Britain is a funny place. It’s spawned comic originals from Spike Milligan to the Mighty Boosh; its legendary television comedies have tickled the world for decades; and its locals effortlessly deploy advanced sarcasm to lampoon and bond with each other – hit any pub here and you’ll find almost as much teasing banter as enthusiastic attempts to break the binge drinking world record.
But while beer and belly laughs are an enduring UK double act, straining to overhear amusing pub conversations is not the best way to laugh your socks off, especially in London. Arguably the world’s comedy club capital – Peter Cook pioneered the idea with his Establishment Club in 1961 – there are more than 200 shows a week here, from slick theatre spaces to pub rooms where you’re close enough to hear the sweat percolating on over-exerted performers.
“London has the biggest and most diverse comedy scene in the world,” says Chortle.co.uk founder Steve Bennett, whose long-established website lists and reviews gigs in the city and beyond. “In almost every street, there seems to be an open mic night. There’s also a drive to be different and stand out, with an increase in nights with an agenda – from geeky comedy to character acts or even music.”
London-based comedian Richard Herring agrees. Touring his 2012 show What is Love Anyway, the veteran comic has been treading the capital’s beer-soaked boards for two decades – from the days when his unpaid open spots led to “lots of deaths” before unforgiving audiences. “In the early ‘90s, comedy in London was quite boring, with lots of men just telling jokes,” he says. “[Now] it’s a lot more professional in places, but there are also a lot more venues where people can try out weird and wonderful ideas.”
It’s this variety of outlets and approaches that marks out the current scene from its previous heyday in the 1980s, when London kick-started alternative comedy at a handful of ad hoc, bear-pit venues. Then, performers like Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall spat and shouted their way through shows that often ended in booze-fueled audience fights. This “comedy punk” burned itself out, but the club scene it triggered continued expanding. Purpose-built venues sprang up, while bars throughout the city opened their spare rooms to increasingly popular comedy nights.
Originals like Eddie Izzard and the League of Gentlemen cut their comic teeth during these years of growth. And, since the turn of the new millennium, live appearances by barbed wit Stewart Lee, musician-droll Tim Minchin and fringe king Daniel Kitson have triggered the kind of fevered response from locals that used to be reserved for secret gigs by hot bands. Recognizing this surge in popularity, London theatres have also muscled in on the act.
Herring books and presents popular multi-comic gigs at the Lyric Hammersmith, while there’s an even more diverse roster of long-form performances and improv nights at the Soho Theatre and Leicester Square Theatre. A chance for performers to have more stage time in less of a heckler-heavy setting, these shows – which Bennett recommends for “anyone who thinks comedy is a unique art form” – suggest a scene that has matured in recent years.
Which isn’t to say that London’s raucous, old-school approach to live laughs has expired like a Norwegian Blue parrot. Far from it.
Traditional stand-up clubs and pubs are thriving more than ever, from the venerable Comedy Store to the subterranean King’s Head and the monthly Union Chapel gigs in a beautiful Victorian church. And while £18 tickets for weekend shows are common, mid-week alternatives around the £4 mark are easy to find – especially if you’re amenable to comics trying out new material or open mic nights where watching rookies wet themselves on stage is the main lure.
Wherever you end up, you’ll likely be in a small room where eye contact with a performer is inescapable and where sitting on the front row is an open invitation to become part of the act. Or at least to get mercilessly picked on.
“Don’t try to be funny or outsmart the comic,” advises Herring. “If you really want to throw them, come in from left field. In my [former] double act, I would deliberately pick on a young-looking lad in each audience and bully them, then invite them to say something back (which I would pretend to be crushed by). They usually said I was fat, but one said ‘The sleeves of your jacket are slightly frayed.’ It was a brilliant and revealing heckle that I could never have anticipated.”
Where to go:
1A Oxendon Street; 0844-871-7699;
The circuit’s elder statesman has had Londoners in stitches since 1979. Everyone from French and Saunders to Eddie Izzard – often performing in heels to dangerously drunk hecklers – served their comic apprenticeships here, although the current air-conditioned studio auditorium is much slicker than the bear-pit-above-a-strip-club it originally occupied. Expect stalwarts like Paul Merton at twice-weekly improv nights or book ahead for top-drawer stand-up from Thursday to Saturday – including raucous 11 p.m. shows on weekends.
