A Guide To Watching Live Comedy In London

Josie Long / photo by Wes Stankiewicz

Many people like watching comedy on TV – after all, who doesn’t enjoy laughing? – but far fewer go out to watch comedy in London’s pubs, clubs and theatres. So we’ve put together this guide to try and tempt more of us to sample the capital’s almost infinite variety of funnymakers.

Isn’t it all just stand up?
If you go to a comedy club, like The 99 Club or Crack Comedy, then yes – what you’re likely to see is three or four stand up comedians doing short sets, one after the other. It’s a good way to see a number of different comics and if you don’t like one, another will be on in a minute. But stand up is just one type of comedy. We asked Josie Long what she liked about live comedy in London, and she told us

The scene in London is better than anywhere else. There’s genuine experimental comedy happening. You can see things here that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

So what else is there?
Where to start? There are regular comedy nights that stick to a particular theme (e.g. new material, musical comedy, sketch) so you have an idea of what you’re going to get. We’ll be choosing some of our favourites in the next couple of weeks.

Panel, quiz and chat shows aren’t just for TV, they’re on the live circuit as well. Some are recorded for podcast. You can see funny poets and academics. There’s even a night that improvises a Jane Austen novel.

Is there somewhere I can just turn up and see a show?
If you want something other than a comedy club, try rocking up to the Soho Theatre, Leicester Square Theatre, Hen and Chickens in Islington or The Vandella in Shepherds Bush. All these venues book a range of comedians for pretty much every night of the week.

Will I get picked on?
Er. That depends on where you go. If you end up in a West End comedy club on a Friday or Saturday night and you’re surrounded by stag, hen and office parties then yes, the MC will probably do a spot of “what’s your name sir and what do you do?” before ripping the piss for a couple of minutes. But remember these people are professionals: they won’t last long hosting gigs if they alienate their audience every night. Most comedians are lovely people who wouldn’t dream of humiliating you, and some comedy nights even have a ‘no banter’ rule so people feel safe enough to sit in the front row.

Some shows do rely on audience participation, the award winning and brilliant Adam Riches being a prime example. Nowhere is safe at his shows – he’s been known to whip away two empty rows of seats, turning the third row into the first – but the man knows what he’s doing even when pushing people to the limit. Here’s a tip we learned from Mr Riches himself: he avoids choosing anyone making direct eye contact because he wants someone relatively compliant on stage with him. Stare at your feet and you might find yourself the unexpected centre of attention.

If it does happen to you, our advice is to go with it. It’s painless and is over quickly. (If you really, really don’t like audience interaction, maybe don’t go see Scott Capurro.) This being-nice-to-each-other thing’s also a two-way street: if you’re in a small room at a friendly gig and one of your friends starts acting like a proper knob, yelling at the act, talking on their phone or wandering in and out (all things we’ve seen happen), do us all a favour and bundle them out.

What’s an ‘Edinburgh show’?
When listings describe something as an Edinburgh show, it means a roughly 60 minute self-contained show that was put together for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Comedians flock to Edinburgh each August to eat badly, sleep badly, drink a lot and perform new material for discerning comedy-goers, award judges and other drunk people. If a show goes down well it’s likely to be performed in London at some point over the next year. Keep an eye out for shows that won awards or were nominated; it’s a sign of quality.

What’s a ‘preview’?
A preview, or a work in progress show, is where comedians try out new material, usually while they’re putting together a new Edinburgh show or major tour. Previews normally cost far less than a normal show (sometimes just a couple of quid). If you’re fine with a bit of flipping through notes and some gags that don’t quite hit the mark, previews can be brilliantly informal and intimate. You’re an integral part of the performance (we don’t mean in a participation way) because at this point it’s very fluid. The comedian relies on the audience for feedback – by going to a preview, you get to influence a show’s final form. Back to Josie Long again:

Previews depend on what’s going on in the room, anything can happen! It’s exciting and there’s a wonderful feeling when things go well. And when something new is created, you can look around the room and say ‘that came from us’.

How do I find the ‘next big thing’?
Sifting the great from the crap can be tough although, unlike experimental theatre, we’re struggling to think of any comedy shows we’ve seen that were outright shit. Shows that did well at Edinburgh are always good bets, and our weekly comedy picks should clue you into the good stuff. Open mic nights can occasionally throw up gold but are perhaps best avoided if you’re not prepared for at least one slot of knuckle-chewing awfulness.

Obviously, the live comedy scene is a way for acts to hone their writing and performance before one day landing a spot on radio or TV. But as well as the smug factor of being able to say “that guy? Yeah, I saw him three years ago in a sweaty room in Camden”, you can get advance sight of stuff heading for the airwaves in the very near future. The Stand Up for the Week team are currently trying out material for each week’s show at Laughing Boy and Up The Creek comedy clubs. John Finnemore also tested sketches for his Radio 4 show in front of real people. We asked John what an audience could give him that sitting in a writers’ room can’t:

Trying material out in front of a live audience is great for keeping you honest. At home writing sketches, it’s very tempting to think ‘this one needs a long build up, it’s a slow burn’ or ‘it’s the cumulative effect that makes it funny…’ On stage in front of an audience who haven’t laughed for 20 seconds, what you want above all things is to get to the next joke. Which is as it should be.

That’s great, but I want to sit in a cold studio for two hours, be told when to clap and not be able to pee
Then going to a TV or radio recording sounds perfect. Sign up to SRO Audiences or keep an eye on the BBC’s Be in the Audience site. Be warned: a lot of tickets are allocated on a lottery basis, and even if you get on the list there’s no guarantee you’ll get into the studio, as they issue more tickets than seats to make up for no-shows. Turn up early and queue. But hey, at least these things are free.

Photo of Josie Long at Do The Right Thing podcast recording by Wes Stankiewicz. Each week Londonist picks out an interesting comedy show for each day, ending up with a mixture of stand up, clubs, shows, sketches and big names. At the moment we’re also highlighting Edinburgh previews.

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  • http://londonist.com/ Lindsey Clarke

    This is excellent. Comedy is good, people!

  • Bring Stuff

    You should mention The Albany on Great Portland Street.  A large amount of BBC comedy producers, writers and performers try out material regularly in the underground club.  Check their website for details.

    • Anonymous

      Sadly, sadly, what was the great little space under The Albany is now a restaurant, I think. It’s definitely not a comedy venue any more.

      • RobertD

         Perhaps The Phoenix on the other side of Broadcasting House no serves that role.

  • Dan Brown180

    The Phoenix, just behind(ish) John Lewis on Oxford Street does an excellent new material night every Monday. You’d be surprised who turns up. Tonight it’s Rich Hall, Milton Jones and Mark Thomas. For a fiver.

  • Oliver
  • Grundlepuncher

    The Good Ship Comedy Club in Kilburn is also a hidden gem! Every Monday night top acts for just £5….helps me start my week with a smile anyway!