Google stand-up comedy in London and you will be immediately inundated with options. Of course, top of the list will be the big-guns of the circuit – the Comedy Store, Jongleurs, the 99 Club – where you can expect to see ‘him off the telly’. However, for the more inquisitive, this Google search might not provide what you’re looking for. For those people, here are a few that I would particularly recommend and why…
This night used to run in East Dulwich but has since moved just down the road to Forest Hill. Now reachable on the Overground, expect to see one or two well-established headliners with one or two newcomers. Famous for alternative comedy, the open spots tend to be fantastically bizarre. I once saw a man walk on stage holding a bin bag over his shoulder, who then talked about why he liked Eastenders for 15 minutes. They pack people into a small and intimate room upstairs, and the atmosphere is altogether different from mainstream venues.
Stand-out feature: Intimacy. I’ve been in bigger laundry rooms.
This is essentially an open-mic night, but don’t let that put you off. They put well-established acts at the end of each half, and the open spots tend to be enjoyable even if they are terrible. The mantra of the night is very much ‘anything-goes’, and this creates a wonderful and engaging atmosphere. The organisers and performers Brian and Krystal are worth the £4 entry alone with their daft and sometimes twisted comic songs. I have seen some monumentally freakish acts perform here, and whether it works or not, it makes for marvellous viewing. You probably won’t see ‘him off the telly’, but you might well see something even better than the telly. Imagine that.
Stand-out feature: Silliness. This is an anarchic comedy-night.
Here, for £5, you can see the same calibre of comedian you might see in Leicester Square on a saturday night for £20. And in a more intimate, albeit less-refined, setting. But that’s part of the charm of the Amersham Arms. Get there early and order food too, which is delicious and inexpensive, hence the armies of students who all but live here.
Stand-out feature: High-quality at low price. You might call it ‘recession-proof’, although I would advise against that on the basis that it’s a horrible and meaningless phrase.
This is actually a pretty-darn famous comedy night now, but has retained an enviable reputation. Comedians often cite this as their favourite comedy club. Marcus Brigstocke calls it “a beautiful room with an intimate and uplifting atmosphere”, which is exactly what it is. High-quality, unpretentious, but equally it doesn’t have the stag-do quality of some other comedy nights.
Stand-out feature: History. Banana Cabaret is a legendary comedy night amongst comics and serious comedy fans.
Boasting the most famous new act night in London on thursdays, headline acts on saturdays, and a variety night on sundays, Downstairs at the Kings Head is paradoxically a legendary hidden-gem. You could easily walk past it; this is very much a word-of-mouth venue and you have to, as the name suggests, venture downstairs to find it. The room is small and dark, perhaps even slightly uninviting. But when comedy is on the room comes alive. It is a favourite amongst many comedians for its intimacy and uniqueness. Stewart Lee filmed a scene here with Johnny Vegas, and it’s Sean Lock’s favourite club. It’s the sort of venue that established acts try out new material in, which makes for a truly unique experience. And after all, that’s what live comedy is all about.
Stand-out feature: Seeing something unique. Seeing established acts experimenting with new material is often far more rewarding than seeing them mid-tour. Unpredictable and unfiltered; an excellent antidote to Live at the Apollo.
These examples are a good starting point, but I’ll follow up soon with some even more unusual comedy nights, so watch this space. And please feel free to add your favourite nights in the comment section.