Tag Archives: Don Ward

The Comedy Store, Saturday Night Live and being a stripper in 1980s Finland

The current Comedy Store entrance in London

Kim Kinnie died last weekend. The Chortle comedy website described him as a “Svengali of alternative comedy… the long-serving gatekeeper of the Comedy Store (in London) and a ‘spiritual godfather’ to many stand-ups in the early days of alternative comedy… Kinnie started out as a choreographer and stage manager of the Gargoyle Club, the Soho strip club where The Comedy Store began in 1979”.

This blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith used to work at the Gargoyle Club – she now lives on a boat in Vancouver – so I asked her if she remembered him. This was her reply:


Anna retouched her nose in this.

Yes. He (and Don Ward) hired me on the spot when I auditioned there as a stripper.

I have had a bad cold for a couple of weeks and lost my internet at home, so I have been reading for a bit, about the Irish in Montreal, and maybe a Margaret Cho bio next.

Recently, I have felt like trying standup again after this almost 40 year interval. I was telling some stories I call my “God Guy” stories to a crazy lady at work – a client – She thinks she has a snake living in her ankle and wears a TRUMP supporter badge,

Anyhow, she loved my stories and was having me repeat them to everybody.

I say I did stand-up comedy almost 40 years ago. Maybe I should have call it Pop Out Comedy, as I would pop out of my costume when the audience was too rambunctious.

A poster for the Gargoyle/Nell Gwynne clubs

I wasn’t doing stand up among the dancers. The Gargoyle/Nell Gwynne club had a theatre, where the strip shows were done and The Comedy Store was in a separate room (and floor actually) which was set up more like a supper club, with round tables and a stage barely a foot above floor level. There is a picture in the book by William Cook showing a punter sitting at a table in front of the stage, resting his feet ON the stage!

For some reason I remembered the theatre as upstairs and the comedy club downstairs but, from the memoirs of other comics, it was the reverse. The club was upstairs and the theatre downstairs. The comics sometimes used to come in and watch us do our shows before they went on.

When I went there I auditioned first as a dancer, but then I also used to do stand up at the open mike (which was in a gong show format) at The Comedy Store. It was in the very early days of the Store. It had only been open about a year and the compères were Tony Allen and Jim Barclay.

Tony Green, aka Sir Gideon Vein. Photo circa 1983/1884

Jim Barclay used to wear the arrow-through-his-head thing at the time. I saw Sir Gideon Vein doing his horror show, in his hundred year frock coat. He always started his act by saying: “This looks like the place to be-eeeeeee…” and then he told a ridiculous ‘Tale of Terror’ about The Gamboli Trilplets, Tina, Lina and Gina… John Hegley was a hit right off the bat there. Others took longer to find their feet.

Most of the comics were ultra politically correct and some were really boring. The audience has been rightly described as a bear pit – very drunk, mostly young people who had too much money. They thought nothing of throwing objects at us. One time the chef, newly arrived from Bangaldesh, rushed out to offer first aid to Sir Gideon Vein, who had a stream of fake blood pouring over his face – because comics were known to suffer injuries from the audience throwing their designer boots at them.

The Greatest Show on Legs – (L-R) Malcolm Hardee, Chris Lynam and Martin Soan (Photo: Steven Taylor)

The Greatest Show on Legs were there one night and the first time I saw them I couldn’t believe it – they were so hilarious – so I ran down to our (strippers) dressing room and made the other dancers run up the stairs so they wouldn’t miss it. We watched them through a glass window in a door at the back of the club. Malcolm Hardee was, of course, glad to have a bunch of strippers admiring his act and greeted us after the show with a genial “Hello LADIES”.

I had started doing stand up in Toronto as I loved comedy already, before I went to London. In Toronto my strip shows had become sillier as I went along. Once I learned the rudiments of striptease, I found it impossible to take seriously. How could I take seriously taking off my clothes in public for a bunch of old men? When I did my nurse show I dressed in a real nurse outfit with flat shoes.

