In May 1979, Don Ward opened The Comedy Store above a strip club in Soho. Inspired by a trip to see comedy clubs in the US, the aim was to re-create the same success in London.
Adverts were placed in The Stage, Punch and the Evening Standard for ‘would-be comedians’ and anyone who ‘phoned or turned up was allowed to perform on stage (for as long as the audience allowed). Acts were introduced by a compere who, guided by the audience’s reaction, used a gong to let comedians know when it was time for them to step aside and make room for the next act.
In the new more politically-aware environment of the early eighties, comics with racist, sexist and outdated jokes were often gonged or booed off quickly, making room for performers of the new “alternative” genre, whose material was considered fresher and more innovative. These performers were to become the first alternative comedians; Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmonson, Alexei Sayle, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith Allen, Peter Richardson, Nigel Planer and Arnold Brown all graced The Comedy Store stage in the early days. Robin Williams would also drop in unannounced to go on stage for a few minutes, but end up performing for an hour.
At the end of 1982, The Comedy Store moved to – and operated on an ad-hoc basis for two years from – 28 Leicester Square. During this time the new talent that emerged included Clive Anderson, Chris Barrie, Paul Merton and Ben Elton.
In 1985 The Comedy Store was able to take over the club at 28 Leicester Square, building on its weekly output of the best comedy on offer. 1985 saw the birth of The Comedy Store Players, The Comedy Store’s own comedy improv group. The Players have since achieved international acclaim. The line-up currently includes Paul Merton, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch, Josie Lawrence, Jim Sweeney, Stephen Frost, Andy Smart and Neil Mullarkey.
During the late eighties The Comedy Store became the first – and is still the only – full-time Comedy venue in the UK, offering the very best in Stand-Up comedy, improvisation, and, from 1990 when The Cutting Edge team was formed, the best in topical satire. During this time The Comedy Store attracted visiting American comedians such as Will Durst, Mike Myers, Greg Proops, Ruby Wax, Emo Phillips, Dennis Leary and Robin Williams at the same time as acting as a breeding ground for the next generation of young comedians including Arthur Smith, Julian Clary, Harry Enfield, Rob Newman, David Baddiel, Jack Dee, Mark Lamarr, Eddie Izzard, Tony Slattery, Steve Coogan, Jo Brand, Lee Evans, Sean Hughes, Frank Skinner and Lee Hurst.
In 1993, due to its increased popularity, The Comedy Store was forced to find a new home and moved again to larger premises at our current home 1a Oxendon Street, between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. With seating for 400 people the opening gala night in 1993 saw some of the Store’s favourite performers, including Paul Merton, Jack Dee and Eddie Izzard, usher in a new era.
September 2000 saw the opening of The Comedy Store’s long-awaited second venue, situated on Deansgate Locks in the heart of Manchester. The Grand Charity Gala opening on 14 September saw Simon Bligh, Tim Clark, Rhona Cameron, Julian Clary, Boothby Graffoe, Mike Gunn, Fred MacAulay, Sean Meo, Paul Merton, John Thompson and Paul Zenon celebrating the dawning of a new era and the continuing success of The Comedy Store.
In October, the Manchester venue was used to host the final of City Life Comedian of the Year, the north of England’s biggest competition for up-and-coming talent. The winner, Justin Moorhouse, has since joined, Andy Askins, Mick Ferry, Mike Gunn, Rhod Gilbert, Steve Hughes, Dave Spikey, Roger Monkhouse and Tom Wrigglesworth at Comedy Store Management, our artist representation company.
December 2000 saw The Comedy Store, Manchester joining forces with Manchester City Council to stage a New Year’s Eve party to rival all others in the city. The event, held in a 1000-seater marquee on Little Peter Street and entitled More Laughs in Manchester, was a sell-out show featuring 3 hours of Stand-Up from seven comedians, a live link with the rest of Manchester for the city’s world record-breaking sing-along attempt, and dancing into the early hours.
With our increased profile we were constantly asked whether we would be expanding the operation further than London and Manchester. We were aware that we had a very special product at The Comedy Store and knew that to simply expand we risked diluting the product. Hence we have worked tirelessly to put in place a Franchise Package that enabled us to expand whilst maintaining the quality of the show but with the support of regional operators who had a great working knowledge of the region.
The Comedy Store is now 35 years old and the London venue is open almost every day of the year. On Wednesdays and Sundays the Comedy Store Players are still entertaining audiences with their unique improvisations based on audience suggestions. Every Tuesday The Cutting Edge team provides the most up-to-date humour in the country. Meanwhile, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights continue to offer the very best in stand-up comedy and the chance to see the newest up-and-coming comedians performing on the same stage as established talent. The last Monday of every month sees the return of open mic talent search ‘king Gong.
Extracts taken from “Comedy’s Unofficial National Theatre”
William Cook – The Guardian