Earth Exchange: The most alternative of alternative comedy clubs | Personal memories of a vital venue in the circuit's history – from the man who ran it © Maha Roberts/Facebook

Earth Exchange: The most alternative of alternative comedy clubs

Personal memories of a vital venue in the circuit's history – from the man who ran it

When the story of the alternative comedy revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s is told, the focus is usually on the Comedy Store and the Comic Strip in Central London. But there were other important venues too, such as The Elgin in Ladbroke Grove, with its alternative cabaret nights run by Alexei Sayle and Tony Allen, and the Earth Exchange in North London. In a series of articles over the coming days, Kim Wells, remembers this often-overlooked endeavour and its signficant role in forging this bold new style of comedy...

Early days 

The Earth Exchange Cabaret - which I compered and organised from February 1980 to March 1989 – took place in a veggie restaurant in the basement of a licensed squat in the Archway Road, Highgate.

The Earth Exchange itself was run by a collective of young idealists who were into wholefoods, alternative therapies and eco-politics. Most were more interested in changing the world than the humdrum activity of running a business, which meant that, despite the discounted rent and business rates, the Earth Exchange Collective never made much money, eventually going bankrupt in 1989.  

The Earth Exchange Cabaret started off as a poetry and acoustic music evening: an open-mic evening without a mic. When I took over the role of organiser in February 1980, I relabelled it a Variety Night, my intention being to help to revive live entertainment with a mix of comedy, music, circus skills and conjuring.

To augment the poetry and music, I introduced an element of amateurish comedy along with a talented mimic and comic showman, Barry Fraser, who among other things did a strongman act with phoney weights. Within the first year or so, I dropped the term Variety Night to describe the style of entertainment on offer and instead used ‘alternative cabaret’ or ‘alternative comedy’, and later, ‘fringe comedy’. Instead of relying on performers to just turn up, I started booking performers.  

Kim as a vicar

I sometimes dressed as a vicar, above. Part of me would have liked to have been one, despite being agnostic. I did fool a few punters into thinking I really was a man of the cloth, perhaps because Earth Exchange resembled a community setting where a vicar might be found tending his flock (and rounding up stray souls). Running the cabaret, certainly involved a lot of flock tending. I always seemed to be running around, tending to the needs of performers and audience, compèring, taking the collection (or ‘suggested donation’) at half-time and handing out posters advertising the next week’s line-up. 

There wasn’t enough money to pay anyone else so I did everything. My role even extended to clearing up the mess left on the stage by slapstick acts. I would rush on mop in hand, quipping to the audience that I was ‘the floor manager’ – which, of course, I was. Along with compère, stage manager, usher, impresario, front of house person, artistic director, publicity manager, box office bod, general dogs body and blue-arsed fly.  

There was frequently an unforeseen problem or last minute demand that had to sorted. Clive Anderson, for instance, wanted a pint of beer in a traditional, side-handled mug so he could create the illusion of standing at the bar of a pub, cradling his beer whilst chatting to the ‘locals’. (This was a bit of an ask as a ‘proper’, Brexit compliant pint beer mug was an alien entity at Earth Exchange. It didn’t get an alcohol licence until after he performed in June 1983 – patrons had to bring their own. I had to ‘borrow’ a mug from the local pub.)  

1981 poster advertisig comedy music poetry and satire
Early poster from 1981

The poet problem 

One problem I inherited was that performers turned up expecting to be allowed to perform no matter how bad or inexperienced they were. At times it wasn’t clear whether the venue was functioning as a place of entertainment or a therapy centre for love-starved attention seekers devoid both of talent and self-critical faculties.

One highly strung guitar player expected to play even though he’d only started learning to play six weeks earlier. One ‘comedian’ would do routines about people being tortured in totalitarian regimes that would get ever more heavy and graphic, sending the sensitive audience into a state of shock. He always said he’d only do five minutes but once on stage he dug his heels in. In the end, I was reduced to yanking him off the stage with a unceremonious "a big hand for ....". 

