JON WELCH A decade ago, regular comedy nights barely existed in East Anglia, but if you think that’s still the case the joke’s on you. The region now has a thriving comedy circuit, attracting some of the country’s top stand-ups.
Not so long ago, if you wanted to hear some good jokes on a night out then you needed to have some witty friends.
The chances of seeing a proper, real-life comedian in East Anglia - let alone three or four on the same night - were fairly remote.
How things have changed. It's now possible to see live comedy in a club setting every week, and that's not counting the various big-name stand-ups appearing in the region's theatres.
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There are now three regular comedy club nights in Norwich, with other monthly events in King's Lynn and Bury St Edmunds.
Venues for the Norwich club nights include two of the city's most high-profile buildings, Norwich City Football Club and the Forum.
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The city's Red Card Comedy Club celebrated its fourth birthday last week. Its shows at Carrow Road's Jarrold Norfolk Lounge sell out each month, attracting 450 people a time.
The club was founded by entrepreneurs Derek Robertson and Andy Bunn, friends since their days at Hellesdon High School.
“There were no outlets up here at all for what you would class as stand-up comedy,” explained Derek.
“I was just convinced it would work because there wasn't anybody else doing it.”
After deciding to start their own comedy club, Derek and Andy started looking for a venue.
Derek, a wine merchant, supplied Norwich City and knew the club had a large room that was rarely used on non-match days.
“They thought we were absolutely potty, but here we are four years later, probably the most successful comedy club in terms of bums on seats outside London,” he said.
Others were equally sceptical. “We were told by a well-known Norwich venue not to bother with comedy - 'You'll never make money out of it,' they said.”
The opening night attracted just 130 people - and that was after Derek and Andy had given 110 tickets away.
The second show, however, sold out. “Word must have spread like wildfire. There was no comedy anywhere in Norfolk at that time.”
Since then, many big-name comedians have performed at the Red Card, including Terry Alderton, Perrier Award-winner Reginald D Hunter and Jim Tavare, who appears in the new Harry Potter movie.
“Most of the comics are very fond of playing here,” said Derek.
“Initially they go, 'Bloody hell - Norwich?' They think it's going to be some backward, hick town but by the end of the night they love it.
“Norwich crowds are so up for comedy, and they listen as well. In London, they tend to be a bit more boisterous and into heckling. The crowd at Red Card is an appreciative comedy audience.”
The club's setting in a football ground helps break the ice. “Every comic has to come on and make a joke about football. Delia's 'Let's be having you!' speech gave them so much material.”
And although the cookery queen and Canaries majority shareholder has an open invitation to the comedy club, she has yet to take it up.
“I would like her to come along and enjoy herself,” said Derek. “I wouldn't want her to come and have the mickey taken out of her.”
And as far as he knows, none of the Norwich City players have come along either - and, let's face it, they could do with some cheering up at the moment.
“For me, comedy is about relaxation,” said Derek.
“You're there for a couple of hours, seeing three different acts and a compere. You are completely shut off. Your concentration is on that guy or girl entertaining you.”
Among Derek's favourite acts to have played Red Card was Ricky Grover.
Spotting a man in the audience getting up to visit the toilet during his set, the heavyweight comic chased after him, grabbed him in a fireman's lift and carried him back to the stage where he sat him on a chair and ordered him not to move.
Sean Mio, one of the country's top stand-ups and a former housemate of Derek's, has been involved in Red Card since its launch in 2001, appearing there “six, seven or eight” times and helping to choose the acts.
He said: “I think they have got themselves a nice little niche there.”
Audiences in Norwich were different to those in the capital, he said. “London audiences are all a bit hip. People treat this as more of an occasion.”
But Norwich, like London, has its hecklers. “I don't think they are less aggressive.
“If you don't do well you get treated better, but of course I'm usually carried out on their shoulders.”
The biggest downside for comics playing Norwich, he said, was its distance from London - and, in particular, the drive home along the A11.
“I think they wanted to contain the local populace to stop them escaping,” he said.
Derek and Andy tried to take the Red Card concept to other football clubs, Ipswich Town and Chelsea, but were hampered by apathy and bad luck respectively.
Audiences in Ipswich were threadbare. “People in Ipswich haven't got a sense of humour. It just didn't work,” said Derek.
In London, a Tube strike, followed by a firefighters' strike that caused Tube stations to be closed, made it difficult for people to reach Stamford Bridge.
Although both he and his business partner have other jobs - Andy runs a scaffolding company - in Derek's words: “We both take Red Card very, very seriously.”
He would like to open a dedicated comedy venue in Norwich, and has already scouted some possible buildings.
“I think Red Card as a brand can keep going. We have such a loyal following.
“We must be doing something right.”
Since Red Card opened, another comedy night has started at the Forum, Norwich, run by London club The Comedy Store.
Although Derek admitted to being “very worried” when the Forum hosted its first events, he said audiences had not been affected, showing that Norwich could support more than one comedy night.
Darren Cross, marketing manager at the Forum, said: “I don't know that we're in competition.
