By John Lee
Special to The Times
July 4, 2004
The clientele this evening, some veterans, some newbies, was mostly good-natured groups of young pleasure-seekers cradling pints of premium lager, and they generated dozens of loud conversations about work, football and university classes as a buzz of expectation grew. Despite the free-flowing alcoholic accompaniment, this crowd was less motivated by serious drinking than by serious laughter, having paid about $12 each to watch two hours of live stand-up at Downstairs at the King's Head, one of London's comedy clubs.
It's one of more than 100 live comedy venues around London, each offering an opportunity for visitors to tap in to the comic psyche in a nation that juxtaposes an outwardly stuffy persona with a uniquely wacky sense of humor.
Some of the comedy may sail right over foreigners' heads. I'm a Brit, although transplanted to Canada for several years, and I still struggle to comprehend some of the more topical jokes told on the capital's comedy club stages. But most acts, perhaps aware that their audiences are at least partly international, stick more to jokes with universal appeal.
For many, chain clubs like Jongleurs and the Comedy Store are the city's most accessible outlets; they combine acts of a consistently high standard with passable food, good bars and easy-to-find locations. For the more adventurous, smaller operations like Downstairs at the King's Head reflect the adrenalin-charged spirit of the comedy scene's early days.
With clubs to suit all tastes, the city's comedy scene has become a regular nightlife fixture, offering a rib-tickling evening out for Londoners and overseas visitors tired of the capital's regular been-there-done-that pubs. Prepared to be entertained, I traveled to London in early spring to sample the scene.
A Bohemian feel
By 9:30 p.m., the Downstairs audience, fired up by more than an hour of cheerful imbibing, was growing impatient, the atmosphere gradually becoming less evocative of a theater and more like a sacrificial night at the Colosseum, the crowd watching hungrily just a few feet from the floor-level space that passed for a stage.
Silently thanking the comedy club gods for providing good ventilation in what would by now have been an uncomfortable sweat-fest, I sipped my second pint of lager and perused the calendar of shows. Up-and-coming comics are especially welcome here, with at least a dozen performing five-minute sets every Thursday night. Since its establishment in 1981, the 120-seat Downstairs has played host to numerous, now well-known, British comedians.
But it's more than just a comedy venue. With a loyal band of local devotees keeping the place alive, the event list has a distinctly Bohemian feel, with be-bop bands as well as poetry readings. Live comedy is still the mainstay, though, and Saturday's cabaret nights have attained a near-legendary status.
Suddenly, with a flick of the lights and a burst of music, the cherub-faced master of ceremonies bounded on, kicking off the show by picking on members of the audience in the front row. "Are you performing tonight, mate? No? Well, take your feet off the stage then," began our host, setting the tone for an evening of crude, cruel and jaw-achingly hilarious comedy.
His machine-gun-like delivery nailed three more victims in as many minutes, including an Australian with a backpack that apparently contained everything he owned, an embarrassed bus driver who didn't seem to know his own name or just didn't want to play along and a group of three who was introduced to the rest of the crowd as an exhausted ménage à trois out on the town for some much-needed rest.
The roller coaster had begun, and several audience members, especially those relieved at avoiding the host's verbal bullying, were already dissolving into fits of laughter.
The next three comedians ran the gamut of comedy club experiences: a relaxed stand-up who combined superb close-up card tricks with ribald jokes about terminal diseases and deviant sex; a lovable Cockney geezer; and a fast-paced, guitar-playing comic who began his act with a disarming song about how everyone heads to the bar when a musical comedian comes on rather than watch the worst act on the bill.
Taking this as my cue, I headed over to order a final round of drinks and found the master of ceremonies standing at the bar waiting for his next appearance. Halfway through a pint of beer, he was engaged in an animated conversation with someone who looked as though he could have been a comedian dropping by on his night off. Laughing aloud, they graphically disproved the suggestion that comics — especially British comics — are a morose bunch off-stage.
Two Canadian women in their 20s were discussing the night's acts as they stood at the bar. "This is the first time we've been here; we usually go to the Comedy Store [near Piccadilly Circus]," one of them told me. "I like it here: It's cheaper and the comedians are just as good. But they pick on the audience more, so I'm glad we didn't sit near the front."
Although the evening isn't a competition — no "Last Comic Standing" here — the audience, just by its reaction, anointed the first comedian as the evening's best act. His combination of laid-back crowd control and open attempts to joke about sacred taboos most quickly won the crowd. And his concerted attempts to pick on one hapless audience member — for offenses including his "boring" clothing and "matching" accounting job — continued to draw laughter. When the emcee rapidly wrapped up the show with a few topical barbs about Tony Blair and George Bush's "special relationship" just after 11.30 p.m., the satisfied crowd stumbled happily into the rain, debating about the night's best jokes.
London's comedy club network began to grow soon after "alternative comedy" — described as the humor equivalent of punk rock — burst onto the scene in the late 1970s, challenging mainstream, suit-wearing comedians with an edgy, often aggressive brand of confrontational humor.
Shunned by traditional performance outlets, early alternative comedians struggled to find venues willing to showcase their talents.
The club that changed that, still one of the most popular live comedy venues in London, is the Comedy Store. Established above a Soho strip bar in 1979, the Store imported its small, smoky-room format from the Sunset Strip venue of the same name, creating the first London club for a new breed of stand-up comics.