The audience really loved my silly character and act. I used to start it with a song called I Think I’m Losing My Marbles. I would come out with my first aid kit and whip out a notebook and, looking really bitchy, I would pretend to take notes on the audience and would put on a surgical mask.

It was pretty complicated but I realised that if you are a young woman dressed as a nurse you can get away with just about anything.

The original 1975 cast of Saturday Night Live (Left-Right) Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase.

Another time, when I was about 22 years old and still living in Toronto, I went to New York and, dressed as a nurse, showed up at the offices of Saturday Night Live and I just walked in looking for Lorne Michaels, the producer.

At the time, I wasn’t looking for comedy work. I went there (without an appointment) because I wanted to ask if they could give my musician boyfriend a spot on  the show.  It sounds like a long shot, but my boyfriend had been at the University of Toronto with Lorne Michaels and the show’s musical director Paul Shaffer, who are both Canadian.

It took me a couple of days but eventually I got a meeting with Paul Shaffer. He was very nice and I sat there in his office as he explained to me that, sadly, even though he was the musical director, he didn’t actually have much say in which acts were chosen for the show because John Belushi held the balance of power there, so all the musical acts chosen to be premiered on Saturday Night Live were friends of John.

Life was never boring.

When I was dancing on the Belgian porno cinema circuit, there was a particularly dedicated licence inspector in Liege whom I managed to avoid by hiding on the roof of the cinema (probably half dressed in costume, after my shows). Eventually, he caught me and so I had to visit the Harley Street physician dictated by the Belgian Embassy and got a certificate to prove that I was physically and mentally fit to strip for Belgians.

I may be coming back to Amsterdam this year or next. If I do, I will try to find some other shows or work like playing a double bass half naked or some such nonsense. Is there much work for that type of thing do you think? Or maybe I will go to a burlesque festival in Finland.

The ever interesting Anna Smith

I danced in Finland in February around 1985 and it was exceptionally cold that year. But not indoors.

I was billed as Lumoojatar, which means an enchantress. I took trains all over the country for one month and then did a week at a cinema on the waterfront of Helsinki called La Scala.

In my CV, I say that I stripped at La Scala.

When I did my show at La Scala, all the men were wearing wolf skin hats. All I saw was a sea of wolf skin hats. One time, when I was passing through the lobby, a tiny man wearing a wolf skin hat – who appeared to be about 85 or so – told me in halting English: “You very good show. Very good. Very good, I know. I am connoisseur!”

The worst thing that happened to me was in the industrial town of Tampere where the policemen wore earmuffs. I was dancing on the floor of a cavernous bar (it seemed more like an arena than a bar). I could barely hear my music – theme songs from James Bond movies. The audience of paper mill workers on their afternoon break seemed thrilled anyway. A rough-looking lone old woman in the audience stuck her tongue out at me.

After my show, I was getting dressed in a toilet and an enormous drunk man suddenly threw the door open, advanced towards me and then dropped to his knees bellowing in Finnish.

Before I could figure out what to do next, four more men crashed in and grabbed the first man.

“He wants to marry you,” they explained, laughing and apologetic as they dragged him out.

My phone’s battery is about to die now. I am going for a swim.

Anna Smith took this selfie in Antwerp

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Comedy audiences “haven’t had a good night out unless they’ve thrown-up a few times and punched their girlfriend”

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

NealeWelch_16feb2013

Neale Welch at the Comedy Cafe sound desk on Saturday

I was at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre at the weekend, talking to outspoken owner Noel Faulkner and his business sidekick Neale Welch who, with a marketing background, perhaps promotes the club in less controversial style.

“Why is the Comedy Cafe moving to single-artist shows after August?” I asked Neale.

“Partly,” Neale explained, “because of a decline in the demand for mixed-bill shows – an MC and three acts. Plus increased competition. And it’s costing us more in marketing to get the same amount of people in for those shows. It costs more to get people in than it did previously.

