The Comedy Store’s Only Standing O

I did a gig this weekend at the 99 Club in Leicester Square.  As soon as I walked down the stairs into what was once described as an “underground car park,” the memories flooded back – and not all of them were pleasant ones.  The 99 Club is in the same venue as the legendary Comedy Store.  In the 80’s and 90’s The Leicester Square Store was London’s top comedy club and as The Store’s biographer pointed out to me, I compered (MC-ed for you yanks) there more than anyone.

All of the comics for this weekend’s show were young pups in their 20s.  When they finally figured out who I was, I regaled them with old stories about The Store in its heyday.   Now you have to realize that I worked there with almost every great comedian that that generation produced in the UK.  Eddy Izard, Robin Williams, Jack Dee, Julian Clary, Jo brand, Mark Thomas, Charles Flitcher, Bill Hicks, Emo Phillips, Denis Leary, Mike Myers, Harry Hill,  Bob Mills, Bill Bayley,  and a zillion other great comics that you may not have heard of.  But in all of that time, I told them, I only ever saw one standing ovation.

Compering a weekend at the Store was a grind.  One show on Thursday and two shows on Friday and Saturday.  By the time the proper Saturday night midnight set was finished, it was 2:30 in the morning – but the show was not over.  That was when the Open Spots started.  Anybody could then get on stage and try-out a five minute set – anybody.  It was a snake pit.  In those days The Store was one of the few places in the West End to have a late liquor licence.  Most of the audience was there just for the drinking.  And since the Tube shut down at midnight, they were drunks that didn’t care how they got home.  Almost every comic of my age will tell you a tale of the crucifixion that they received in front of an audience that 300 years earlier would have been called a lynch mob.

One night a short young man with a mop of sandy hear waited in the dressing room.  He stood out from all of the other soon to be slaughtered hopefuls because he wasn’t at all nervous – he almost seemed sedated.  When you spoke to him his eyes focused through you at something behind your head.  His name, I remember, was Tony he said he was an impressionist.  His only request was that there was a chair on the stage.

I introduced him and the audience, upon seeing him, actually settled down a bit – so un-human was his countenance. He placed on the chair a piece of paper that had his act written on it (that’s why he wanted the chair) and did his first impression.

“Nice to see you, nice to see you nice,” he said doing a god awful impression of a famous old school British TV host.  (For you Americans it was the equivalent of someone saying “We have a really good shew,” badly impersonating Ed Sullivan.)  The audience at once realized two things: first that this guy was really, really bad and secondly he didn’t know he was bad.  It had been a long ,rough night.  Even the professional acts had had a tough time with this audience.  The crowd was drunk and tired and they did something that I never saw an audience do before – they instantly and collectively – took the piss.  They broke into a round of cheering and applause that was louder and more enthusiastic than any of the paid acts had previously received on the night.  It went on for so long that Tony had to hold his hands up to quiet them down.  His next impression (and I kid you not) was Jimmy Cagey.  “You dirty rat.”  The crowd went wild!  He continued with about five more really horrible three word impressions of mostly dead celebrities like, Tommy Cooper,  “Juzt like that.” And when he finished the audience – as one –stood and started chanting his name.  It was the cruellest and funniest thing I had ever seen.

I got on stage and tried to introduce the next open spot but the audience wouldn’t sit down.  They continued to clap and chant, Tony, Tony!”  I finally had no choice but to bring him on for an encore.  Tony wandered back on stage, with his rabbit in the headlights stare, placed his piece of paper back on the chair and… he started over again with the same impressions. The crowd went absolutely berserk!  He went through his entire set again and I had no choice but to bring him on a third time.  He would have gotten another encore if I hadn’t stepped on stage (tears where now on my cheeks from laughing so hard) and told the audience that they “should be ashamed of themselves.”  We cancelled all the rest of the open spots and ended the show – there was no following that.

Afterwards Tony seemed completely unaware that anything unusual had happened.  He was as blank as he had been before he stepped on stage.  Kim, who was the manager of The Store back then, spoke to him and said, “I have no idea what just happened up there but I’ve never seen a reaction like it, so I have to book you – call me.”

Tony left and never did call.

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9 Responses to “The Comedy Store’s Only Standing O”

  1. Andy Taylor Says:

    Hi John, I think the word for MC is “Compère”.

  2. johnlenahan Says:

    Andy I refer you to this blog post

  3. Sue Says:

    Tony! Tony!

  4. Suzi Woods Says:

    That was brilliant John, sounds like we missed an historic night. Hey, you should write a book! : )

  5. Andy Taylor Says:

    Hehe. I see you still corrected the spelling though 😛

  6. chris Says:

    tell us the story of the night Robin Williams came.

  7. johnlenahan Says:

    I refer you Chris to a previous post –

  8. chris Says:

    Thanks, i had read that, but you have a great story of the day that there was a rumour that he would come and no one believed you, not told in these pages. or is my memory false?

  9. My other favourite Comedy Store open spot moment. « John Lenahan’s Year of Gratuitous Socks Says:

    […] johnlenahan My other favourite Comedy Store open spot moment happened the very next weekend after the standing O night.  A man, who was older than the normal want-a-bees, spoke to me before I went up to introduce […]

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