 Poets were the worse when it came to killing an evening, especially the more emotionally incontinent ones. There seemed a tendency, often inspired by a history of soul-searching catharsis on the psychotherapeutic wrack, for getting "into their pain". These were particularly hard to prise off the stage.

Once up there, they stood their ground oblivious to the boredom and cringing of the audience. What can be particularly irksome about many poets is a characteristic lilting style of delivery, automatically rising and falling in emphasis seemingly at random.  

Some poets like John Hegley were great but he was more a comic than a poet. His simplistic, ​childlike style and his trivial themes (eg his fixation on spectacles) provided a stark bathetic contrast to the preciousness and pretentiousness many people associate with (and dread about) poetry and poets. His poetry derived much of its humour from being an implicit parody of stereotypical poetry and particularly from the bathos derived from applying the high-sounding ‘artistic’ medium of poetry to the trivial or ridiculous rather than, as is usual, the sublime and profound. (Les Dawson excelled at this – for instance, "Her teeth were like the stars – they came out at night".) 

When Jenny Eclair started performing at Earth Exchange, she lacked the confidence to deliver her gags neat, so she wrapped them up in a poetic format. As she became more assured as a comedienne she ditched the poetic packaging. In the 1990s, I saw her perform at the Kings Head in Crouch End.

She singled me out from the stage: "There’s Kim, from the Earth Exchange Cabaret. I used to be crap. He only let me perform because I gave him blow jobs." My female companion turned to me accusedly and said: "Did she?". Needless to say this allegation was baseless - poetic licence or rather licentiousness. Poetry never got in the way of Jenny’s talent. One thing you could never accuse her of was preciousness.  

When on the same bill, the bathos of comedy does not sit happily with the pathos of serious poetry. If your sense of humour has been aroused, it can be hard to maintain a reverential attitude towards an earnest poet. One poet delivered her poem about the Greek goddess, Persephone, so melodramatically and with so much shrill lilting that the audience - polite as ever - struggled not to laugh. One confused audience member even asked me if the performer was trying to be funny.  

I used to perform a mock heavy poem entitled The Black Hole of the Soul ("inspired", I’d say "by seven years of unrelenting personal growth"): "Depressed, depleted, deserted, I delve the dank, dark, dismal depths of deep despair to find myself ... only to find I’m not there - at least, not all there." Followed by: "Why do people write poetry? Well, if you’re depressed, it’s nice to be able to share it." Unfair but it got a laugh. 

Despite my prejudice against performance poetry and poets, I wrote and performed several rhyming comic monologues in the music hall tradition. One was ‘The Ballad of Prince Charming and Lady Di’, an irreverent celebration of the 1981 royal wedding. It began: 

 "One day in a ploughed field (true!) by surprise, Charles found himself staring into the lovely eyes, of the virginal Lady Di, a well heeled Cinderella, 

 Charles’s heart went all a-flutter, seeing one so pure and pukka, so he very promptly took her, in his arms and tried to ...  

Utter, words of love but could only stutter, she thought ‘Who’s this nutter? What a funny fella!".  

Alternative comedy in an alternative world 

The term ‘alternative comedy’ was usually used to mean an alternative to mainstream comedy, both in the sense of avoiding its sexist and racist content and in its determination to tackle less conventional or more challenging themes. It also represented as an attempt to experiment with new ways of doing comedy that broke away from the formulaic joke-telling model of old-style stand-up (which was seen as clichéd and inauthentic). However, in those days I also used the term more specifically to include a focus on ‘alternative society’ preoccupations such as personal exploration, healthy diet and alternative therapies.  

Posters from 1991
Posters from 1981

In the early days, I used to give a ‘lecture’ each week on such subjects as ‘The Problem of Happiness',  examining  psychotherapy, alternative therapies and philosophy, themes that might appeal to many of the ‘alternative’ and ‘arty’ types that frequented the Earth Exchange Collective. Typical gags (there weren’t many) might be: 

"The ‘here-and-now’. I’ve always wanted to live in the here-and-now. It’s getting there. By the time I get to the here-and-now it’s the there-and-then." 