Say goodbye to the logo

Say goodbye to the old Comedy Cafe  logo

“We’re also re-designing our logo, moving it from the smiley face of the 1990s and refurbishing the room again – we only did it 18 months ago… Lots of little tweaks to make a big over-all change.”

“Are comedy club audiences really declining?” I asked.

“If you look on Google Trends,” Neale told me, “at the graph of Google searches for comedy… live… stand-up between 2004 and 2012 it declines steadily. If you look at live… comedy… London it shows the same decline. So there’s less people searching for live stand-up comedy and, if that’s going down then, probably, the demand is going down too.”

“Did anything happen to the search graph in 2008 with the financial crash?” I asked.

“Not particularly,” said Neale. “It’s not a fiscal cliff. It’s a steady decline.”

“So,” I said, “you’re going to be changing the type of shows you put on.”

“At the end of this month,” Neale explained, “we’ll be booking acts up until August for normal club shows and then, after that, we’ll be booking single-artist shows to run on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays after August.”

“It was over a year ago,” Noel Faulkner reminded me, “that we decided to turn the old Comedy Cafe into more of a theatre-type venue – the Comedy Cafe Theatre – and attract a theatre-type audience and now that’s actually happening.”

“What’s the difference between the theatre audience and the comedy audience?” I asked.

NoelFaulkner_16feb2013

Noel Faulkner at the Comedy Cafe Theatre

“The theatre audience,” replied Noel, “can actually all read and write and they have an IQ of some level. The comedy audience are feckin’ brain dead and don’t know why we’re not giving them Michael McIntyre.”

“But this is the audience you’ve been catering to for years,” I prompted.

“Well,” said Noel, “we’ve all been catering to them for years. Poor old Jongleurs and the Comedy Store Late Show too. Of course you have to cater to the masses. We all have to suck the corporate cock, whether we’re gay or not.”

“So what different type of comedy will these theatrical comedians be doing in their one-person shows?” I asked Noel.

“It’s not a difference in comedy,” explained Noel. “Comics do what they do, but it’s better if you have a sophisticated audience. The other problem, though, is that sophisticated audiences don’t spend money. They have a couple of drinks and they’re happy. They don’t have to get shit-faced, because their lives aren’t horrible. Whereas your average comedy audience – their lives are so horrible that they go crazy at weekends and they feel they haven’t had a good night out unless they’ve thrown-up a few times, had a fight and punched their girlfriend.”

“In that case, surely,” I suggested, “as a businessman, you should be appealing to the drunken comedy audience who throw money around and not to the more sophisticated audience who don’t spend money.”

“If that’s what I wanted to do for a living,” said Noel, “but, if I just wanted to make a living, I could deal crystal meth or run a lap-dancing club.”

“So,” I asked, “the comedians are going to do the same things but longer in their one-person shows…?”

“Well,” said Noel. “Comedians doing these one-person shows are not compelled to come out with a gag every thirty seconds. It’s going the way I planned it. I want a theatre.”

“You always wanted a theatre?”

“I always wanted a feckin’ audience that would sit down and appreciate the effort that’s gone into it,” said Noel.

The Comedy Cafe is also expanding into producing comedy shows as downloadable MP3s. Soon they are going to release shows recorded at the Comedy Cafe Theatre by Steve N Allen, Anil Desai, Robin Ince, Michael Legge and Eric McElroy.

The sound of comedy from the Cafe

Expanding Cafe laughter – from live shows to mp3 downloads

“When’s that happening?” I asked Neale Welch.

“It’s just being cut now,” he told me. “I’m sorting out the webpage, the hosting and the PayPal and the functionality, so I’m thinking in the next two weeks; something like that. They’ll be released under the individual artists’ names; there will be a standalone page linked-to from our website; the Comedy Cafe will just be a footnote; we’ve just facilitated it.”

“And the appeal of the audio recordings to you is…?” I asked.

“They give us interesting live shows,” Neale told me. “And a bit of legacy. They will still be there in a few years time. We can build the business into more than one arm. We already have the club, the talent agency, a casting agency. It just gives us another arm.”

