Taking this as my cue, I headed over to order a final round of drinks and found the master of ceremonies standing at the bar waiting for his next appearance. Halfway through a pint of beer, he was engaged in an animated conversation with someone who looked as though he could have been a comedian dropping by on his night off. Laughing aloud, they graphically disproved the suggestion that comics -- especially British comics -- are a morose bunch off-stage.
Two Canadian women in their 20s were discussing the night's acts as they stood at the bar. "This is the first time we've been here; we usually go to the Comedy Store [near Piccadilly Circus]," one of them told me. "I like it here: It's cheaper and the comedians are just as good. But they pick on the audience more, so I'm glad we didn't sit near the front."
Although the evening isn't a competition -- no "Last Comic Standing" here -- the audience, just by its reaction, anointed the first comedian as the evening's best act. His combination of laid-back crowd control and open attempts to joke about sacred taboos most quickly won the crowd. And his concerted attempts to pick on one hapless audience member -- for offenses including his "boring" clothing and "matching" accounting job -- continued to draw laughter. When the emcee rapidly wrapped up the show with a few topical barbs about Tony Blair and George Bush's "special relationship" just after 11.30 p.m., the satisfied crowd stumbled happily into the rain, debating about the night's best jokes.
London's comedy club network began to grow soon after "alternative comedy" -- described as the humor equivalent of punk rock -- burst onto the scene in the late 1970s, challenging mainstream, suit-wearing comedians with an edgy, often aggressive brand of confrontational humor.
Shunned by traditional performance outlets, early alternative comedians struggled to find venues willing to showcase their talents.
The club that changed that, still one of the most popular live comedy venues in London, is the Comedy Store. Established above a Soho strip bar in 1979, the Store imported its small, smoky-room format from the Sunset Strip venue of the same name, creating the first London club for a new breed of stand-up comics.
Early Comedy Store shows were more often tense standoffs than well-received stand-up, as alcohol-fueled audiences hurled abuse and the occasional chair at unknown and sometimes bizarre comedians. Breaking the bounds of what comedy was supposed to be, near-legendary acts of the period included a man dressed as a giant chicken who stood silently on stage for as long as he could before the enraged audience dragged him off.
It seemed a long way from entertainment, but many of today's leading British comedians, including Jennifer Saunders, Rik Mayall, Rowan Atkinson and Graham Norton, cut their comic teeth on failed Comedy Store performances. Mike Myers and Robin Williams dropped by in the 1980s for occasional unannounced attempts at taming its wild audiences.
Today's Comedy Store is a few hundred yards and several light years from its original seedy home. Some fans regard the new Store, a custom-built, 400-seat air-conditioned venue near Piccadilly Circus, as Britain's national theater of comedy. It's calmer than in its earlier days and much funnier.
My first trip to the Comedy Store was in the late 1980s, when two friends and I -- 19-year-old aficionados of comedy -- headed into London for a night of beer-fueled hilarity. At the time, London clubs were scant, but the Comedy Store was already a beacon of enlightened humor. Sitting a few rows from the stage, I laughed so hard I almost rocked off my chair, and my abiding memory is the sound of my friends similarly convulsing.
I've been back several times since, including a couple of visits to the new venue. These days, the Comedy Store rarely fails to deliver a good punch. By longevity and reputation, it has developed into a slick business, complete with shows every night and its own range of merchandise. It's affiliated with a company that operates three venues in London and 16 others throughout the world, making it the world's largest comedy club chain.
Standard attack strategy
Jongleurs Comedy Club opened its first London venue in the traditionally working-class area of Battersea in 1983 and now offers a popular formula that consists of two hours of comedy, with up to four comedians, a food-and-drink menu and a post-show disco.
A Thursday night visit to the trendy Battersea venue provided some insight into this highly entertaining set-up. In a large, windowless upstairs room filled with long tables arranged on a scuffed hardwood floor, the venue's curved, black-painted ceiling gives it the feel of an ancient, fire-damaged theater.
Behind the stage, the club's name, wrought from torn strips of sheet metal, creates a distinctive backdrop for a lone microphone stand set dead-center under a spotlight.