Page last updated at 13:58 GMT, Monday, 4 January 2010

How taking a Stand saved Scottish comedy

By Stuart Nicolson
BBC Scotland news website

It hosts the world's biggest arts festival and has produced a string of world-class comics from Chic Murray to Billy Connolly.

The Stand comedy club
The Stand is now acclaimed as being among the world's top comedy clubs

But incredible as it seems now, up until 15 years ago Scotland had no dedicated comedy clubs, with aspiring Scottish stand-ups forced to head for London if they wanted to forge a career.

As Scottish comedy veteran Bruce Morton recalled: "The accepted wisdom was that, as a comic, one would go to London and do the London circuit.

"Up here in Scotland there was still very little - there would be an occasional venue here or a bar there would put on a comedy night."

All that was to change in 1995, when Tommy Sheppard and his then-partner Jane MacKay set up The Stand comedy club in a tiny basement beneath an Edinburgh pub.

The couple, and the small group of fellow enthusiasts who helped them, had grown weary of the capital's comedy scene closing down completely as soon as the final curtain fell on the Festival Fringe.

Sheppard said: "Even then the Edinburgh Festival was the biggest showcase of stand-up comedy in the world.

"But come 1 September, all that were left were the tatty old posters flaking off the walls and the flyers littering the streets.

"It was weird how it went from such a huge festival and a huge comedy scene, the biggest in the world, to nothing."

The Stand isn't the sort of place where the audience goes along to destroy the acts and then show off that they have done that
Stewart Lee

Despite the huge appetite of Edinburgh audiences for comedy during the festival, The Stand did not exactly get off to an electrifying start when it first opened its doors.

On the club's inaugural night, only seven people turned up and the total door take was a meagre £22.

But it was not long before The Stand - along with its sister venue in Glasgow - was to prove very fertile ground for Scotland's future comedy stars.

Sheppard recalled: "I remember this rather lanky, speccy guy coming down to the door in quite an animated fashion asking if he could do a spot on the bill.

"Me trying to be all professional said 'oh you you can't do that son, you have to book us in advance, we don't just have people turn up on the night' and all the rest of it.

"But he told me he had 12 mates upstairs and they would all buy a ticket to come in, and I thought 'sold - you are on the bill'.

"That guy was Frankie Boyle."

Since becoming a dedicated year-round comedy venue in 1998, The Stand has attracted some of the biggest names in stand-up from across the globe, and is widely acclaimed by critics as being among the very best comedy clubs in the world.

Without The Stand there would have been no comedy in Scotland, not because there wasn't any talent but because there was no shop window
Susan Morrison

It is famed for its relaxed and appreciative audiences, with the heckling of even the poorest acts virtually unheard of.

Last year, the club banned stag and hen parties at its weekend shows after complaints from regulars that large, drunken groups were spoiling the atmosphere.

Comedian Stewart Lee, who has performed at the venue numerous times over the years, said it is the sophistication of the audience that sets The Stand apart from other comedy clubs.

He said: "The Stand isn't the sort of place where the audience goes along to destroy the acts and then show off that they have done that.

"It is the kind of place where they hope the acts will go well, weirdly - you don't get this in other forms of art, it is only in comedy where people take a perverse pleasure in going along and hoping it is rubbish."

His views were echoed by Johnny Vegas, who chose record a live DVD at The Stand.

Frankie Boyle
Frankie Boyle was among the comics who cut their teeth at The Stand

"The audience comes in with very high expectations, but very high expectations for all the right reasons," Vegas said.

"If Tommy has booked you and Tommy believes in you then there must be, hopefully, something about you that is unique and entertaining.

"Everybody is working and striving for the same thing, which is unique stand-up."

The Stand now has some 22,000 people on its mailing list, sold more than 100,000 tickets last year, and provides a stage for about 600 different acts every year.

Its programme includes the Red Raw beginners' nights, improvised comedy, sketch shows, the all-female Wicked Wenches and Scottish and Irish showcases, as well as solo shows from better known performers.

For Scottish comedians like Susan Morrison - a regular host of shows at the club - the impact of The Stand has been huge.

"Without The Stand there would have been no comedy in Scotland, not because there wasn't any talent but because there was no shop window, and now there is," she said.

The history of The Stand has been explored in the BBC Radio Scotland documentary No Going Back, which will be available on the BBC iPlayer until 1200 GMT on Monday 11 January 2010.

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