It opened at a time when there wasn’t much to laugh about in Northern Ireland.
But despite its unlikely birth against the backdrop of conflict, the Empire Comedy Club is still going strong 20 years later.
The famous club staged its first gig on October 13, 1992, at the Empire Music Hall on Botanic Avenue, when the Troubles were rumbling on with no end in sight.
Over the years, packed audiences have been treated to a weekly dose of side-splitting laughter with a conveyor belt of top-class comedy talent gracing the venue’s famous stage.
One of those who was key to the opening of the province’s first comedy club, and its subsequent success, knew all too well of the suffering of the Troubles.
Patrick Kielty — whose father was murdered by the UFF — was the first man to take to the stage of the south Belfast venue.
Now Kielty — who recently tied the knot with TV presenter Cat Deeley — will headline the 20th anniversary of ‘The Empire Laughs Back’ on November 6.
Club organiser and comedy impresario Jackie Hamilton said that the gig was arranged as a thank you to all who have supported the club over the past two decades.
“Paddy hasn’t played the club since 1996 and we thought ‘what better time to get him back than for our 20th birthday’,” he said.
“He is really looking forward to treading the boards of the Empire Comedy Club again.”
The bash will be held on Tuesday, November 6, and, to celebrate the birthday of the club, ticket prices have been rolled back to the 1992 rate of just £3.50. The Empire Comedy Club was the brainchild of Hamilton, a former BBC executive producer of comedy.
He invited Kielty to join him in setting up Northern Ireland’s first comedy club.
The venture was an instant success and had punters queuing around the corner from the opening night.
Hamilton said: “When I came down to the club on the first night there was a large crowd queuing round the corner — it was a wet Tuesday night — I thought there was a bomb scare.”
Two decades on, even with the recession biting hard, the Empire Comedy Club is still a popular venue with punters.
And a good dose of local humour is always guaranteed as BBC Blame Game regulars Colin Murphy and Jake O’Kane alternate week-about as MCs for the visiting guest comedians.
20 facts about the Empire
1 The Empire Comedy Club — also known as The Empire Laughs Back — first opened for business on October 13, 1992, marking the arrival of Northern Ireland’s very first comedy venue.
2 It has always been staged amid the imposing surroundings of the Empire Music Hall on Botanic Avenue, a former Victorian Church which opened five years earlier.
3 The club was the brainchild of former BBC executive producer of comedy, Jackie Hamilton, who asked a little known comic called Patrick Kielty from Dundrum to join him.
4 Kielty became an early star of the comedy night and was renowned for his routines during which he donned a balaclava and poked fun at politicians and paramilitaries.
5 The club was key to launching Kielty’s television career which included the PK Tonight entertainment show, which Hamilton produced and Kielty presented for BBC NI in 1995.
6 Many comedians regard an appearance at the club as a rite of passage — you have not earned your comedy stripes unless you’ve faced an audience at the Empire.
7 Many world-renowned stand-ups have performed at the Empire. These include Lee Evans; Ardal O’ Hanlon; Jimmy Carr; Sean Lock; Lee Mack; Bill Bailey; John Bishop; Kevin Bridges; Tommy Tiernan; Russell Howard, Ross Nobel and Dara O’Briain.
8 Over the years the venue has also attracted music artists from all over the world — from Billy Bragg to Peter Buck and Nanci Griffith.
9 Home-grown musical talent has taken to the stage, too — including performances from Snow Patrol, who played a packed-out show just weeks before Run turned them into global stars; Duke Special; Brian Kennedy; Two Door Cinema Club; Ash; Divine Comedy, The Answer and General Fiasco.
10 Stand-up comedian Jake O’Kane started his career at the Empire. “It’s where I began,” said the compere. “It’s my home gig and my favourite gig. Over the years I’ve seen the big names all come. The reputation of the Empire extends far and wide. A lot of comedians across the water would say you can’t call yourself a comedian until you’ve performed at the Empire in Belfast.”
11 Lurgan comedian Sean Hegarty said: “I’ve always looked at the Empire as being the Wembley Stadium for comedians. When I was starting out I would go there and watch comedians take the roof off the place and I was in awe of them. My ambition coming up as a comedian was just to do the Empire. I always thought if I could just get on that stage I’d be content.”|
12 Micky Bartlett, who has performed there, said: “I love the Empire purely because it’s the only place in Northern Ireland you can go as a comedian and you’ll always be guaranteed a big audience of totally different people. They always say you haven’t made it as a comedian in Northern Ireland unless you’ve played there at least five times. It’s known throughout the UK and America as a must-play venue for comedians.”
13 BBC Blame Game regulars Colin Murphy and O’Kane currently do alternate weeks as MCs for the visiting guest comedians at the Botanic Avenue club.
14 The Empire naturally has plenty of spirits behind the bar — but it is also supposed to be haunted by spirits of a different kind, as it is rumoured there is a crypt below it and people have reported glasses smashing for no reason and footsteps on empty dancefloors.
15 Ticket prices for The Empire Strikes Back’s 20th anniversary gig with Patrick Kielty on November 6 are being rolled back to the 1992 rate of £3.50. They will be on sale at the Tuesday night club in the run-up to the event.
16 The Bangor-born former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik said in 2010 that he would perform a stand-up routine at the Empire after he tried his hand at a comedy career. “Playing Belfast's my next big ambition, to bring my comedy home. It'll be a home crowd and the place has launched a lot of big names.” He never did.
17 The Empire takes its name from Belfast’s most famous music hall — the Empire Theatre of Varieties, which opened in Victoria Square in 1891 and continued to operate for another 70 years.
18 The club has run open mic nights where anyone who fancies themselves as a comic can take to the stage. However, the crowd can be unforgiving, and hecklers won’t hold back. Comedian Michael McIntyre said before a 2009 gig: “Belfast audiences are among the toughest. I know if these guys laugh, then I’ve got it right.”
19 The Empire sits in the heart of Belfast’s student land. While you can expect a post-lecture crowd on comedy night, the audience is mixed and friendly — unless you’re dying onstage.
20 The Empire has two floors with two distinct vibes. The Music Hall upstairs regularly hosts bands, while |downstairs is a pub.