Classic Interview: Don Ward

don ward

The Comedy Store's Don Ward (left) might be in his early seventies but he always has another idea up his sleeve. His latest plan is to put the Comedy Store experience onto cinema screens. Starting this Friday (February 22) and then every fortnight, shows shot at The Comedy Store will be screened in cinemas all over the country.

Among those featured are Paul "Fancy Man" Tonkinson, Doc Brown (below, left), Jarred Christmas (bottom, left), Adam Bloom (below, right), Hal Cruttenden (bottom, right) and Mike Gunn. All seasoned comedians who know how to locate the nation's funny bone and what to do with it once they find it. If you live in London you might be spoilt for choice when it comes to enjoying in-the-flesh stand-up, but anything that gets people watching more comedy has got to be a Good Thing. You can find out more about The Comedy Store Raw & Uncut by clicking here.

Ward used to be a stand-up himself and he often still speaks in one-liners. The interview below was conducted with Don Ward on September 1st 2010 in his office just off Piccadilly Circus round the corner from The Comedy Store itself. In case anyone still doesn't know it, there would probably be no live comedy scene – and no Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow – without Don Ward. With his partner Peter Rosengard he opened the original Store in 1979 and pretty much kicked off the modern comedy boom.

We met to discuss Ward's latest venture at the time, The Comedy Store in Mumbai, so there is a bit of chat abut that before Ward gets onto his involvement in comedy in the UK. He was as busy as ever, about to fly off to Mumbai the next day. And despite the fact that the posters had only just been ripped down from the Edinburgh Festival 2010 he was already thinking about taking one of the top acts that he manages, Rhod Gilbert, to Edinburgh in 2011. Ward is clearly a man who thinks ahead. Who knows, maybe Raw & Uncut is the future of stand-up?

BD: Firstly, is the book that William Cook wrote about The Comedy Store accurate?

DW: Yes, but I went through it and I found it was "then he did this, then he did that, then he did this"...I was thinking when does Don Ward murder somebody to liven things up?

It's almost a reference book. It is true that Alexei Sayle did want to strangle my partner Peter Rosengard because Peter (who also sold insurance) used to try to get comics to sign up for insurance policies. Alexei had a go at him and said "don't use the Comedy Store to keep your figures up."

BD: So having kick-started stand-up in London you are trying to do it again on the other side of the world?

DW: If it ain't broke don't change it. The room is based on the London Comedy Store. Mumbai is the home of Bollywood so a lot of the performers are scriptwriters and they know what they are doing. They tear the arse out of the place because they know all the local references. Anuvab Pal, who I've doc brownsigned up has a great opening line: "Hello, good evening, let me at the outset point out to you that I am no Indian, I'm a Bengali, so if you really upset me I'll...probably write a poem..."

BD: Is Indian humour different to British humour?

DW: They like it naughty, the country that gave us the Kama Sutra likes jokes about sex. They love John Cleese because he is very, very British. They loved Ian Moore and said he was so like John Cleese, but I don't think you could get someone any different to John Cleese except that they both speak English. We were there for 150 years and i think we left them a wonderful train system and a good sense of humour.

BD: It's a brave move to invest in something new like this

DW: I always work on instinct. Everyone else was loooking for somewhere else in England to open a new club, I looked the other way. It's a blank canvas there. It's a big country and I'm sure there's an Eddie Izzard and a Michael Mcintyre out there.

BD: If anyone can find them you can. You certainly know your comedy.

DW: My business is my hobby and my hobby is my business. Funny is funny.

BD: I like your King Gong show on Monday nights. I remember seeing Alex Horne there. He was gonged off before he got to the mic.

DW: The Store started out with a gong show hosted by Alexei, then I changed it and gave the hit-and-miss acts a chance after the main show, but it was aadam bloom bit more of a challenge with a late audience. It developed into something, not bedlam, but it could turn nasty and it wasn't helping who was onstage and I've always seen my role as helping. Here is the stage, the mic, the audience, now do your best. I felt it wasn't doing them a kindess so I stopped that and brought back the gong show.

BD: It is tough but fair. Very Charles Darwin. Survival of the wittiest.  

DW: You only learn in this stand-up business by your failure. You can sail through with the gags that work, you need to try out new gags to see if they work or fail.

BD: Tell me about some great memories of The Store

DW: Bud Friedman, who ran the Improv Club in Manhattan came to the club in the early eighties with his wife. On the same night Alexei said to me "I've got this Yank who has bought a ticket and walked in, he wants to go on what should I do? That's him over there with short hair in a raincoat." I said get him to start the second half before Rik (Mayall) and Ade (Edmondson), let him do five minutes. It was Robin williams. He ended up doing 45 minutes. Bud said "how did you get Robin?" I told Bud "I've got Robin every week."

BD: Keith Allen was one of the most edgy of the early bunch wasn't he?

DW: Keith Allen was onstage doing his stuff and a journalist had written a column about him making the audience recoil at his streams of vitriol. The following week the writer came back and Keith stopped suddenly and said "there's a cunt in this room who wrote about me." He asked where this guy was, stepped offstage, walked towards him, on the way picked up a champagne bucket and poured the whole lot over him and put the lid on his head. There was complete uproar. Of course the following week the writer wrote another piece calling Keith an ungrateful wretch and of course there's no such thing as bad publicity – after that the club was busier than ever.

BD: The club has a reputation for stand-up these days, but it used to have some unusual variety acts.

DW: There was a violinist who wore full tails and bow tie and took about half an hour to get ready while everyone else was just wearing jeans. This was at the original Dean Street Store where it had a carpet onstage for soundproofing. Fine for everybody else's act but he turns round to take the violin out of the case and the music stand falls over. Then it does it again and again and the room loved it. I'm at the back of the room thinking it is sensational, but the guy comes off after five minutes and says "I haven't done my act yet." I got him back and he had weights fixed to the legs of his stand. I was telling everyone this bloke is amazing and he starts playing the violin badly and singing badly and everyone is going "So?" and he got gonged off. I said "why didn't you do your act like you did last week?" He said "that wasn't my act!"

BD: Did the Store give Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson their first break?

DW: Rik would do poetry and Ade would be behind him taking the stage piano apart and ending up getting inside the piano. It cost me a fortune. Every Monday I had to get a piano tuner in.

BD: How do you see comedy now. Has comedy got safer?

DW: It is more focussed. Back then nobody had any idea. Nobody cared. Some of the guys, like Tony Allen, did the same act at Hyde Park Speakers Corner.

BD: Did it feel like a change was in the air?

hal cruttendenDW: People like Lennie Bennett, Les Dawson and Bob Monkhouse came down and could see the writing was on the wall. Lennie Bennett came in in a track suit. Alexei says "please welcome the next act" and when he did his set Lennie Bennett shouts "that shit ain't funny."  Alexei went on and says "win some lose some. But  tonight we have top star Lennie Bennett in the room, why don't you come up and show us what it's about." All the comics went to the back of the room and heckled him like mad. Bennett was furious. Sayle came back and said "win some, lose some Lennie."

BD: do you ever wish you'd contineud as a stand-up comedian yourself?

DW: I did it for ten years but kind of woke up one day and smelt the roses and made a choice. I wasn't going to be a star but I loved comedy and knew what I was doing. I was the first one onstage at the Store, I told a bad joke then said "that's the end of my career" and handed over the reins.

BD: Do you miss stand-up?

DW: There isn't a day when I don't think the best days of my life were onstage doing material. Doing stand-up is better than sex - and if you see the way I do sex you'll understand what I mean."


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