Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

The Comedy Store: 25 years of one-liners, hecklers and gongs

It is the club that transformed British comedy and created a new wave of stars. To mark its anniversary, Arifa Akbar and Kunal Dutta ask 15 comics who performed there for their memories - and their best jokes

Twenty five years ago, a new midnight show opened above a topless bar in Soho that would change the face of British stand-up comedy.

Twenty five years ago, a new midnight show opened above a topless bar in Soho that would change the face of British stand-up comedy.

The club owner, Don Ward, christened it the Comedy Store, and it was based on a concept he had seen in Los Angeles. Comedians vied for the much coveted, if feared, Friday night slots. During the 1980s, it became the meeting place for alternative comedians including Ben Elton, Jeremy Hardy, Jo Brand and Paul Merton.

Mr Ward advertised for acts in magazines for builders and grocers. "It began as a six-month experiment that was a success from the start. I was flooded with applications after I put adverts into magazines for grocers and builders saying 'are you the funniest person doing the wrong job?'," he said.

To mark its 25th anniversary, a documentary will be screened on BBC1 tonight. Paul Merton, who wrote and directed the programme, will trace the rise of the club that revolutionised stand-up comedy, and features Lee Evans, Clive Anderson, Jack Dee, Jenny Éclair and Alexei Sayle. Merton said of the Store: "I'd always wanted to be a comedian and the Comedy Store gave me a chance to get up on stage and prove whether I was funny or not."

ALEXEI SAYLE

First performed: Hosted the first-ever show in May 1979.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "It was the springboard of my whole career. Until then, it seemed that in the entertainment business, unless you were from Oxford or Cambridge, it was like a fortress. The Comedy Store was a way of meeting other performers and TV producers. I hosted on the first night of the club and it felt like it was going to change British comedy."

Best joke: (Referring to a gong that is struck when the audience at the Comedy Store is bored with an act) "I would tell the audience that if they gonged off the performers, they would all have to go home early."

JO BRAND

First performed: End of 1987.

What the Comedy Store means to her: "It was a big deal. Everyone was terrified of doing the Friday night late show. It has bouncers on the door and was full of groups of blokes from the City who had been drinking for at least six hours. You either got someone throwing up at your feet or subjected to abuse. To crack it meant that you could cut it as a competent jobbing comedian."

Best joke: "I'd come on stage wearing a white T-shirt with a blood capsule in my mouth. I was supposed to cough blood all over my clothes before saying 'Oh dear. I must give up smoking'. But it would always go wrong. Either I'd spit the capsule on to my chest or swallow it whole. Eventually I had to ditch the gag."

JENNY ÉCLAIR

First performed: In the mid-1980s.

What the Comedy Store means to her: "I'm really glad I've done it because it is one of the hoops you have to jump through in order to prove yourself. But even now the prospect of a weekend at the store has me running for the hills. It is a gig that turns my bowels to water. Walking on to the stage feels like you're getting on to a plane that you're never sure is going to make it. The worst was the Friday 8pm gig. There are many comedians who thrived in such an environment. But it didn't encourage me to experiment. I always thought someone on a stag night would get up and punch me in the face."

Best joke: "In 1984, I remember reciting an eight-minute poem written in Odyssean verse about a man who burnt his face eating a Breville sandwich. I was amazed to get through the whole thing without getting heckled off."

* Jenny Éclair is performing in The Andy Warhol Syndrome at the Riverside Studios from 31 January.

SHAZIA MIRZA

First performed: September 2002.

What the Comedy Store means to her: "It meant a lot to me because the Comedy Store is an established, prestigious place to play. Some people have brilliant comedy careers without ever playing it but to me, anyone that comes to London and wants to watch comedy comes to the Comedy Store so I wanted to play there. I always wanted to do it because I wanted to give the audience something different. Usually, you will mainly see white, male comedians and I thought my act would be something different for the audiences."

Best joke: "My name is Shazia Mirza, at least that's what it says on my pilot's licence."

RHOD GILBERT

First performed: Early 2003.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "Getting on to the Comedy Store stage is a massive privilege for me. You are on the billing with some of the best comedians in the world. Before I'd done it, I was used to doing dingy pubs with two people in the audience and a dog. At the Comedy Store, I got many more laughs that I was used to. It felt wonderful."

