Comedy Café owner Noel Faulkner: Interview

Comedy Café owner Noel Faulkner tells Time Out the secret of his success

  • On Friday night at the Comedy Café, soon after the regular stand-up show has ended, something stranger moves into the building. It’s billed as a vaudevillian revival of cabaret, comedy and risqué titillation. It goes by the name Avant Garden. It promises characters from the depths of Freudian fantasy, macabre stories, naughty jokes, Victorian peepshow, costume melodrama and ‘an unpredictable adventure down the rabbit hole where a new dimension of interactive entertainment is unearthed’. ‘Carriages,’ we’re told, ‘are at 3am.’

    It’s no surprise that something as unusual as this has originated from the Comedy Café, currently celebrating its fifteenth birthday. If the Comedy Store is the granddad among London clubs, the Café resembles a roguish younger cousin. As with dogs, so with comedy venues: they often look oddly like their owners. Noel Faulkner (pictured), owner of the Café, has a background straight out of romantic fiction – which features in his own material. He worked on trawlers in his youth. He hung out with rock stars on the King’s Road in the ’70s. He went to live in the States and smuggled drugs between Colombia and San Francisco. He made it on to the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list. He performed as an actor and a stand-up despite what he describes as ‘the mild problem of having Tourette’s’.

    In 1990 Faulkner was passing through London. ‘A friend of mine, Tom McCabe, had already set up the Comedy Café four months previously. He asked if I wanted to take a look and help him out.’ The building had originally been a cabinet-maker’s then a motorcycle shop. ‘One of the main things was to change the décor. It was still painted green. We made it into something like a child’s playroom. There were several surly members of staff. We replaced them with people who smiled. That’s a very important factor. What’s the secret of success? Friendly staff, clean toilets and cold beer.’

    Three years later Faulkner bought out McCabe. It’s now one of London’s leading purpose-built clubs. ‘I think the fact that I was a performer helped me get to know the comics,’ he explains. ‘If I thought someone had any sort of potential, I’d book them again. I’d even book comedians who died, because I knew one day they’d be great stand-ups.’

    The list of major comedians who have supported the club on the strength of fond and grateful memories includes Lee Evans, Mark Lamarr, Jo Brand, Lee Mack and Ed Byrne – although Byrne has a slightly different tale to tell: ‘I did my first paid gig in London there. I got £25, I think. Noel was there. I asked him afterwards if there was any chance of getting a longer gig at the weekend. He nodded. He nodded vigorously. He kept on nodding. Then he said “no”. That’s what you get with Tourette’s.’ Faulkner’s among the first to acknowledge the importance of the innumerable pub-based comedy nights that run once or twice a week.

    ‘The circuit needs places where up-and-coming comics can get bags of experience.’ But the trump card with a place like the Comedy Café is it won’t survive unless it’s well run. Punters get quality and value. ‘Audiences aren’t stupid,’ Faulkner declares. ‘Sometimes they reject good stand-ups because they’re too sophisticated and intelligent. But that’s understandable. Some people are burnt out after a week’s work. They want something silly.’

    That’s not to say Faulkner will settle for servicing the basest needs. It’s just that he’s not a devotee of ‘pure comedy’ either. After 15 years at the sharp end of the business, he retains the kind of enthusiasm you’d look for in a youngster. He’s a maverick. Lee Mack puts it better: ‘Noel has always been like a father to me. A slightly abusive father who does things that perhaps he shouldn’t.’

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