“And it means you have content beyond live shows,” I suggested.

“Exactly,” agreed Neale. “And we are looking into other content formats.”

Set List - shows coming to Comedy Cafe

Set List comes to Comedy Cafe Theatre

Neale told me the Comedy Cafe is also having Paul Provenza’s superb Set List comedy improvisation shows coming in for a run every Monday from March 11th for six weeks.

“And then,” Noel Faulkner told me, “we’ve another big production company coming in as well. I can’t name them yet. But they’ll come in weekly or monthly with their acts to prepare them for their TV programmes. A lot of people in the comedy business are suddenly realising there’s a small 120-seat space that is really keen to do good theatre. There’s room for three cameras. A tiny stage, but it works: it’s cosy, it’s intimate and it’s what I always wanted to do.”

“In a recent blog,” I said, “I mentioned how, in the future, streaming live club comedy on the internet might affect club business. And Don Ward’s Comedy Store is doing feature films of its shows.”

The Comedy Store film - "It won't work"

The Comedy Store film. “It’s a great idea… It won’t work”

“It won’t work,” said Noel. “It’s a great idea and I asked him why the cinemas are doing it. He told me it’s on the slow movie nights and I thought Well, on the slow movie nights – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – people don’t want to go out. Why go see a movie on a Tuesday night when you can see it on a Friday or Saturday night? So it’s a Tuesday night and there are comics on the big screen? Well, first of all, you don’t need to see a comic on a big screen, because there’s not a lot to look at. And what? You’re going to go all the way down town to a movie theatre and pay top dollar when you can just nip over to the Comedy Store for the same price on a Tuesday night?”

“But punters can’t pop down to the Comedy Store if they live in Plymouth or Aberdeen,” I suggested.

“Well,” replied Noel, “all they have to do is flip over to YouTube or the Dave TV channel and they can see the exact same comedy on a screen.”

“I can’t see the feature film idea working,” I said, “but, in the future, if you did live streaming from the Comedy Store or the Comedy Cafe and it cost a punter only 99p to watch it in Norwich or Belfast or the Outer Hebrides instead of coming to London to see the same acts…”

“Yes,” said Noel. “If, for £5, you could catch the Late Show at the Comedy Store on the internet outside London, that would be great. But the Comedy Store isn’t doing that. They’re trying to fill a cinema. Also, if you’re in a cinema, are people really going to laugh? If there’s only 100 people spread out over 600 seats, you don’t get the atmosphere of a live club.”

“But what happens,” I asked, “when there is live streaming of good acts from a good club at a cheap price? Janey Godley looked into live-streaming her Edinburgh Fringe show from the Underbelly in, I think, 2005 and they couldn’t do it technically from that building at that time. I’ve never understood why no-one has live-streamed their Edinburgh shows so people can see them in Los Angeles and Adelaide. In a few years time, you could have the Comedy Cafe doing a live show to people in London and live-streaming it on a 99p pay-per view so people can see it in Newcastle or Cardiff.”

“Make it £1,” said Noel. “Don’t do this 99p shit.”

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Are live comedy clubs doomed and is the future of British comedy online?

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)
davesleicester_logoThis morning, I was on a panel as part of Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival – ‘Dave’ being the UK TV channel which sponsors the festival.

Also on the panel were Don Ward of The Comedy Store, Kate Copstick doyenne of UK comedy critics and Nica Burns, founder of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, currently sponsored by Fosters, formerly sponsored by Perrier.

Copstick and I are both judges on the unsponsored yet increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards.

Towards the end of the two hour session, conversation got round to The Comedy Store: Raw and Uncut, due out in UK cinemas in a fortnight.

“Sony approached me,” explained Don this morning, “and said they would like to put the Comedy Store into cinemas as a feature film. We’ll make four of them and see what happens and we’ll show it as it is, warts and all.

“So we filmed it over four nights. We filmed digital and you should see it – it is The Store. It comes out on the 22nd of this month in around 160 cinemas. It’ll go out all over the country and it will go out as a stand-up show as you would experience it in London.”

