The chance to see a Ricky Gervais, Michael McIntyre or Romesh Ranganathan gig for as little as a fiver seems laughable.

But savvy North London comedy fans are regularly treated to big name stand ups in the intimate spaces of The Pleasance, Jacksons Lane, or The Bill Murray.

Just don't expect a polished performance, says The Pleasance's comedy booker Ryan Taylor, because these scratch gigs are warm-ups to hone routines in front of a live audience.

"We've had Suzie Ruffell trying out gags for a TV show, Romesh is in and out, and Michael McIntyre can pull up, do a show, get in his car, and drive home before the last audience member has hit the stairs," he said.

Ham & High: The Pleasance Theatre in Carpenter's Mews, IslingtonThe Pleasance Theatre in Carpenter's Mews, Islington (Image: Newsquest archive)

"We've built up a relationship as a safe space for them to try stuff out without people filming on their phones, and they kind of enjoy going back to their roots. Some of these people are playing the O2 where you can't even see the front row. Some do so much television, it's nice getting that adrenaline buzz and rhythm of talking to an audience. You can't get that from an autocue."Ham & High: Hampstead comic Ricky Gervais has previously performed warm-up shows for big tours at Jacksons Lane in HighgateHampstead comic Ricky Gervais has previously performed warm-up shows for big tours at Jacksons Lane in Highgate (Image: Newsquest Archive)

Having programmed The Pleasance's Islington and Edinburgh venues for 18 years, Taylor has seen it all.

"So many people started out here, we see them ages before they are famous, I remember The Mighty Boosh and Dave Gorman when they were completely unknown. It's fascinating watching the progression of some acts. The Pleasance is somewhere they can come back to. There's no special treatment and they never really ask for it. They don't want to be hounded for selfies, so sometimes they leave out the back."

Gigs are firmly badged as 'Work in Progress' and the 54-seat studio space can sell out to mailing list members in 20 minutes.Ham & High: Hampstead comic Michael McIntyre tests material for arena and TV shows at intimate Pleasance gigsHampstead comic Michael McIntyre tests material for arena and TV shows at intimate Pleasance gigs (Image: Newsquest Archive)

"This way everyone knows what to expect and can think 'that was brilliant I only paid £6'. It can mean they take a chance on someone they have never heard of."

WIP gigs range from a comic working on their Edinburgh show, to someone like Gervais making final tweaks before going on tour - or a fumbled mumble through ideas on a fag packet.

"Audiences have given up their night off so it should entertain, but it does vary; Nick Mohammed is coming three days before he does his show in the West End, so that will be pretty much finished, but there will be times when they are reading off a bit of paper. Newer comics try harder because they are building their fan base. Once Romesh told a story about going to Thorpe Park and did an excellent off the cuff 10 minute routine."Ham & High: Darren Harriott plays The PleasanceDarren Harriott plays The Pleasance (Image: Supplied)

The annual challenge of working up an hour for an Edinburgh show can take up to 30 WIP gigs.

"It's the complete reverse of being in a band where fans expect them to play their best known songs. Once a comic has used material they have burned it, you can't tell the same jokes everyone has already heard. The best way for a comedian to write material is get on stage and start interacting with the audience. Some ask for suggestions, pick stuff from the news - they can spend a year writing an hour that they have to test drive and tweak."

A new generation of comics are also becoming known via social media and have a fan base "but not the chops to deal with an audience."

Pleasance WIP gigs coming up include rising stars Dan Tiernan, Josh Jones, Mary O'Connell, Darren Harriott, Rosie Jones and Kieran Hodgson. Taylor cites Laura Rose Treen as "really exciting".Ham & High: Kieran Hodgson plays a warm up gig at The PleasanceKieran Hodgson plays a warm up gig at The Pleasance (Image: Publicity)

"She does brilliant absurd character stuff, I am excited to see that full hour."

Booking new acts he says: "You are looking for someone who stands out for whatever reason and is telling you something different - not necessarily groundbreaking or zeitgeisty material, just an incredible performer who has something on stage you haven't seen before and think 'I want to see you again'."

It's a job that never gets old: "I don't get paid enough but hand on heart, it's the best job; every single show and every week is different."

The Pleasance Work In Progress gigs are on various dates