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30th Anniversary for The Comedy Store Players

28 July 2015 | Sarah Fortescue

Tucked away on a side street in London’s bustling West End, opposite the Prince of Wales Theatre (currently home to the little-known Book of Mormon), is The Comedy Store – an unassuming little place with an air of one of the ‘rough around the edges’ clubs that popped up in the 80s, it would be forgivable to think it was your average, run-of-the-mill stand-up haunt.

I’d heard of the place before (who hasn’t?) but never made it in to see a show. Easily done in London, I suppose. A month ago, I was invited to a friend’s birthday there, and was duly introduced to the unique realm of The Comedy Store. Anyone who’s been will have immediately noted the press clippings – spanning several decades – adorning the walls. It is the content of those that interested me; Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence and Mike Myers all talking about improvisation – namely, the collective of comedians who form ‘Comedy Store Players’ – one of Britain’s longest running improv groups, who still perform at the club twice a week.

2015 is a particularly special year for the group, as it was on October 27th 1985 that they had their first gig: their 30th birthday is this October. To fill me in on celebration plans and tell me a little more about their journey so far, I caught up with Lee Simpson, who has been a member for 25 years, after taking advantage of the unfortunate circumstances of one Paul Merton. “Paul broke his leg so I ruthlessly exploited his bad luck to advance my career. I’m like that. Once I'd been around for a while they decided to keep me. I'm clean and moderately reliable so maybe they figured "why not?"” By the time Lee joined in 1985, his fellow players were Paul Merton, Neil Mullarkey, Josie Lawrence, Richard Vranch, and Sandi Toksvig. From that lineup, Sandi is the only one who is no longer with the group – and Lee remembers his first meeting with the popular BBC4 host-turned Women’s Equality Party politician fondly. “I was a massive fan of Sandi because she’d done this Saturday morning show called Number 73, so when she walked through the dressing room door I was totally star struck”.

So how did this meeting of some of Britain’s wittiest minds come about?  “Like any seismic, perhaps even cataclysmic cultural shift, the Comedy Store Players was born from individual action and the broad sweep of history. The individuals were Mike Myers (a Canadian) and Kit Hollerbach (an American) who couldn't work out why improv was popular pretty much everywhere in the English speaking world except England. So they gathered some likely people together and set up an improv night at the Comedy Store. At almost the same time other improv groups were popping up all over the place; Rupert Pupkin Collective, Theatresports, Late at the Gate, loads of them. For some reason that a PhD thesis might identify, Britain had decided to catch up with the rest of the world.”

Aside from the current core group of six, the Players regularly perform with special guests – in the past Eddie Izzard was a regular, and now Marcus Brigstocke and Phill Jupitus frequently join the action. So how do you get in? An initiation ceremony? A fight to the death? Wait for someone to break their leg again? “The initiation ceremony is the show. After your first Comedy Store Players show you do feel ‘blooded’ in a way. Like you've not only survived, but somehow enjoyed a near death experience.” Nice.

There’s a point to that, though. While most of us could probably agree that stand-up must be a tricky, unnerving feat, improvisation doesn’t even have the comfort of a script. So what possessed this group of comedians to do something that would have most people running for the nearest exit? When I saw a show, an audience member requested ‘ballet’ as a theme for Phill Jupitus, who slowly turned round and responded with a cutting “F**k off”. I thought, ‘if that were me, that would be my go-to response for all of it’.  So what would drive people towards such a nerve-racking set, with no script to prompt them? “Many stand-ups do some improv and get totally hooked because it’s the crack cocaine of performance. Contrary to what most people think, improv (when it’s done by people who’re good) is very rarely a complete disaster because it’s always redeemable; you can keep changing tack, changing tone, changing pace, changing style, whatever it takes to get yourself back in the funny zone.”

And what of the funny zone? What might that look like? There’s been a lot of talk lately about the changing nature of comedy; Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Merchant, all wildly different in style, have commented on the rise of political correctness in stand-up. So, as a group with 30 years of history, what’s the consensus? “If anything, for us, it's the other way round and we very occasionally end up slapping down members of the audience for being offensive when they give us suggestions to improvise around. I would say that over the last 30 years, as formerly marginalized cultural ideas or issues have become more mainstream, it's broadened what we can do and where we can go. So for example, we can now do Bollywood as a film style because we do it with warmth and affection, and because the audience has a much greater knowledge and affection for that genre - so we can send it up in the same way we might send up Western or Film Noir. As for the future, I hope that we keep talking about what is and isn't acceptable in comedy and that the discussion is nuanced and intelligent. It won't be.”

So, with 25 years of doing what one loves best, with comedy heroes who have become friends, what’s the best memory to take away from it all so far? “If I had to choose one it would be something that happens pretty much every show; the laughter gets to a point where it is almost out of control… The audience are laughing, the people onstage are laughing and I imagine someone walking in and seeing hundreds of people all just laughing but no one apparently doing anything to laugh at. When that happens it is intoxicating.”

Sound good? If you’d like to help them see in their 30th in style, they’ve decided that “there's too much to fit onto one night so we are doing a month of special shows. We've decided that our birthday is the whole of October.” It’s probably advisable to get the ticket requests in early, and help one of the UK’s most renowned comedy groups have their own celebration. I think they’ve earned it. 

For more information and tickets, head to their website.

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