In honour of our receiving the Chortle Award for Best Comedy Club London in both 2011 and 2012 we've put together a brief history of the London Comedy Clubs...
Alternative comedy began right here in London in 1979. It was a uniquely British art form and one of which we should be rightly proud.
During the late seventies two British men visited America and came back mightily impressed by the slick commercial American comedy scene and by a Comedy night they saw over there by the name of the Comedy Store. Their names were Don Ward and Peter Rosengard. The two were uniquely placed to bring different skill sets to the difficult business of running a comedy club - Don was a successful strip club owner in London's Soho and Peter a powerhouse accountant. The two quickly determined to set up their own "Comedy Store" here in the UK. They placed adverts for wannabe comedians and by their own accounts nearly everyone who turned up was truly dreadful - until they found a man by the name of Alexei Sayle. Far from the slick commercialism of the American acts it was the anarchic energy of Sayle and fellow comics like Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson that was to define standup in the early eighties. Ward though was to remain a highly respected mainstay of the comedy circuit well into the 21st century (sadly Rosengard did not, he and Ward splitting acrimoniously).
The phrase alternative comedy was rapidly coined, in all likelihood by maverick comedian Tony Allen, though the late great Malcolm Hardee also lays claim to having invented the phrase.
Live comedy exploded during the eighties with the founding of huge numbers of comedy clubs across London. Vast numbers came and went as a brief examination of historic issues of Timeout (the bible of London Comedy) will illustrate. A side-note - Timeout's role and in particular that of comedy critic Malcolm Hay, cannot be underestimated in supporting the burgeoning comedy scene.
The nineties saw a shift in the live comedy scene and not necessarily one for the good. Comedy clubs gradually became more commercial, focusing in particular on stag nights and the kind of comedians whose jokes would service a massive group of drunken lads. Meanwhile in comedy more generally there was a general sense that the anarchic political comedy of previous years was being replaced by laddish joke-tellers. This is not entirely fair - there was certainly still a lot of madcap surrealism around from the likes of Eddie Izzard and Harry Hill. However with a few honourable exceptions like Downstairs at the Kings Head, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find comedy clubs that treated their acts as artists and gave them a positive, supportive environment in which to practice their craft.
It was into this environment that the 99 Club was born. It opened in 2004 in a tiny room above a pub on Great Windmill Street, which could hold just 30 people at a time. It's policies of a friendly, fun environment for acts and audiences alike drove it to experience massive growth Within a few short years we had earned critical plaudits aplenty and had sell out venues at clubs across London every night of the week. Our earnest hope is that this will influence other London Comedy Clubs to change the way they do things, to focus less on commercial imperatives and more on creating the perfect environment to let this art form flourish and to give audiences a terrific night out.