Hampstead Comedy Club celebrates 20 strong years with ambitious expansion plans

Ivor Dembina, compere of Hampstead Comedy Club

Ivor Dembina, compere of Hampstead Comedy Club - Credit: Archant

This autumn, Hampstead Comedy Club is celebrating its 20th anniversary, but compère Ivor Dembina has little time to reminisce.

Having moved to its fourth venue, the Camden Head, last year, the weekly institution seems to have struck a chord with Camden Town’s bustling high street – so much so that the pub is launching ambitious plans for further comedy nights this month.

As things stand, a newly forged Camden Comedy Club will see comedy shows almost every night; these will also include Saturday’s Hampstead Comedy Club, where Dembina continues to host quality up-and-coming stand-ups from across the capital.

Speaking in the venue’s dedicated upstairs room – currently in refurbishment and moodily lit by a classic “Camden Comedy Club” neon sign – the 62-year-old explains how his night’s evergreen appeal has stemmed from keeping things simple.

“If the club has a slogan, it’s that we have great shows, a great venue and great value,” he says. “We try to keep the ticket price reasonable, just £10, and we have a no-frills policy. By that, I mean we don’t serve food; we don’t have a disco in the room; we don’t encourage stag and hen parties – we try to give the comedian a high status.”

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Camden Head’s comedy revamp is that it will also be using Hampstead Comedy Club to test run a series of late-night events.

The first will take place next month; if all goes to plan, the pub hopes to see them staged during the week as well, but Dembina is keen to ensure that progress is made one step at a time.

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“In a way, that’s my philosophy: build a club slowly. Too many clubs open and close because they’re too ambitious. They’ll get a big name down the first week and it’ll be packed out; next week – no big name, empty, it disappears.

“The thing about a comedy club is building a relationship with your customers so, over the years, they’ll trust that, if they come down to your club, they’re almost certainly going to have a good night.”

Burgeoning talent

While favouring consistent quality over the big names has served Dembina well over the past two decades, Hampstead Comedy Club is no stranger to high-profile acts.

Each year, he reckons the club hosts every burgeoning talent worth seeing on the London circuit and even after making it big, many still come back for special nights.

The compere’s own entry into the industry came during the halcyon days of the ’80s alternative comedy scene, when he paid a visit to the iconic Comedy Store in Leicester Square.

“I met the acts and they said the only trouble was that the Comedy Store was the only club; they didn’t have anywhere else to perform. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll open a club’, and I opened one up the road in Tufnell Park, in the foyer of the St George’s church.

“After three weeks, they chucked us out – I don’t know why, because it was packed – but Ben Elton was on, Clive Anderson, Rory Bremner. I paid them all £20 and told them to sod off.”

The experience nonetheless eventually led to him setting up Hampstead Comedy Club, where he developed his skills as a compere to the point where he now also hosts his own acclaimed regular show, Old Jewish Jokes.

Importantly, though, he’s quite aware that being shown up can sometimes be the mark of a good club night.

“We had a show on last Saturday; it was our opening run of the new season. If I say so myself, I was the weak link, because the acts were so good. I don’t mind, because the point is if you went and saw most of the audience now and asked what the names of those acts were, they wouldn’t know. But I got thank-you messages saying, ‘Great night, I’ll be back’.”

With any luck, this season they will be, in greater and later numbers than ever before.

For a full list of their events, visit hampsteadcomedy.co.uk.