Q&A with the Godfather of Comedy Don Ward | entertainment | Hindustan Times
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Q&A with the Godfather of Comedy Don Ward

entertainment Updated: Oct 12, 2009 00:25 IST
Naomi Canton
Naomi Canton
Hindustan Times
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Tell me how this all began…
The first Comedy Store opened in 1979 in Soho in London. I had been a standup comedian for 10 years before that and had worked all across the UK, but there was no dedicated comedy space in the UK then.

Then in 1972 I happened to buy a nightclub in Soho called the Gargoyle. There was a striptease club on the top floor, and a nightclub below it. I turned the strip tease club round and improved the show and ran both for seven years. I ran the nightclub as a traditional club with a band and dancers and so on and we had standup comedy there. In fact I was the comedy compere at the nightclub. Then I went to the USA and saw the comedy clubs there and decided it was a good idea to open one in London. I was in a prestigious position because I owned a nightclub already. It was the right time and the right place basically. So I started the Comedy Store in May 1979 in place of the nightclub and kept the strip tease going for a while. The opening night of the Comedy Store had 150 would-be comedians queuing up to try and get in and the police came and arrested me for causing public disorder, but they let me off after I gave them four tickets to it….

How did you get so many aspiring comedians?
I put Ads in various odd magazines, like Punch, the Jewish Chronicle, Brides' Weekly and the Evening Standard… The Ad said something like: "Are you frustrated and feel you are in the wrong job because in fact you are the funniest person in the world? If you think you have talent, then come to the Comedy Store and we will invite loads of media."<b1>

It was, I suppose, like the X Factor 30 years ago. So I got 150 would-be comedians turn up and everyone was allowed to perform. They included Alexei Sayle who became my compere. He has since become folklore because he was the first alternative comedian in the UK. Until then, comedy in the UK had just been racist and sexist jokes, mother-in-law jokes or jokes about four boats going into a bar, but he brought in observational, intelligent and political humour….

Thatcher had come to power three months earlier and so I started Gargoyle at a time of cuts. At that time there were no comedy clubs at all, same as Mumbai now.

We have always done well in recessions because people need relief and comedy is a relief.

In the last recession my business has picked up by two to three per cent.

How did it expand?
Well, we moved from Dean Street to Leicester Square in 1982 and then to Piccadilly Circus where we are now. After 20 years I thought I better do something big so I opened one up in Manchester. Now it's our 30 anniversary and so I thought I better do something special so I opened one up here. It all came together after I met my Indian partner Amar Agrawal, who runs the Spa Group.

What about Leeds…That opened and closed in 2004 after being open for less than a year…?
Leeds was an attempt at a franchise, but the franchisees thought they knew better than me and within 11 weeks it had folded.

We provide Comedy Store programming in many places in the UK like Norwich and Bournemouth, as well as Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but we don't have physical clubs there.

We used to bring Comedy Store programming to Hong Kong Singapore and Phuket but our market was mainly expats and that has died down now since the recession so we've stopped. However the middle East is still dong very well. In India our target market isn't expats but Indians.

Why Mumbai?
I looked at Delhi and Gurgaon but did not feel they were right at all and so I said I wanted to look at another city and I came to Mumbai and I felt like I had come home! This city has such vibrance. It's like London and Manchester, with Hollywood thrown in.

The Comedy Store comedians performed at St Andrew's Auditorium in Bandra. Were you satisfied with the venue?
It's hard to create a Comedy Store comedy feel in such a vast theatre, but we are very grateful to them…

Any expansion plans?
Yes we are going to Goa in the next few days and looking at places there also considering Bangalore. We will also consider Delhi again.

How will the pricing be?
We are not sure. We had various pricing structures on this trip, but I am looking into having one fixed price for all seats and 'free seating' (i.e. not numbered). That's how we do it in Manchester so the earlier you get there the closer you get to the front..
In the UK you would pay 20 pounds (Rs1,500) to see a comic on a Saturday night which is affordable.

You took the name from the comedy club of that name in the US?
Yes, that was a little bit of excitement, when I went to the US in 1978 and found out the Comedy Store name there was not registered in the UK and so I registered it and created a logo which is now a worldwide instantly recognised trademark.