Ivor Dembina on UK comedy clubs and what’s gone wrong with Jewish comedy

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of comedy

Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club has been running 19 years. It is his main venue in North London.

Next Thursday night, though, Ivor is opening a second comedy club in South London.

Or, rather, re-opening it. The Brixton Comedy Club was originally opened at The Hobgoblin pub in 1998.

“I set it up,” Ivor told me yesterday, “with my no-frills approach of Get some acts, put ‘em on, low ticket price.

“It was unexpectedly successful for two reasons. The first was that, at the time, people used to go out quite a lot on Sunday nights. But also it was a time when well-known acts would come down and try out material. That was quite a new thing then and I think the Brixton Comedy Club was one of the first places where that happened regularly. People like Harry Hill and Jo Brand. So you could see these well-known acts very cheaply in an informal atmosphere.

“I’d been running clubs for over twenty years, but I learned a very important lesson back then: that if you develop a tradition of famous acts turning up, of course, as soon as they move on, people stop coming. And the club went downhill quite quickly.”

“So how did you recover?” I asked.

“Well, I didn’t, really,” said Ivor. “It coincided with The Hobgoblin pub being taken over by a different management who wanted to put music in.

“So I moved to The Dog Star pub to do the same thing on a slightly smaller scale and it was fine, but I learned another lesson there: that people had, by and large, stopped going out to comedy on Sunday nights. Somehow, Thursday had become a new going-out night. It was just a cultural shift.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“I guess about five years ago,” he explained. “People just wouldn’t come out on Sundays; they were watching TV.

“I never actually closed the Brixton Comedy Club, but I’ve mothballed it for the last three years, just putting on occasional shows to keep the name alive. Now, partly through sentiment and partly because I want to speed up the process of going broke, I’ve decided to re-open it on a monthly basis at the Dog Star.

“The general lesson in running clubs is that, once people go to a comedy circuit club to see specific acts rather than to visit the club itself, your club’s finished. A great comedy club is somewhere people come irrespective of who’s on.”

“A big factor in the club is the MC, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Ivor, “People do like having a regular compere and I did build a rapport with that Brixton crowd. Both the Hobgoblin and The Dogstar were really nice venues: a good crowd.

“And we were helped at the old Brixton Comedy Club by the fact Daniel Kitson, who lived nearby… it became sort-of his favourite local club. So he became a regular fixture and you could say I’m the last person on the planet to successfully financially exploit Daniel Kitson.

“When word got around that Kitson was so good, we literally had people queueing round the block for the 200-capacity venue and it was so popular – I swear this is true – we even stopped putting it in the listings. We didn’t advertise at all and it was still filling up.”

“But a club is more than just acts,” I said. “It’s the format.”

“I think,” said Ivor, “that there are three basic precepts to running a club:

  • Keep it simple
  • Keep the shows varied with experienced acts and new acts
  • Keep the ticket price low

“We’re charging just £4.50 at the new Brixton Comedy Club. There’s no messing around with internet sales; you just turn up and pay £4.50 on the door. It’s the first Thursday of every month. I think the circuit works best when it’s uncomplicated.”

“So how are you going to keep the shows varied?” I asked.

“With experienced circuit comics and a few newcomers,” said Ivor. “So Lewis Schaffer’s headlining the opening night. And I’m going to mix it up just a bit more. Experienced stand-ups and newcomers plus perhaps a bit of music and poets – just to make it a bit more fast-moving and move it away from the traditional format.”

“And you’re still occasionally performing your own full-length show around and about?” I asked.

”Yes,” said Ivor, “I’ve got this really nice little show called Old Jewish Jokes which, obviously, is me telling my favourite old Jewish jokes, but interwoven with the story of a Jewish comedian – me – who turns up to perform at ‘an hour of modern comedy’ for his local Jewish community. Before he goes on, though, he’s given a shopping list of things he cannot mention: the Holocaust, Israel and so on.

“So the show is not just the jokes; it’s about the predicament of the modern Jewish comedian and why Jewish comedy has not moved on. It’s about Jewish people – who claim to have a great sense of humour but, when it comes to jokes about themselves, they’re not too happy!

“Traditional Jewish comedy is brilliant but, as someone who’s written a lot of Jewish comedy, I’m grappling with the question Why doesn’t it move on and tackle these difficult subjects like the Holocaust and Israel and the traditional perception of Jews? Why doesn’t it take these subjects on? Why is everyone so scared? That is embedded in the show, which I commend to you. You should come see it.”

“Very kind,” I said. “Well sold.”

“It’s on Tuesdays from 2nd October at the Alice House in West Hampstead.” continued Ivor. “And then the following five Tuesdays. Do you want me to give you the full spiel?”

“I’ll find it on the internet,” I said.

“I never normally tell people You should see this. It’s great,” Ivor said,But, with this one, I honestly think it’s very good. I think it really takes Jewish comedy by the scruff of the neck and non-Jews love it just as much as Jewish people.”

“Well sold,” I said.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Israel

One response to “Ivor Dembina on UK comedy clubs and what’s gone wrong with Jewish comedy

  1. I saw the re-opening on 4 October, having been a semi-regular attendee at the weekly club at the Hobgoblin when it was running. It was a great night, although that was partly because Daniel Kitson made another unbilled appearance. But the other reason it was so good, and this is a new development, that Ivor Dembina’s (purposefully) shambolic compere has grown bitterer and much, much funnier than he used to be. So, an early hightlight was Ivor planning the running order with the acts, liberally (and hilariously) insulting them as he did so, and threatening not to pay them because they weren’t any good or (in Kitson’s case) because they ran over their allotted time. That banter reached its climax between Ivor and Kitson as each ran the lights and sound consoles as the other was on stage. Highly recommended. I’m going again for the next show on 1 November (without expecting any big name acts).

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