Are you aware that Sunday October 31 is the 25th anniversary of the first ever show by the Comedy Store Players? Probably not. The Players don’t do big anniversaries, just get on with their job, and will perform twice in that week, same as they’ve been doing for years. The 31st will be just one more Sunday, to add to the tally of 1,300 previous Sundays: no big name guests, no TV cameras. You’re unlikely to be reading much about this milestone in comedic achievement elsewhere.
I, however, shall be milking it for all it’s worth. After all, I was one of the founding members, and even if I left after just six months... OK, even if I was sacked after just six months, I was still there at the start.
I’ve got a new one-man show to promote in London and I’m not prepared to let this moment pass without attempting to grab the coat-tails of any star-studded Player heading my way. I think ‘new comedy show from man who set up Comedy Store Players with Mike Myers and Paul Merton’ will read better on the flyers than ‘new comedy show from former averagely successful 80s and 90s comedian.’
So ignore the 24 and a half years that the Comedy Store Players have stumbled on without me, here’s how it all began.
We’ve all had ideas were certain would succeed, clung to them through years of rejection in the hope that someone would see the light and assist us in their transformation to comedy gold. The Comedy Store Players was not one of these.
The Players emerged due to a series of unlikely flukes and their existence hinged on the tiny coincidence of two shows playing back to back at McNallys, an Edinburgh comedy venue that lasted for exactly one Festival. It was promoter Karen Koren’s first festival, a fraught but useful training for her later considerable success as top boss at the Gilded Balloon.
I was performing in Three Weeks To Live, a show with two other stand-ups, Kit Hollerbach and Paul Martin (as Paul Merton then was). I think Paul wanted to call our show Three People Dying Of A Liver Condition which was, of course, a lot funnier but at the last minute we chickened out. We arrived every night at our venue in time to catch the back-end of the previous show, starring the brilliant double act of Neil Mullarkey and Mike Myers.
During the gig handover, we established over several ten-minute stints at the bar that American-born Kit and Canadian Mike were experienced comedy improvisers. Back then in the UK, improvisation meant actors fannying about in rehearsals while investigating their characters. Our sole contribution to comedy improv in this country was Omelette Broadcasting, whose core performers Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen were already established on the London circuit. Jim, of course, is probably the finest improviser in the universe: he should have been in the Players from day one, but once he joined they wisely never let him go. He has, sadly, since had to quit due to ill health.
Mike and Kit filled us in on the details, and, this being Edinburgh, five relative strangers were persuaded to try a comedy improv show ‘right here’. I still remember that gig, which began at 1am one wet August night in a horrible student union dive, long since bulldozed to make way for Edinburgh Police Station. I even remember that at the end of the night the promoter apologised for not being able to pay us right then, but instead wrote each of our names in a huge ledger, followed by ‘I.O.U. 16p’.
By another coincidence, this particular Edinburgh run was where Paul Martin, working comedian, began his transformation into Paul Merton, comedy star. Each night for three and a half weeks, Paul got funnier, and by the end of the festival the brilliant act we all know was fully formed. It was both a privilege to witness and a pisser to share a bill with.
We did our first Comedy Store show on the last Sunday of October in 1985. Wary of presenting a show that was not totally stand-up, the management agreed to an evening of first half stand-up, second half improv. By Christmas everyone was confident enough to make impro form the whole bill.
This was the final and most important coincidence that gave the Players life. Earlier that summer the Comedy Store, legendary home of the birth of alternative comedy, had re-opened in Leicester Square, and the stand-up shows quickly became a hit. It seemed the obvious venue for us to choose as our home, but the Store itself took a big risk starting up a non stand-up show with a bunch of unknowns. And judging by our initial audience sizes, I doubt if they made any money out of the show for ages. The Players began at the Comedy Store, and have been there ever since.
So, what was it like performing with Mike Myers? Well it was awe-inspiring, almost intimidating. There was no sight more breathtaking than Mike improvising his way through a scene like a turbo-charged gazelle on speed, leaving the rest of us running to catch up.
