Crouch End comedy hub that nurtures big talent

For 30 years the King’s head comedy club has been the making of many a future comedy star.

It’s Thursday night and the burgundy basement venue of the King’s Head in Crouch End is full of people. They’re here to see a selection of comedy hopefuls who have braved the five-month waiting list to get their five minutes on stage.

As the crowd settles into the small, low ceiling room with full glasses, the host introduces the first try-out, Steve, encouraging the audience to “be quiet, be supportive and don’t heckle”. Steve’s five-minute foray into life as a single parent divorcee encourages a ripple of laughter, yet it is clear that his material needs more work. He exits to subdued yet supportive applause.

Five performers in and it is hopeful Paul’s turn. Within a minute of stepping on stage, he breaks into a surrealist routine with all the timing and structure of a professional. His five minutes leave an indelible collective smile on the audience.

It’s at this point that I realise why the King’s Head comedy club is going into its 30th successful year and has been the starting point for a lot of big comedy names. It’s not the usual creaky conveyor belt of throwaway quips offered to please a bloodthirsty, heckle-happy crowd. It’s a comedy school, where budding acts blossom by learning about their craft, with an audience brought along for the ride.

“We wanted a place where performers could develop, a welcoming environment and friendly club,” says Peter Grahame, who founded the club with Huw Thomas in 1981.

“Some people take longer than others to develop their style and material. I remember Mark Lamarr performing here when he was just a young kid from Swindon. He didn’t have much material, but he really worked with the audience and you could just see that he had something about him. Others took longer to find their voice, but we helped them do that.”

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Beginning as an antidote to what Grahame describes as “the adversarial competitions and gong shows which were coming out of places like the Comedy Store at that time”, the club is the alma mater of most of Britain’s comedy elite. Jimmy Carr, Frank Skinner, Alan Carr, Alexei Sayle, Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand and Harry Hill all nurtured their material here before making it big.

“Everybody has passed through here almost, some of them go on to do TV and I forget they’ve even performed here,” says Grahame.

“Alan Carr said to me recently, ‘I owe you a big favour. You’re the first one who gave me a paid gig.’ I think that’s what makes us different. If someone is good enough, we give them paid work and let them move up, unlike some clubs which survive because they don’t pay the talent properly.”

Grahame recalls how comedy has changed since the 80s: “The circuit started out as an extension of cabaret. It was only when the listings magazines gave it a separate section that it began to get more attention. Now we get audiences which have come to comedy through seeing it on television. Comedy has become so much more mainstream.”

The independent club has weathered this change, seeing off competition from bigger comedy outfits to become a favourite among audiences from all over the UK. Alumni who can sell out theatres regularly return to warm up for bigger shows in the 150-capacity venue.

“Recently we’ve had Sean Hughes, Jason Manford and Simon Brodkin pop in and surprise the audience,” says Grahame. “I don’t like to make a big deal of it though. It’s just a nice surprise and it’s a good place for them to test out material. The acts like playing here because it’s a proper old school comedy club, no food during the acts or disco afterwards. It is what it is, a comedy club and nothing else.”

As the latest offering from the King’s Head wraps up, Paul who performed for the first time tonight, is happy with his performance. “I first heard about the club a couple of years ago and I have waited four months to play here, he says. “I thought it went well, even though the audience laughed at unexpected moments. I enjoyed my five minutes.”