"The great thing about homeopathy is: it doesn’t have any side effects. It doesn’t have any effects either ... but at least it’s safe." 

"The more you think about sex, the more difficult it gets. I don’t know about you but I think about it all the time".  

Given my vicar alter ego, these ‘lectures’ might just as well have been called sermons. 

l came to see the importance of peppering my ‘lectures’ with gags and gradually built up a repertoire of them. I was learning the tricks of the trade. I had some good teachers.

Tony Allen generously gave me a great gag for a routine I did about sex manuals. He suggested that when I held up the covers of Joy of Sex and its sequel More Joy of Sex, I say: "There's Joy of Sex, More Joy of Sex, then there’s Son of Joy of Sex and Joy of Sex Rides Again". And John Hegley gave me another one in relation to a tantra-inspired picture in the manual ‘Total Orgasm’ that I used to hold up, showing an adjacent couple displaying their chakras: "This couple is just about to chakra-up together".  

It wasn’t just the comedy at Earth Exchange that was ‘alternative’. It was also the venue itself and the whole cultural milieu it was located in – the so-called ‘alternative society’. As a venue, Earth Exchange was in a different universe to the Sloane Ranger, yuppie one of Jongleurs or the aggressive, laddish drinking culture of The Tunnel Palladium or Comedy Store.

Moer posters from 1981
More posters from 1981

In its earlier days, much of the Cabaret’s audience was ‘alternative’ and bohemian, leftovers from the hippy, countercultural era - licensed squatters, ex-acid heads, ‘New Age’ spiritual seekers, folk singers and  veterans of the ‘Personal Growth Movement’. 

Many were into alternative therapies and meditation which in those days were generally considered to be a bit weird, as was vegetarianism. In the rooms above the basement restaurant, there was an alternative therapy clinic, a whole food shop and New Age bookshop. As the 1980s progressed, the Cabaret attracted more conventional patrons.  

The cabaret was low-tech and basic, lacking a mike, stage lights and a stage. It wasn’t even possible to dim the lighting where the audience sat. The restaurant served as the ‘auditorium’, accessed by an outside door from the garden. Comics tried to get gags out of the name, Earth Exchange - "How the hell do you exchange earth? Why would you even want to and, if you did, who would want it?" - but the title itself defied humorous deconstruction. It was already a joke in its own right. And an impenetrable enigma. 

Tony Allen characterised Earth Exchange as a hippy venue as opposed to the leftist ones where his anti-work agenda tended to upset the lefties. In his book Attitude (2002), he says he preferred the ‘hippie gigs’, particularly Earth Exchange. He recalls a gig there in 1980 where he performed with a ‘Sannyasin comedian’ (Barry Fraser, aka Surrendra), a ‘stand-up psychotherapist’ (myself) and a ‘Dylanesque poet’.

Given the material I was doing in the early days, Tony’s characterisation of me as a ‘stand-up psychotherapist’ seems spot on. At that point, given my low gag count, I was more psychotherapist than comedian. But the very fact that I was giving a ‘lecture’ in a place of purported entertainment was in itself incongruous and, to a degree, comical, especially since I bumbled and stumbled towards a confused conclusion in which nothing was resolved. Just as it hadn’t been in my many psychotherapy sessions or, before that, in my quest for meaning in the ivory towers of academia. 

The naked psychotherapist: a tale of personal shrinkage  

My style of comedy, heavily influenced by my past psychotherapy experience, was self-revelatory – a style that subsequently became quite popular. A flavour of it (and the excesses and weirdness of the ‘alternative’ world’) is illustrated by a true story I told about my first experience of ‘psychotherapy’.

The laughs I got derived from my naivety in being slow to catch on to the fact that this was not going to be a normal psychotherapy session. The latter soon became obvious to the audience when I revealed that the ‘therapist’ started the session by suggesting it might help me to become more ‘open’ to the therapeutic process if I removed my clothes. This I did. He did the same.