“How much,” asked Nica Burns, “will people pay for their ticket?”

“Normal cinema prices,” replied Don.

“Less than at the Comedy Store?” asked Nica.

“Yes,” said Don.

“So,” said Nica, “You’re beaming out your extremely good stand-up evening to 160 cinemas for less than what people pay at your original Comedy Store. What is that going to do for every single small comedy club in Britain, every single little person who is trying to passionately be part of the comedy industry? What is that going to do to the rest of the comedy industry?”

“It interests me,” I said, “because, beyond the feature film, some high-quality club like the Comedy Store with high-quality acts will be able to live-stream for micro-payments. They can charge, say, 99 pence and they’ll make a fortune – 99 pence per view around the English-speaking world. If I’m going to pay 99 pence to see top quality acts in a top quality club, live-streamed. Why should I pay £5 or £10 to see less-good acts learning their craft in a real comedy club down the road?”

“But,” said Copstick, “there is something about the experience of going to a comedy club that is special and will always appeal to lovers of comedy and I don’t think what Don is doing is any different from… I honestly don’t think it’s going to be that destructive, because I don’t think that proper, core, real, comedy-loving audience is necessarily going to go and see that.”

“It’s the same as football, I suppose,” I said. “You can see football better, closer and faster edited on television, but people still go to football matches.”

“I think,” said Nica Burns,” this is a new development on a very large scale. I can’t recall the comedy industry having an experiment like this on this kind of scale. I think we’re looking at potentially enormous changes in how people watch their comedy, from what Don is doing to the live streaming that’s coming. And the ramifications of that, I think, is fewer people becoming more powerful.”

“You can’t stop change,” I said, “you can only adapt to it. In the mid-1990s, Malcolm Hardee said to me that the Edinburgh Fringe was getting very commercialised and he was like the small independent corner shop while the big supermarkets were coming in – agents/managers like Avalon and Off The Kerb.

“I think in the future, the big supermarkets are going to be big Don Wards doing live streaming of their shows around the country and the small corner shop will be YouTube, with individuals doing amateur comedy. But people will still go to big ‘events’ like arena tours.”

“I think the best is yet to come,” said Don Ward. “People want to go out. They will still go out to clubs for the foreseeable future. Comedy is a serious night out.”

“The internet,” said Copstick, “is, if nothing else, totally democratic. Maybe Don is leading live comedy into cyberspace. But, once he’s done that, any tiny comedy club – the smallest comedy club – has the technology to do that. Music has now created so many music stars online. In comedy, (Malcolm Hardee Award winner) Bo Burnham – utterly brilliant – nobody hired him, nobody did anything. He made himself online.

“I’m not 100% sure about the future of live comedy clubs,” she continued, “but I genuinely do believe and absolutely hope that real, core comedy fans will continue going to live comedy, continue having that whole experience and taking the rough with the smooth provided there’s some smooth. But, if actual live comedy withers, then I believe where it will migrate is online. And that is completely democratic. That is not like having to placate and show some muppet at Channel 4 that your idea can attract the ‘right demographic’.”

“But,” asked Nica, “how do they make their living? How will they feed their kids and pay their rents by being a comic on the internet?”

“Well,” said Copstick, “what you do is establish yourself online. If you’re shit, you don’t feed your kids. They starve and you wise up and get a proper job. If you’re good, marvellous. Bo Burnham’s not short of a bob or two.”

“But he makes his money live now,” suggested Nica.

“Then that’s where you migrate,” replied Copstick. “Maybe that’s what the circle’s doing. Maybe the feeder, the starter level is online, because anyone under the age of 20 is physically unable to leave their seat and the only fully-functioning bits of their anatomy are their mouths, their cocks and their thumbs. So maybe that’s where the ‘babies’ go: they go online, they find their audience – because everybody will find their audience online – The bad ones will wither, die and drop off and the good ones will go on. That’s not such a bad thing, is it?”

(A slightly edited podcast of the panel session is on the Demon FM website.)

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