Downstairs at the Kings Head
2 Crouch End Hill; 020-8340-1028;
Almost as old as the Comedy Store, this intimate theatre bar rejects the bear-pit approach, making it one of the most welcoming venues for comics – plus audiences new to the scene. Supportive spectators perched at scuffed tables and wooden benches encourage performers to try out new material on its stamp-sized stage, whether at weekly Try Out nights (15 new comics with five-minute spots) or jam-packed weekend shows with established acts like Josie Long and Simon Munnery.
Amused Moose Soho
17 Greek Street; 020-7287-3727;
Transforming central London’s Moonlighting nightclub every Saturday (with additional Moose shows in Camden and Covent Garden), this is a safe-bet for a best-of-London stand-up roster. Great for unannounced headliners testing new material – Bill Bailey and Noel Fielding have delighted unsuspecting audiences here – its good-value shows usually include five comics vying for your funny bone. If you’re still energized after guffawing beer through your nostrils, hit the after-show dancefloor until 4 a.m.
21 Dean Street; 020-7478-0100;
The sparkling Soho stages drama, readings and performances across three small, self-contained auditoria – the moodlit downstairs cabaret space is recommended. Comedy is a key focus but this isn’t just any old stand-up venue. Instead, you’ll find an ever-changing line-up of long-set shows from stars like Jack Dee and Stewart Lee, plus innovative improv nights, Edinburgh Fringe acts and even a Saturday children’s comedy club. Civilized and eclectic, it’s the evolution of London’s live comedy scene.
Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar
109 St. Paul’s Road; 020-7704-2001;
Possibly London’s tiniest venue is a comfortably dinged studio theatre above a bustling corner pub. Grab a pint downstairs with the locals (plus a comic or two gulping some Dutch courage), then nip up for a good seat – although with only 54 to choose from, you can expect to be roped in for some audience participation. The wildly varied roster often includes “work in progress” shows from headliners, plus improv, fringe plays and surreal sketch troupes.
Compton Terrace; 020-7226-1686;
London’s most attractively-housed comedy night creeps like a hermit crab into this vast, still-operating Victorian gothic church on the first Saturday of every month. Live at the Chapel rounds-up top circuit draws – controversial comic Frankie Boyle and Inbetweeners star Gregg Davies have strutted before the pulpit here – for an evening of hot acts, a live band and a hopping tea bar – this is a church remember, so it’s booze-free.
Up the Creek
302 Creek Road; 020-8858-4581;
There are three vibes at this Greenwich venue, colonizing an imposing 19th-century school building: rowdy, four-comic Friday and Saturday shows; mellower and great value Sunday Specials, with a house band and past acts like Jimmy Carr and Flight of the Conchords; and Thursdays cheap-as-chips open mic, where new comics can curl your toes or make you weep with unexpected mirth. Fancy having a go on stage yourself? Sign up via www.theopenmic.co.uk.
Victoria Embankment; 07932-658-895;
This preserved 1934 paddle steamer, permanently moored opposite the London Eye, frequently serves up one of the city’s most popular comedy menus. The Friday and Saturday Boat Show in the wood-floored Club Room is loud and raucous – expect four stand-ups (plus occasional unannounced guests) as well as after-gig access to the rocking onboard dancefloor. Alternatively, you can hear yourself laugh at the gentler Monday Club, a once-a-month showcase without the thumping nightclub vibe.
77 Bedford Hill; 020-8682-8940;
Colonizing Balham’s hipster-hugging Bedford pub, this lovely old geezer of the comedy circuit rises to the occasion on Friday and Saturday nights when top circuit comedians strut around a corner of the stageless floor like caged animals. A favourite among London comics for its roundhouse atmosphere and welcoming, sometimes feisty audiences, alumni from Harry Hill to Frank Skinner (and even Will Smith) have hit the ground running here.