Early Comedy Store shows were more often tense standoffs than well-received stand-up, as alcohol-fueled audiences hurled abuse and the occasional chair at unknown and sometimes bizarre comedians. Breaking the bounds of what comedy was supposed to be, near-legendary acts of the period included a man dressed as a giant chicken who stood silently on stage for as long as he could before the enraged audience dragged him off.
It seemed a long way from entertainment, but many of today's leading British comedians, including Jennifer Saunders, Rik Mayall, Rowan Atkinson and Graham Norton, cut their comic teeth on failed Comedy Store performances. Mike Myers and Robin Williams dropped by in the 1980s for occasional unannounced attempts at taming its wild audiences.
Today's Comedy Store is a few hundred yards and several light years from its original seedy home. Some fans regard the new Store, a custom-built, 400-seat air-conditioned venue near Piccadilly Circus, as Britain's national theater of comedy. It's calmer than in its earlier days and much funnier.
My first trip to the Comedy Store was in the late 1980s, when two friends and I — 19-year-old aficionados of comedy — headed into London for a night of beer-fueled hilarity. At the time, London clubs were scant, but the Comedy Store was already a beacon of enlightened humor. Sitting a few rows from the stage, I laughed so hard I almost rocked off my chair, and my abiding memory is the sound of my friends similarly convulsing.
I've been back several times since, including a couple of visits to the new venue. These days, the Comedy Store rarely fails to deliver a good punch. By longevity and reputation, it has developed into a slick business, complete with shows every night and its own range of merchandise. It's affiliated with a company that operates three venues in London and 16 others throughout the world, making it the world's largest comedy club chain.
Standard attack strategy
Jongleurs Comedy Club opened its first London venue in the traditionally working-class area of Battersea in 1983 and now offers a popular formula that consists of two hours of comedy, with up to four comedians, a food-and-drink menu and a post-show disco.
A Thursday night visit to the trendy Battersea venue provided some insight into this highly entertaining set-up. In a large, windowless upstairs room filled with long tables arranged on a scuffed hardwood floor, the venue's curved, black-painted ceiling gives it the feel of an ancient, fire-damaged theater.
Behind the stage, the club's name, wrought from torn strips of sheet metal, creates a distinctive backdrop for a lone microphone stand set dead-center under a spotlight.
As audience members swiftly carried $20 jugs of Kronenberg beer and $13 to $16 bento boxes of crab cakes, chicken skewers and fire-roasted corn from the bar to the tables, it was announced that the show would start in 30 minutes.
It began almost on time when a large, jovial master of ceremonies launched himself through the crowd and onto the stage from a door opposite. Deploying the standard attack strategy, he immediately set upon those in the front row, moving effortlessly from a group of recruitment professionals still wearing their office ties to a table of South African visitors who looked decidedly perplexed for most of the evening.
Two hours of consistently good observational, satirical and even scatological humor ensued, performed by a self-deprecating Northerner who didn't open his eyes for his entire set; a ribald Londoner who mercilessly lampooned a Princess Diana look-a-like in the front row and relied entirely on audience suggestions for his hilarious act; and a more conventional performer from New Zealand who talked entertainingly about the unexpected differences he had encountered since moving to Britain.
On the way home, I talked with my friend David — who had joined me at that Comedy Store laugh-fest a decade before — about the night's entertainment and the racy humor that still draws the biggest laughs from most audiences.
Brits have a reputation for never discussing difficult issues, so comedy has always been our best forum for broaching the most personal, offensive and taboo subjects, the common, laugh-out-loud response an indication that London's kaleidoscope of comedy clubs is a necessary outlet for an otherwise slightly uptight nation.
And that's no joke.
Where to find laugh-out-loud London
From LAX, nonstop service to London is available on British, American, United, Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $778.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (country code for England) and the local number.
THE COMEDY CLUBS:
London's comedy clubs provide some of the best entertainment available to locals and visitors. Performances at chain clubs, specially built venues and pub rooms are listed weekly in London's Time Out and Evening Standard. The website http://www.chortle.co.uk is also a great resource, providing up-to-date gig listings, profiles of comedians and information on how to travel to venues.
Downstairs at the King's Head, 2 Crouch End Hill, is a short walk from Fins- bury Park Underground station (Piccadilly and Victoria lines); 8340-1028 or http://www.downstairsatthekingshead.com . You can also take a W7 bus from the station toward Crouch End. The bus arrives at the pub in about five minutes. Admission is $11-$15 and perform- ances are Wednesdays to Saturdays, plus occasional Tuesdays. Doors open at 8 p.m.
The Comedy Store is downstairs at 1A Oxendon St., near Piccadilly Circus Underground station (Piccadilly line); 7839-6642, http://www.thecomedystore.co.uk . Admission is $21-$27, and performances are at 8 p.m. daily.
Jongleurs Comedy Club locations are in Bow Wharf, Battersea and Camden. Bow Wharf, at 221 Grove Road, is close to the Mile End Underground station (Central and District lines); Battersea, at 49 Lavender Gardens, is close to Clapham Junction mainline railway station (15 minutes from Waterloo); and Camden, at Middle Yard on Chalk Farm Road, is close to Camden Town Underground station (Northern line). Admission is $25-$29, and performances are Fridays and Saturdays (plus Thursdays at Battersea) beginning at 8 p.m. For more inform- ation, call 7564-2500 or visit http://www.jongleurs.com .
TO LEARN MORE:
Visit Britain, (800) GO-2-BRITAIN (462-2748), http://www.visitbritain.org .
— John Lee
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