brand (whose tours are promoted by Off the Kerb) can command a fee of £8,000 for a big-venue gig, and Barry Humphries has been quoted at £25,000 a show. (So, curiously, has Freddie Starr.)

Back a winner, then, and the money pours in (the standard agents' cut is 15 per cent). Back a loser and the money goes down the drain. So the big agencies won't be hurried into anything. "There's been a tremendous rush of agents who see comedy as a way of making a fast buck," Joe Norris from Off the Kerb says. "Some people are signed up as soon as they're out of short trousers. If you don't take care of things, they rust and break. I don't like short-termism."

Managers set great store by word-of-mouth. In early 1990, a buzz gathered around Stewart Lee, a stand-up who'd been on the London circuit for just six months. So Thoday checked him out, "turning up in suits", Lee remembers, "and not saying who he was at these tiny places in Clapham when I was playing to 10 people." At the time, Lee was being wooed by another agency, but was more impressed by Thoday's knowledgeable, if "curmudgeonly" approach, and joined Avalon.

Lee has no written contract with the company and laughs dismissively when I ask if he feels like a puppet. Thoday is eager to dispel some misapprehensions about his business. "We're only aggressive in that we fight for our artists. Getting the best deal is part of our job... A lot of people think we just sit there and collect the commission. But it's not like the music business... We don't see it as 'getting' people. The comedians choose to employ us. If someone wants to fire us tomorrow, they can ."

That's as may be, but it's still a dog-eat-dog world. Neil Willis books acts for 300 gigs a year through his up-and-coming Comedy Club agency in Dulwich. His company now has an annual turnover of £0.5m, but he still found his initiation to the circuit eye-opening. "I never expected it to be so backstabbing and cut-throat," he says. "What really shocked me when I came into the market in 1991 was the smear campaign conducted against me. Other agents were saying to artists, 'don't work with him, he's disreputable'. What the established companies don't realise is that when people like me come in, we develop the market. We convince new venues to take on comedy.We're not a threat."

Willis claims some of his acts have been sounded out by the big boys. "It's frustrating that as soon as they see you starting to focus on an act, they move in with their cheque books. I can offer trust and a very personal service, but they can offer possibly more work and the hope of television."

They also offer the sort of career structure the civil service might envy. Take Avalon. It has the resources to build up an act slowly but surely. It can test out newcomers on the National Comedy Network, before sending them out as support on its bigger acts' tours of 2,000-seat venues and placing them on suitable radio shows. Finally, the comedians can start doing their own national tours, while the company's television wing develops neat little BBC2 series for them.

These agencies have never had it so good, and things look set to get even better. Healthy live work breeds healthy TV work breeds healthy profits. Off the Kerb's Jack Dee is doing an ITV show (for a reported £1.5m), and Frank Skinner from Avalon is making a big-money switch to primetime BBC1 with his own show. While Off the Kerb jealously guard their figures, Avalon are happy to reveal they have an annual turnover in excess of £5m.

In today's comedy market, there is no such thing as a free joke.

n Tomorrow: Jim White on why there's no end to the end-of-the-pier show THE RIVALS Jon Thoday Avalon was set up by run by Jon Thoday (left), in 1988. After a West End musical (Nightclub Confidential) which he produced closed, the 33-year old Cambridge graduate went into stand-up management and soon happened upon Rob Newman and David Baddiel. His stable now includes Frank Skinner, the man who virtually invented New Laddism, Harry Hill, Jim Tavare, and the up-and-coming duo of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring.

Addison Cresswell Starting off as entertainments officer at Brighton Polytechnic, Addison Creswell (right), 34, went on to found Off the Kerb in 1983. "It was the time of New Wave music," his colleague Joe Norris remembers. "Everyone was breaking rules. It got its focus from people like us. For me, it was better than working in the City." Cresswell's first major capture was John Hegley. He is now responsible for Jack Dee, Mark Lamarr, and Lee Evans. he is now responsible for the coming stars, Jeff Greenand Rhona Cameron.

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