Tag Archives: drinking

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.


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.


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How comedian Janey Godley conned former Prime Minister Gordon Brown

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

For fourteen years, comedian Janey Godley ran a bar in the Calton area of Glasgow’s East End. These were the Trainspotting years and, at the time, the Calton was as quiet and lawful as modern-day Somalia. You would not want to go there. Beatings, stabbings, even crucifixions. Literally.

Like me, Janey does not drink – well, maybe to toast births and marriages and on other very rare special occasions, but not regularly or even socially.

So it will be interesting to see what stories she tells of bar room characters and drunkenness when she appears on the BBC4 Timeshift documentary The Rules of Drinking this Wednesday.

Her autobiography Handstands in the Dark mentions encounters she had with Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and James Callaghan. But my favourite story of hers involving a politician is about former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and it is not in the book, because it took place after the book ends and after the Trainspotting years.

It happened in the early 1990s when Gordon Brown was Shadow Chancellor and there was a local Labour Party event.

He came into Janey’s pub to buy drinks for the Party faithful and there was a poster in the bar advertising bottled beer at £1 per bottle.

He looked at the poster and ordered 14 bottles; Janey charged him £25.

He paid the £25 without comment.

She reckoned this meant one of two things.

Either he could not count.

Or he did not have the balls to stand up to a barmaid in Glasgow’s East End.

Either of those, she reckoned, made him unfit to be either Chancellor of the Exchequer or Prime Minister.

Janey is a shrewd judge of character.

Someone has Tweeted me suggesting that the £25 was on expenses and that Gordon Brown did not give a shit. But this would mean he was fraudulently claiming expenses he was not due. Surely a UK MP would not wrongly claim expenses? I cannot believe that could ever happen.

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Why I am pissed-off but not pissed

I think the late comedian Malcolm Hardee – never knowingly under-promoted in this blog – felt I was a social misfit deserving of a certain amount of pity because I do not drink, do not smoke, have never taken recreational drugs and never go round talking about my sex life, such as it is.

Of all these, I think the one which most unsettled Malcolm – and unsettles a lot of people I interact with – is the fact I do not drink – well, maybe at births, deaths and marriages where not to drink a toast would be impolite.

A friend of Malcolm told me:

“I didn’t trust you at first because you don’t drink, but now I know you’re a bit on the mad side, so it’s OK.”

One inevitable conclusion people wrongly reach when I tell them I don’t drink is that I must have been an alcoholic at some point.

The first of two explanations, though, is that I never really enjoyed drink.

In my late teens and early twenties, in pubs I drank lager because it was less bitter than… well… bitter. And, in restaurants, I drank red wine. But both were more a social convention I went along with, not a pleasure.

I suspect most people started to drink because it was a social convention. And also because it is an excuse. People say it relaxes them or makes the conversation flow or is a ‘social lubricant’.

What they more often mean is that it gives them an excuse to behave in a way they would otherwise not feel they could behave in. Drink is an excuse to do what you want to do. I never felt that need in the sense that, if I wanted to behave in a certain way, I did.

If I want to tell someone they are a cunt, I tell them. I do not need drink as an excuse.

It is not something I would necessarily recommend socially or in career terms.

But I have never understood the wider psychology of drinking. People say:

“Oh, I had a great night last night. I can’t remember a bloody thing. I passed out.”

I have always thought, when something like this is said:

“Well, if you want to affect your brain to such an extent that it shuts itself down to try to avoid the damage and you think losing consciousness is, in itself, a good thing, then it would be quicker and cheaper to insult a professional boxer and let him punch you in the head for 30 seconds.”

I do not see the attraction of not remembering what happened nor of passing out.

My memory is bad enough already.

As far as I remember, I have only been drunk twice.

The first time was in my parents’ house on Hogmanay. I was OK when I was with people downstairs. But, when I went upstairs to bed, my legs gave way.

The second time I can not clearly remember the trigger, but the result was walking unsteadily home along Haverstock Hill in Hampstead and a searing headache the next morning.

There was one other near-drunk experience one Christmas or New Year when I was making my way home. It was in the early hours of the morning; it was dark; I was alone; there was thick snow on the ground; and the street had sodium street-lighting.

I was sick. My mouth poured out vomit into the snow.

I staggered on a few yards then realised that, in among the diced carrot and assorted foodstuffs and phlegm, I had puked out the tiny pink plastic plate to which were attached my two false teeth.