Thinking psychotherapy involved breaking down one’s defences and overcoming inhibitions, I rationalised my discomfort in Freudian terms as ‘resistance’ – even when he suggested we hugged. As his demands escalated, I increasingly struggled to put them in the therapy frame of reference, becoming more and more paralysed (like a rabbit caught in headlights) by the dawning realisation that this experience fitted more appropriately into another, totally different frame.

I won’t spell out how I felt at that point except to say there wasn’t a lot of growth going on - personal or otherwise. The story ended with the ‘therapist’ rescuing me (from his own clutches) by saying: "You are not enjoying this, are you? What would you like to do?" My reply: "Go home and read The Guardian". That probably is one of the most unusual punch lines you’ll ever hear but it got a laugh. After I had told this story, an audience member came up to me and said: "I know who that was! It happened to me too".  

For those killjoys who like to analyse humour (like me), this routine is a illustration of Arthur Koestler’s theory that humour derives from the ‘bisociation’ of two normally unrelated contexts: in this case, the ones of sex and therapeutic treatment (‘The Act of Creation’). Mind you, l doubt if Koestler would have found it particularly funny if it had been him laying naked on that therapy couch, getting a touch more ‘bisociation’ than he’d bargained for. (Incidentally the template for this gag is similar to one in a Ken Dodd gag: "Freud said comedy was the conservation of psychic energy. Mind you, Freud never played the second house of the Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night".) 

 I wasn’t as naive as it might first appear. In the 1970s New Age era, when the ‘personal growth movement’ was in its heyday, perfectly respectable people, including social workers and psychiatrists, paid handsomely to join 24 and 48 hour ‘encounter groups’ where nakedness, sold as a way of breaking down one’s defences, was often a compulsory requirement.

It was initially strange to see normally polite professional people completely naked and screaming at each other for hours on end with an occasional break for gentle, sensual exercises like exploring each other’s bodies by touch when blindfolded. But, on a deeper level, everyone remained so civilised and respectful that at the end it began to seem almost as normal and as English as a whist drive.  

Massage therapy training courses were also sometimes conducted completely unclothed, like the coeducational one I did in a posh house on the edge of Wimbledon Common. The sight of bare flesh never raised an eyebrow and, if it raised anything else, everyone was terribly ‘mature’ about it. The no-nonsense American female massage teacher sought to head off any potential embarrassment by telling the group that, in the context of massage, erections were "perfectly normal" and not to be "silly" about them. Different times.  

Interestingly, the sexually incontinent ‘therapist’ was a freelance writer for The Guardian. He subsequently became well-known in the field of poetry (and, no doubt, in the proverbial field behind the gasworks).  

Posters from 1983
Posters from 1983

Flying flower pots  

Barry Fraser, who provided much of the comedy in the early days, was a market trader who performed to amuse prospective customers in Camden Passage Market. He was inclined to rile feminists with his over-enthusiastic, supposedly satirical caricatures of male chauvinists and the graphical way they conveyed their appreciation of female anatomy.

Once a male gay member of the audience shouted out: 'I will not sit here hearing women insulted. Some of my best friends are women'. Barry, hypersensitive to any form of criticism, retaliated by making an insulting reference to the sexual status of the heckler. Apoplectic, he, in turn, flung a flower pot at the stage. This narrowly missed a woman who shouted back: "So that’s what you think of women, is it? You throw flower pots at them!"

Someone suggested we stop the show to explore the issues raised but luckily the audience demurred. This would have made it even harder to resurrect any comic momentum. Alternative types could be very earnest. I couldn’t help being struck by the irony. Here was a masculine feminist, a man ostensively championing woman’s rights, accused of doing the opposite. A wonderfully ambiguous, multi-layered situation that in the ‘woke’ world of today would send the more punctiliously ‘politically correct’ into a melee of deconstruction and finger pointing.  

• Part Two: How Tony Allen brought a transfusion of talent from the Comedy Store to the Earth Exchange

• Anyone with Earth Exchange memories or mementos they would like to share with Kim can contact him on

Published: 19 Jun 2024

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