Despite his accent and Canadian roots Mike was completely at home on the English stage – he’d lived here for a while, had family in Liverpool he would visit whenever we performed up there, and understood all the nuances and beats of the British class system. His posh English gent was always delightful – perfectly nailed in every detail apart from the unmistakeable Canadian accent, which made it all the funnier.
That probably sounds like hindsight, but I don’t think anyone who saw Mike doing improv was in any doubt as to where his future lay. His double act with Neil was already storming the comedy circuit, and seeing them improvise together was like watching them do a new set every night.
Neil was, and remains, the bedrock on which the Comedy Store Players was built. I always enjoyed being on stage with Neil, he’s a generous performer who knows the strengths of his fellow actors and instinctively plays to them. In their early careers Nick Hancock and Mike Myers were brilliantly served by their work with Neil in their double acts.
It took us a while to persuade the Comedy Store to allow Paul to become a member. He’d performed stand-up on the re-opening night, and had been heckled off for no reason, other than that the old Store had a reputation for booing off at least one act per night. Paul was unlucky to walk on stage just as the collective audience moment arrived.
Paul was the least conventional member of the group. He made no attempt to physically join in the scenes, and stood at the back of the stage all night. But nobody cared, because every time there was a lull in the show he would chip in with a killer gag that would allow us to end the scene and move on.
Kit, who was the most experienced improviser in the group, was a brilliant teacher. Every Saturday she ran a class and taught us the rules, such as they are, for improv. Never contradict a performer, be physical and visual, always offer them options. Unfortunately, as a performer she had a tendency to be her own worst pupil. Some nights she sparkled and brought the show to life, at other times she broke all her rules and led her scenes down comedy cul-de-sacs.
It became clear to me within a few weeks that I wasn’t cut out for the show. On one occasion Mike said to me ‘you’re a great writer’ which was almost certainly meant as a compliment, but only served to underline how uncomfortable I seemed performing without a script. I had my own musical improv section that always worked well, but struggled with everything else. My main problem was that Kit and I found it almost impossible to click together on stage. We were friends, and remained so after I left, but there was some dynamic in the relationship that turned our scenes into a comedy-free zone. On balance, I preferred being a friend to working with her. So I decided to quit.
Unfortunately the week I planned to hand in my resignation Kit was not in the show, and it went so well for me that the Comedy Store management refused to accept my request to leave. The following week Kit returned, I tanked, and was sacked the next day. I think they drew straws for who should tell me to my face, poor Mike lost, which was why when I answered my front door to him the next day I knew exactly why he was there.
‘Come to sack me?’ I asked, to his surprise and relief at not having to deliver the speech from hell. He had no idea that I’d already tried to leave. I think he was genuinely upset, the five of us had been through a lot together since our Edinburgh encounters, but you only have to look at the subsequent success of the group to realise they had made the right decision.
It’s amazing to think now of the impact the Players had on the comedy world. Mike’s stratospheric success was going to happen with or without the help of a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs who learned as they went along.
But Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the improv show based around the games performed by the Comedy Store Players, had a massive impact on TV comedy and its influence is still apparent. It began as a radio show featuring Stephen Fry and Jimmy Mulville, whose independent TV company Hat Trick was enjoying modest success. When the show was axed by BBC Radio, Mulville revamped it for TV, brought in Paul Merton, and created a hit.
Hat Trick’s subsequent Have I Got News For You could almost certainly have gone the way of every other failed attempt to put a topical panel show on TV, but became a massive success not least because of Paul’s incredible improvising flights of nonsense.
I was invited to audition for the pilot episode of Whose Line by the producer, who had seen me performing with the Players. I was sharing a flat with Kit at the time, who had not been invited. Should I audition? And incur the anger of the person who was responsible for setting up the Players? It was my Ed Miliband moment. I weighed up the pros and cons and decided, ludicrously, that on balance our friendship was more important than the chance of a TV spot. And anyway, I reasoned, who’s going to watch improv on telly? The show will never get past pilot stage.
Actually I already knew in my heart what the outcome of that audition would have been. Even back then I had a nagging suspicion that the world of improvisation was somehow destined to get along without me.
- Dave Cohen – ‘A great comedy writer’ Mike Myers – performs My Life As A Footnote at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden on October 15, 16 and 18.