“We started pretty much at the time they did. We spoke to them, because we didn't want to tread on anybody's toes.”
Comedy Store events usually take place on the third Wednesday of each month, while Red Card nights are generally the fourth Thursday.
“Both are thriving and there's a growing comedy scene in Norwich,” said Darren.
“A few years back there were no stand-up comics here. Whether there is capacity for much more, I'm not sure.”
The Comedy Store nights have just entered their fourth season. “I think we've had somewhere in the region of 35 to 40 shows and 80pc of them have sold out,” said Darren.
“We've got a capacity of 380 and we tend to get a lot of repeat bookers. They like what they see and the response has always been very pleasing, particularly as it's not what you would call an obvious comedy venue.”
The large, glass-fronted building does not lend itself easily to comedy - indeed, some have unkindly likened it to Stansted airport's terminal - but Darren said: “We've perfected the art of transforming it.
“We have a blind system that sections off the atrium and creates far more intimacy, and we now have theatrical lighting. We lay it out cabaret-style, with round tables and chairs. There's a very intimate atmosphere.”
Hosting comedy shows was an early innovation at the Forum. “We were keen to get over that it was more than a library,” said Darren.
“We were keen through the events programme to challenge people's preconceptions about what the space would be. We wanted to get a new audience through the building.”
Big names to play the Forum have included Jimmy Carr and Daniel Kitson.
“We've never had anyone who's fallen flat. Fingers crossed, we never will.”
But despite the success of both clubs, it seems there are few professional comics from East Anglia.
“There does seem to be a dearth of local comedians. There's the Nimmo Twins, but they aren't conventional stand-ups,” said Darren, who has considered hosting a search for local comic talent.
A newcomer to the Norwich comedy scene is the Holiday Inn at Norwich International Airport.
Last month it hosted its first comedy night, staged by Essex-based promoters The Comedy Club.
Ian Franklin, managing director of The Comedy Club, said: “The comedy market is booming in the whole of the UK and abroad. It's been building for the last three or four years now.
“The alternative circuit has now over-ridden the mainstream. People don't want to hear joke-book humour.”
Ian puts the comedy boom down to people's need to relax. “People do have hectic and busy lifestyles today - it can be a tough old game sometimes.
“They do say a day without laughter is a day wasted.
Is there a danger of the market becoming saturated? “I don't think so. More and more people want to go to comedy nights.”
As for the future of comedy at the Holiday Inn, he said: “It's a new venue. It will take a bit of time for people to recognise it, but we're very optimistic.”
King's Lynn's Corn Exchange has been hosting monthly comedy club nights since 1997.
The venue is laid out cabaret-style for the events and can take 300 people. The comedy nights regularly sell out.
Maddie Wearden, spokesman for West Norfolk Council, put the club's success down to its relaxed atmosphere. “You can go and sit where you like and order your drinks and pizza at the table,” she said.
The Fat Cat Comedy Club at Bury's Corn Exchange has been running since the mid-1990s and, according to its organisers, “is now established on the comedy circuit”.
They put this down to the “friendly, enthusiastic and slightly odd audiences it attracts”.
ROLLING IN THE AISLES
t Bury St Edmunds: Fat Cat Comedy Club, Corn Exhange, www.fatcatcomedyclub.com. Next show Sunday, November 13: Dave Fulton, David Hadingham and Eddy Brimson. Bar opens 7pm, show starts 8pm. Admission £8, Concessions £7. Tickets on the door (get there early).
t t King's Lynn: Comedy Club, Corn Exchange. Next show Friday, November 18: MC Mike Wilkinson, Inder Manocha and Markus Birdman. Doors open 7.45pm, show starts 8.45pm. Admission £8, adults only. Box office 01553 764864.
t Norwich: The Comedy Store at The Forum, www.theforumnorwich.co.uk, www.thecomedystore.biz. Next show Wednesday, November 16: MC Nick Wilty, Jeff Innocent, Markus Birdman and Paul Sinha. Doors open 8pm, show starts 9pm. Tickets £12. Available from Theatre Royal box office 01603 630000 and Origins ticket desk at the Forum (10am to 4pm) on 01603 727922.
The Red Card Comedy Club, Jarrold Norfolk Lounge, Norwich City FC, www.redcardcomedyclub.com. Next show Thursday, November 24: Shappi Khorsandi, Ronnie Edwards, John Ryan and Addy Van de Borgh. Doors open 7.30pm, show starts 8.45pm. Tickets £10 advance, £12 on the door, discounts on advance bookings for groups of 10 or more. Norwich City FC box office 0870 4441902.
The Comedy Club @ Holiday Inn Norwich City Airport, Cromer Road, www.hahaheehee.com. Next show Thursday November 3: Chambers & Nettleton, Tony Gerrard and Rudi Lickwood. Doors open 7.30pm, show starts 8pm. Tickets pre-booked members £8, non-members £10, on the door £12. Three-course carvery from 6.30pm, including front row seats for comedy, £25. Available from 01603 410544.