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The Comedy Store at 30

It stuttered into life above a Soho strip club in 1979, the vision of two friends inspired by a trip to see comedy clubs in the USA. As the Comedy Store marks its 30th anniversary, here are 10 things to know about the venue that kick-started London's comedy boom.

The Comedy Store
The club's current premises are at Oxendon Street W1

1. Those early premises, above the Gargoyle Club in Meard Street W1, were so cramped legend has it that performers were forced to change in a cupboard and relieve themselves in a sink.

2. The line-up on the Comedy Store's opening night included Sandy Toksvig and energetic young compere, Alexei Sayle, newly relocated to London via Liverpool.

3. The club has since provided a teething ground to several generations of comedy talent, from the "alternative" wave of the 80s that gave us Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer and French and Saunders through to Ben Elton, Clive Anderson, Harry Enfield, Jack Dee, Jo Brand, Steve Coogan, Eddie Izzard and Bill Bailey, and on to today's young turks such as Rhod Gilbert and Tom Wrigglesworth.

Frank Skinner
Frank Skinner 'died' on his first appearance

4. Few, if any, were household names to begin with. Frank Skinner's unheralded Comedy Store debut was in a post-midnight slot following Lee Evans. The rubber-limbed comic brought the house down; Skinner "went on and died" and thought he'd killed his chances forever.

5. Similarly, a pre-fame Mark Lamarr honed his bequiffed, sardonic stage persona here while TV chef-to-be Ainsley Harriott, a club regular, got his first taste of public approval as part of an Hawaiian-shirted duo specialising in novelty calypso songs.

6. Being baited by the audience was an early feature, established on Friday nights with the Gong Show where, according to comedian Simon Fanshawe, "if you hadn't experienced bullying and rejection at school, you could become a comic and catch up. If you didn't please the audience they shouted 'gong, gong, gong...', the compere hit the gong and you had to leave the stage".

Paul Merton
Paul Merton is still a Sunday night regular

7. Another tradition to endure to this day is the Sunday night improvisation slot, hosted by Paul Merton and his Comedy Store Players, the club's own comedy improv group. The line-up tends to vary, but includes a bunch of familiar faces from off the tele - Josie Lawrence, Jim Sweeney, Stephen Frost, Neil Mullarkey and Merton himself.

8. American comedians have gravitated to the Comedy Store stage. Visitors include Robin Williams, who would often go on unannounced, Mike Myers, Ruby Wax, Emo Phillips, Dennis Leary and, latterly, US superstar Chris Rock.

9. Another overseas visitor was Eric Douglas, Kirk Douglas's son, who became upset at the audience reaction to his routine and shouted out, "You can't do this to me, I'm Kirk Douglas's son!". A wag in the audience stood up and shouted back, "No, I'm Kirk Douglas's son," swiftly followed by the rest of the room. He "died on his a**e", recalls club co-founder Don Ward.

10. Plans are now afoot for India to embrace the Comedy Store when a branch opens in Mumbai. Some of London's best known names will kick-start the club, after which local comedians will perform their acts. Don Ward, typically, is setting the bench high - the search is on for the first Indian stand-up superstar, "the next Eddie Izzard" no less.

Your comments on this story

Gemma Stuart:

Love the line about Kurt Douglas's son; didn't know that and wish I had been there at the time. I've had some great evenings there and remember Mark Lemar hosting a comedy night for some radio station with some great comedians including - i think - eddie izzard. also i've seen rik mayall and ade edmondson when it was a seedy club before the refurbiushment. so happy memories and thanks for flagging up a great london venue. love your site.

terry allchin:

John Hegley was usually the best on the bill during the clubs early years.

eric vickers:

I was there for Chris Rocks appearance and he was a big dissapointment!

Julie, Hanwell:

I love this place, its the best venue in town to take any overseas visitors. A belly laugh every time

dave keene:

i've got a feeling that jongleurs and other clubs like the Washington have stolen a lot of the Store's thunder. Theyre usually cheaper to get in, drinks arent a rip-off and the acts are more interesting.

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04 Mar 09 |  Magazine
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09 Jun 09 |  Arts & Culture
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