As summer tourists begin flocking to the capital, central London comedy clubs are competing for their business. But are they all they claim? Ben Williams investigates
It’s early Friday evening in the West End. The hoards of cash-splashing clubbers have yet to arrive, but among the mass of tourists and off-the-clock Londoners are flyerers. Lots of flyerers. Stroll through Leicester Square or Covent Garden on a weekend evening and you will be offered leaflets for two-for-one-cocktails, free entry to nightclubs and tons of discounted stand-up tickets.
Certainly for the comedy clubs, tourists are a focal audience here. Of course, marketing to tourists is no bad thing – London has the biggest, and arguably best, comedy scene in the world and visitors should be encouraged to check it out. But with the flyers of some clubs making bold claims, do they live up to the hype? And are the shows actually any good?
For the most part, the answer is yes. In Leicester Square, flyerers from four comedy clubs are currently competing for business: Soho Comedy Club, the London Comedy Club, Top Secret Comedy Club and the 99 Club’s multiple West End venues. Both the Soho Comedy Club and 99 Club book good, solid line-ups featuring professional, well-established circuit comedians and talented rising stars. Soho Comedy Club, particularly, has a very friendly atmosphere and even offers a guarantee. ‘If you spend an evening with us and don’t laugh, we’ll give you your money back!’ reads their flyer, and I doubt many folk sit through the show stony-faced.
The quality drops a little at Top Secret Comedy Club – a no-frills basement gig in Covent Garden – but it still hosts decent bills. On the evening I visited, half the audience comprised of a constantly disruptive stag party. Without that group present, I’m sure it would have been a more pleasant evening, but the fact that the club’s staff never insisted they behave or stop heckling was rather frustrating. This was my first visit to the club, whose flyer reads ‘As recommended by Time Out’ and is emblazoned with the TO logo. Since we started listing the club in July 2010, we have recommended one show at the venue: a line-up featuring Tony Law, Scott Capurro and Paul Foot (all excellent acts). This was back when it went by a different name: the Garden Comedy Club. When we recommend a gig we are mainly highlighting a particular line-up, rather than the venue itself, so it does feel a little misleading to use that single shout-out as an endorsement for the club as a whole.
Top Secret’s use of a Time Out recommendation might be slightly cheeky, but the claims made by the London Comedy Club are much more flamboyant. After reading its leaflet (‘As seen on TV. All our shows are with award-winning professional acts’) and the list of performers on its website (‘Recent acts include: Ross Noble, Jimmy Carr, Jeff Innocent, Adam Bloom…’), I went along with high hopes. I left disappointed. The show was lacklustre. At least three of the five acts on the bill perform mostly on the open mic circuit (unpaid gigs for newer acts), and perhaps starting to get their first paid spots. Having felt a little cheated by the publicity, I asked the club’s promoter, James Straw, about the claims. He says the line-up I saw ‘wasn’t a fair representation of the standard of our shows’. Perhaps that’s the case – it’s impossible to judge since no line-ups are listed for his shows – but it certainly didn’t live up to the quotes on their flyer: ‘Definitely the funniest show in London’ (BBC); ‘Unmissable’ (The Times); ‘The funniest show’ (The Guardian). Straw admits that those quotes ‘are from/about acts that have played our venue several hundred times each at least’, rather than about the club itself, which is hardly an object lesson in transparency. He admits it’s unclear and says it was ‘really a case of not thinking it through. I do remember it was a rush job.’
So what about the recent acts? Adam Bloom, a top circuit comic featured in the list above, told me he played the club ‘once, several years ago and it was chaos. So, I suppose, technically, he has got licence to say that. It’s very cheeky, though.’ And when did Jimmy Carr last play the gig? ‘He has played our nights many, many, many times,’ Straw responds, ‘I would say conservatively around 75 to 150 times. But I think to say “recent” is a bit misleading: as you correctly point out, it’s been a good number of years since he last performed at our venue.’
Also on his brochure is ‘Recommended as both Critics’ and Comics’ Choice – Time Out London’. I searched back five years in our listings database and found no mention, positive or otherwise, in that time. Straw says the gig was a Critics’ Choice, rather vaguely, ‘back in the day’ (the club has been running for more than 20 years under different names) and has agreed to remove the mentions of Time Out from future publicity.
The club, Straw admits, is mainly aimed at tourists. But that doesn’t mean anybody should be misled about the quality of the product they are being sold. However, what saddens me most is that the club paints an unflattering picture of London’s comedy scene to both visitors and locals. If audiences believe that what they are witnessing at the London Comedy Club is truly ‘The funniest show in London’, as is written on its flyers, they won’t think the British comedy circuit is much cop at all. So, to check which shows we do genuinely recommend, just scan our listings and look out for our red stars.