Best joke: "I don't do gags, I tell stories. One story is all about using my grandmother as a football. My brother takes a penalty shot and she goes flying over a wall and my father runs her over."

JOHN HEGLEY

First performed: In 1982.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "In the performances I'd done before, I did not have to be funny as I was singing and doing poetry. It was quite interesting being at the Comedy Store and attempting to be comical. That was the first time and it meant you had to be funny. I had so much nervous energy that I heard someone saying 'top man', which made me feel good, and then I got gonged off for the next five visits. It was the fast school of learning. There was no safety net."

Best joke: "I have got members of the audience to play football with a cigarette packet on stage."

NEIL MULLARKEY

First performed: October 1985.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "It was the first-ever improvised show at the Comedy Store and was therefore a groundbreaking evening." I performed with Mike Myers, Kit Hollerback and Dave Cohen."

Best joke: "Last night when I tripped up."

LEE MACK

First performed: Early December 1995.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "The Comedy Store is steeped in history and the one gig that every comedian wants. For me, ringing them up and getting the gig was harder than the gig itself. It was the first place I ever watched comedy. I saw a brilliant performance by Eddie Izzard and Steve Coogan in 1990 and realised it was what I wanted to do."

Best joke: "What's the difference between a Manchester United and Manchester City fan? I had this joke planned in my head before going on stage at the Comedy Store in Manchester in front of friends and family. I'd barely got three seconds into the question before half the crowd started booing and the other half started cheering. Then a drunk man got up and started a fight with me."

JOHN MOLONEY

First performed: 1990.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "The reputation of the venue means a lot - if you play it, you must have the ability to do so. It's Premier League. Just being associated with the Comedy Store opens other doors. The hairs on the back of my neck still stand up as I walk down the stairs. And so they should.

Best joke: "David Baddiel - Comedian. That still makes me laugh."

MILTON JONES

First performed: April 1990.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "It is a bit like Buckingham Palace. It can take ages to get into but you're probably best to go with your heart and dress up as Batman. The CS is the best club in the world, the birthplace of a religion. The only trouble is that from time to time the worshippers require a sacrifice. There's nothing like 400 people booing in your face. The first time I played the late show, before I could say 'Good Evening' someone had thrown up all over the stage."

Best joke: "My best joke ever is always the last one I wrote which was ... If you see a woman staggering around in pajamas, it's probably a mermaid doing her bronze survival walking badge."

ROGER MONKHOUSE

First performed: 1990

What the Comedy Store means to him: "Everything. It has been my mother's breast and my father's strap. It took a lowly entertainer and turned him into an artist."

Best joke: "Haven't written it yet. Please God."

ADAM BLOOM

First performed: February 1994.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "It was the first place I ever saw live comedy, I was 19. It's always a wonderful feeling looking back at what it felt like watching the comedians and fantasising that I'd one day do it, knowing that it's what I do for a living. If you don't play the Comedy Store people will often assume you're not any good."

Best joke: "It's visual."

MIKE GUNN

First performed: 3 June 1995.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "It is quite simply the best gig in the world. Getting booked at the store is like having the British standard kite mark on your product."

Best joke: "My wife said she thought it would be very romantic if when she dies she could be buried in her wedding dress. I said, You'd better hope you die of some kind of wasting disease."

MICK FERRY

First performed: 2001.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "When I started out in comedy seven years ago the Comedy Store was the only place I wanted to play. They say Wembley's the home of football; the Comedy Store is the home of comedy and I feel privileged to play there."

Best joke: "Don't you like being on the bus when an old person gets on and the driver sets off before they've had a chance to sit down?"

ED BYRNE

First performed: 1994.

What the Comedy Store means to him: "It's the A-list club. There's a good atmosphere backstage and the audience are fans: they're there for comedy, certainly not for cheap booze or food! It's definitely one of the best clubs in the world, better than New York or L.A. There's still a sense of occasion."

Best joke: "My girlfriend snores really loudly. Apparently she had her nose broken when she was younger, but it didn't teach her. She still snores really loudly."

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