How to start & run a successful comedy club – by Ivor Dembina (who knows)

Liam Lonergan: man of comedy

Liam Lonergan: laughing is a serious business

In yesterday’s blog I ran an extract from a chat Liam Lonergan had with comedian and club owner Ivor Dembina for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

In this further extract, they talk about running comedy clubs.

Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club in London celebrates its 20th anniversary next month.

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Ivor Dembina

Ivor Dembina – club owner and promoter

Ivor Dembina: At the moment you have a lot of these free gigs. There’s a reason for that. Most people are not going to local live comedy clubs because they’ve been persuaded the only stuff worth seeing is the stuff that’s been on TV. And, as soon as anyone half decent turns up who has a bit of talent, they disappear off the face of the earth…

Liam Lonergan: …onto TV.

Ivor: Yeah. They get signed by an agent and you don’t see them on the club circuit anymore. So the quality of the clubs goes down. So, this is a bit of a drag. But someone goes to a landlord and says: “Look, you have got an empty room up there on a Tuesday night.”

And the landlord says “Yeah I have.”

So you go: “Would you want me to fill it?”

The landlord says: “Yeah. What you gonna do?”

“I’ll put on a free show. I’ll get fifteen comedy acts and they’ll all bring at least one mate. So that’s thirty people. Maybe another ten people will wander in. So I’ll get you forty drinkers. You give me £50 and I’ll organise it.”

So the landlord thinks: “£50… forty drinkers… I’ll ‘ave some of that”.

The landlord don’t give a fuck about the quality of the show. All he cares is that there’s forty people drinking his beer in an otherwise empty room. And that’s why you’ve got all these… There’s no quality control… And any comedian who is any good will soon get depressed by that arrangement. The most each of the fifteen acts can do is five minutes. You never develop. You never get any real critical feedback. The audience aren’t a real audience because 70% of the audience are either other comics or their friends. So no-one’s going to come up to you and say: “Actually. That wasn’t really very good mate”.

The thing about a comedy club is you have to build it.

Anyone – any cunt – you can put this in your thing – any cunt can fill a comedy room. For one night.

But can you fill it so they will come back next week? And will they still be coming back in six weeks’ time?

The answer is… That’s harder.

Not only have you got to have consistently interesting and good quality entertainment but you’ve got to the have the audience leaving thinking: I’m coming back here.

And now people have so many entertainment choices that how often do you go to the same place every week? Also the idea of local entertainment – We always go down to Ivor’s or to Andy’s or to Liam’s on a Tuesday night – that has been kind of eroded by the internet, by TV, by going abroad.

People think: “Where can we go?”

Well, they can go down to the West End or spend Saturday night in Rayleigh or Portsmouth. That, Ah, this is a bit local has gone.

Also what is interesting is that somewhere in the history of this the idea came up that you have to see comedy accompanied by alcohol. There’s now a myth that, in order to enjoy comedy, you have to have a drink. It’s bullshit.

In a way that came about because, in the early days, if you were gonna put comedy on you needed a room and the people who had lots of free rooms were the pubs. So, there was a quid pro quo. You take the money on the door, pay the acts and make a few quid for yourself and they’d sell their beer. So the association between alcohol and comedy got embedded very early on.

But it’s nonsense! You don’t need to be pissed to have a laugh. It’s absolute rubbish. Of course brewers recognised this, so then they reinforced the (mythical) link with all these sponsorship deals and of course the final apotheosis was the Fosters Award.

Liam: So you reckon, even before all the agencies and producers came in and tarnished it all – well, not tarnished it but corporatised it – you think the brewers were…

Ivor: The idea that the more you drink the funnier it will seem is just bullshit. But I’m not blaming the brewers. We collaborated in it. That was the deal. I mean at the Hampstead Comedy Club, my club, it’s still it’s the same. I get the room free because I’m gonna bring in sixty or seventy people who are gonna drink beer. That’s the deal, y’know?

Liam: I was talking to Bob Slayer about his Heroes of Fringe and the percentage of ticket prices that he shares with performers. At the Hampstead Comedy Club… You don’t actually have to answer this, if you don’t want to…

Ivor at his Hampstead Comedy Club in January

Ivor at Hampstead Comedy Club in January

Ivor: I don’t mind. I don’t care who knows. I pay guarantees. I’ll tell you exactly what the economics are. I have three acts whom I pay £80 each. There’s a compere – who I admit is usually me but if I isn’t it’d be someone else – and I pay them £100. So that’s £340. I pay a door person £60. So that’s £400. I pay the booker £30-£40 a show. So I have costs. The costs of the show are around £450. There is a £10 ticket price. So I have to sell 45 tickets to break even.

Liam: What’s the capacity?

Ivor: Well, it’s just gone down, as it happens. My capacity is now gonna be sixty five. So I’m risking £450 to make £200. So, I’m not doing it to get rich.

Liam: Lewis Schaffer told me, “It’s all still about paying off the Inland Revenue and paying off the mortgage,” but then Bob Slayer said, “If he wanted to do that he could be a salesman and he’d be a very good salesman.”

Ivor: It’s true. But you can get lucky. I mean, over the years certain people they found themselves with a room of, say, two hundred people in a location where people will go and and they’ve kept going. In the past, some promoters have made serious money but not now I don’t think.

Liam: What’s the criteria for booking acts? Or is it just people that you’ve seen and you’ve thought were…

Ivor: Well, when you’re running a club, it’s not the acts. It’s the venue. Do the punters enjoy going there? Obviously you’ve got to put on the best possible entertainment that you can but once people start going to see the acts rather than specifically coming to your venue, the club is finished. You want them to go to your club because:

Oh, Tuesday night we go down the club. They usually have something good down there. Let’s go down the club.

That was the ethos on which the comedy circuit was built.

It is now crumbling away for the various reasons that I’ve described.

… CONTINUED HERE

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