The sodium street-lighting made all the snow on the ground look orange. My vomit was yellow-orange – made uniform orange by the street-lighting. Everything was the same colour. I could not see my vomit in the snow. I had to go on to my hands and knees, very close to being totally drunk, and move my hands slowly and as carefully as I could through the surface of all the snow on the yards of pavement behind me until I found a patch that was warm and wet, not cold and wet. It took a long time. It took so long my muddled mind was worried that, by the time I found the spot, the warm puke would have cooled to the same temperature as the snow and I would miss the vomit patch.

That, pretty much, is what I think of when I think of getting drunk.

The only drinks I actively like are champagne (drowned in orange juice) and vodka (equally drowned in orange juice).

Two double vodkas (drowned in orange juice) sharpen up my mind; though three double vodkas slow down my mind.

But I do not drink them now.

Which brings us to the second reason I no longer drink.

There was a period when, through happenstance, I ended up working with and sharing a flat with a very bright TV director. He had been in the cream of his Oxbridge year and, twenty or so years earlier, he had been scooped up by a major British TV company along with some other very fine – and later very successful – Oxbridge graduates.

We would sometimes watch University Challenge on TV. Just idly, not showing off, he could answer a high proportion of the questions; I could answer maybe one or two if I was lucky.

What I am saying is that he was a bright cookie.

But he had been drinking socially for about twenty years. He had the sort of job where you almost had to drink socially every day.

He would drink wine at lunchtime; beer after work before going home; and spirits at home in the evening. Sometimes, he would start a sentence and not finish. He might say,

“Of course, I remember when the main…”

…and then drift off then, 30 seconds or a minute or so later, start another unrelated sentence.

His mind was, not to put too fine a point on it, fogged and fucked.

Around the same time, I had professional dealings with the press officer at a major British film distributor. He was the same. He was maybe in his late 30s.

He had obviously been very bright at some point. Maybe in his early 20s. He still was bright. He had obviously had a very sharp brain at some point. But he no longer had a sharp brain. He was a press officer. He had to meet and greet and schmooze and smile and drink day-in, day-out. And it had fogged and fucked his mind.

I decided to stop drinking.

I never much liked beer.

I never much liked white wine (except fizzy champagne drowned in orange juice).

Red wine, to an extent, depressed me.

I did not like spirits (except vodka drowned in orange juice).

So I stopped. I just told everyone I did not drink. They thought it was odd, quirky, downright mad. But that was their problem.

I did try to drink to drown my sorrows over a girl once – straight vodkas in excess. But it was ineffective and expensive. To a logical person brought up a Scots Presbyterian, the first point was a major factor. But perhaps, to a Scot brought up among Jews, the second point was the clincher.

The irony is that I do not drink but I now have a beer belly.

I have never smoked but I now have a smoker’s cough.

So I do not get pissed but I am now pissed-off.

Life. Don’t talk to me about Life.


Filed under Comedy, Psychology

Normal for Norfolk – cat wrestling and drinking sheep

Norwich comedian Dan McKee read my recent blog about Steve Coogan’s planned film Paul Raymond’s Wonderful World of Erotica and my stories of wrestling bouts in the Raymond Revuebar entrance lounge and a cheetah which was trained to strip the underwear off girls with his teeth.

There used to be an old wrestler up here in Norwich,” Dan tells me, “who drank in a very strange pub I frequented called the Ironmongers Arms. He was called ‘Bear’ and he once told me a story about wrestling in a strip club in what he called ‘naughtly Soho’ down in London.

“One night, when Bear was halfway through a bout with another wrestler in this club, a ‘fucking massive cat’ leapt into the ring and, not wanting to break the ‘kayfaybe’ of the moment, he ended up wrestling the beast for a few minutes before it got bored and walked off.”

This does, indeed, sound like the Raymond Revuebar, but the Ironmongers Arms in Norwich appears to be just as bizarre. For starters, Dan tells me it is the only pub in the UK with that name.

“The peculiarities of the old Ironmongers Arms knew no bounds,” Dan tells me. “The landlord had no tongue, but he did have a pet jackdaw which hopped around the bar and Friday night entertainment consisted of a young lady singing the hits of Tina Turner. She didn’t sing to karaoke tracks but actually sang over the original Tina Turner records on the juke box and she just tried to sing louder than Tina’s vocals.

“Then there was the night somebody brought a sheep in for a pint. We asked him why he had come in with a sheep and he replied: Well, I couldn’t very well leave it at home.

“As we couldn’t fault his logic, we didn’t ask any more questions. We always hoped he might come in again, but he never did.”

I worked in Norwich for two years. This sounds relatively normal.

(There is more about the sheep mentioned in this blog in a 2013 posting…)

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