Jim Woroniecki: interview
Jim Woroniecki explains to Time Out how he got his open-mic night in Pole position
In the summer of 2004 Jim Woroniecki decided to set up a free-entry open-mic night in central London. He’d been performing stand-up for about a year. ‘But I wasn’t going up to the Edinburgh Fringe,’ he explains. ‘So I thought I’d have a crack at running my own place for three weeks in August, while Edinburgh was on.’ Shortly before the opening night, the management at the pub he’d targeted decided they’d use their upstairs room as a restaurant instead. ‘It was three, maybe four days before the Time Out listings deadline when I found another place. It all ended up being very rushed.’
That first show, at the Red Lion in Great Windmill Street, had a huge impact on Woroniecki. ‘By the second week, it was really apparent that I loved doing it. There was such good feedback from the audience, and from the acts, that I pushed on with it.’ The 99 Club continued on Thursday nights for some three or four months. By then it was going so well that Woroniecki started to run shows on Sundays too. Further expansion came when he was approached to take over an existing night at the Camden Head in Islington on Wednesdays. Now, after several more openings, the different 99 Clubs amount to seven shows a week, including a couple at Storm in Leicester Square where the old Comedy Store used to be.
It’s a remarkable achievement when, more often than not, new comedy clubs disappear after a few months at most. It’s a thoroughly deserved one because Woroniecki has strong convictions about the kind of club he wants to provide. ‘Stand-up is an art form, not a business. Relatively few of the big promoters seem to realise that. It’s ironic that many big clubs are aimed mainly at people who aren’t comedy fans, who are on stag nights or office outings, because they’re the most lucrative market. Our audiences probably have less money in their pockets. But we’re run by and for people who love comedy. We have a ban on large single-sex groups coming in.’
As the number of clubs has grown, he’s worked on a system where someone else, generally the resident MC, takes charge of some nights in the week while Woroniecki hosts the others. He continues to book all the acts and provide continual advice if problems arise. ‘I’ve chosen the venues very carefully,’ he says. ‘They all have a great atmosphere, though in very different ways. The Round Table has a quirkiness and playfulness about it. It’s the smallest of our venues. Storm in Leicester Square is the largest, although it still feels small because of the low ceilings. There’s a feeling like you got if you were going to see a band in the early days of punk. A sense of balls-to-the-wall comedy.’
The newest club is the 99 Club Covent Garden at The Longacre. ‘It’s underground, with a sense of illicitness and experimentation,’ he declares.’ It’s this ‘alternative’ feel, but allied with professionalism and efficient organisation, that Wroniecki always seeks. His determination and resilience have clearly been major factors in getting this far. ‘I think it’s a very Polish trait in my character that I refuse to accept the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ he says. ‘I’m Anglo-Polish. A grandfather came over here to fight with Britain in World War II.’
The 99 Clubs no longer have free admission. That ended after the first few months. ‘I worked out that the money you take from donations is pretty much fixed. It never goes above a pound a head. That doesn’t give you the resources you need to invest in the acts and the room.’ As the budget for acts has increased, the standard of the bills has risen to the point where this summer they feature comedians such as Phil Nichol, Stephen K Amos and Lucy Porter. But that’s not the whole story. What matters, most of all, is the feeling that comedians are playing a 99 Club as much for sheer enjoyment as for profit.
Does it make a big difference that Woroniecki operates mainly in the West End? ‘Yes, it forces you to run high-quality shows. In the West End people have so many other choices. I ran a night recently with three former Perrier Award nominees for £3.50!’ He’s proud of that.
What ambitions does this 28-year-old still have? ‘To keep giving comics the best possible environment to express themselves artistically and to be hysterically funny.’
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