Ten years of Norwich’s Red Card Comedy Club

Jongleurs and Comedy Store have come and gone, but the Red Card Comedy Club is still bringing us upcoming comedy talent. As they prepare for a special 10th night, SIMON PARKIN reports on a local success story not to laughed at.

While watching stand-up comedy on late night TV at a mate's house, Derek Robertson had an idea — a regular comedy night in Norwich.

Ten years on Red Card Comedy Club — which Derek co-founded with Andrew Bunn — is still going strong and can look back a track record of having welcomed many top names in comedy to its regular nights at Carrow Road long before they hit the big time.

Michael McIntyre, for one, was an unknown upcoming stand-up when he took to the Red Card mic. Now he is one of the biggest names on the circuit — probably capable of selling out the Norwich City stadium, let along the 480-capacity room that the club fills with laughter every month.

'It was just an idea that I came up with sitting around my mate's house,' recalls Derek, 'there were some comics on TV and I thought there should be a comedy night in Norwich. There wasn't at the time. No-one thought it was going to work. The guys at the football ground laughed at us because they didn't think it was going to work. But here we are 10 years later, still going strong.'

To celebrate Red Card is hosting a special 10th Birthday night on October 25 featuring Paris-based comedian Ian Moore, who is on brink of breaking into the mainstream following numerous TV appearances, upcoming stand-ups Diane Spencer and Paddy Lennox and MC for the night Maff Brown.

The success of this locally grown laughter-making venture is all the more notable when you consider how highly competitive the comedy business has become since it was dubbed the 'new rock'n'roll' in the mid-1990s. In its decade Red Card has seen off comedy titans The Comedy Store and Jongleurs, who have both launched and later closed regular nights in Norwich.

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'We do kind of feel that we've beaten off the competition,' said Derek. 'It is nice to see that two local lads who started a comedy club 10 years are still here while the likes of Jongleurs and Comedy Store, two of the biggest names in the business, are no longer doing regular nights in Norwich.'

In particular, the arrival of Jongleurs, who briefly ran Friday and Saturday night line-ups at the Project nightclub on Riverside, had the local lads concerned, though in the end the venture was short lived.

'We were really worried when they arrived and our numbers did drop off while they were here,' admits Derek. 'Jongleurs generally across the country have a bit of a reputation as a stag and hen party venue. People that go there are necessarily that interested in comedy, they're more looking for a night out. And they were doing it so cheap, things like get in for a quid offers, which meant that a lot of the acts didn't want to play there, because of the cheapness of it. But, you know, we've seen them come and go, and we're still here.'

Red Card isn't the only locally run Norwich comedy venture, but they're the longest lasting. Their success at Carrow Road has seen them go on to launch the Laughs in the Park festival in Chapelfield Gardens, which attracts big names like Reginald D Hunter, Sean Hughes and Milton Jones.

They've also branched out with regular nights in Diss and Dereham and events farther afield in Southwold, Stowmarket and Milton Keynes.

So what has been the secret of their success? They pride themselves in being a 'proper' comedy club, providing an intimate cabaret style venue, said Derek.

'Comedy has never had a higher profile really; with all the touring shows that are around at the moment there is comedy every night of the week if you want it. But generally we try to keep a really simple formula, which is one established act, a couple of upcoming comedians and an established MC.

'You get a nice blend of everything from that really. But a lot of the big acts that have come through in the last 10 years are now so big that they wouldn't entertain coming back to do a show at Carrow Road, which is a shame but it's an inevitable part of the business.

'Over the years we've had people like Reginald D Hunter, Sarah Millican and Michael McIntyre, who has obviously subsequently gone on to now become one of the biggest acts in comedy. Virtually every comedian you see on television at the moment has been through the doors of Red Card Comedy Club at some point.

'When we had Reginald D Hunter for the first time he cost us �180. Five or six years later we booked him for the festival and he was �5,500, so you see how television exposure changes the money earning potential.'

The crowds are the same but the comics are different, he adds. 'There is a lot more comedy coming through, a lot of younger comics — certainly younger than they were. They've really been inspired by the comics that they see on TV.

'Television budgets are tight and comedy programmes are essentially cheap to make, so they are on all the time. You can see why there's a new generation coming through. Having that said, we still have acts coming along who haven't changed their act in 10 years! And interestingly of our first ever bill, all of the comedians are still putting on shows, with exception of one guy called Martin Coyote who has moved back to Australia. We're still in contact with all that first line-up.'

A number of comedians have become favourites with Red Card audiences over the decade. 'We do have some who've appeared regularly. John Mann, for example, is one of the MCs we always use,' said Derek. 'Also Terry Alderton, a really fantastic comic who is doing really well for himself and also one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet in comedy, is a big supporter of ours, but again he's almost too big for us now.'

Comedy has seen several trends in the 10 years of Red Card, including the returns to fashion of sketch comedy and variety, but traditional stand-up is still what goes down best.

'We rarely get sketch comedy although there are more of them working now,' ponders Derek. 'They're not very good for the room we've got. It's a long room that holds 480 people — in terms of size its one of the biggest comedy clubs in the UK.

'Material-wise its noticeable that people are a lot more politically uncorrect these days. You can get away with a lot more in comedy than you would have been able to 10 years ago, which runs against the grain really. I like to listen to cutting edge comedy that makes you think — like Reginald D Hunter, who is very in-your-face with his comedy but is also you have to think hard about what he's saying.'

Despite celebrating a decade, the future of Red Card isn't assured — comedy is a tough business and ensuring the crowds continue to show up is no laughing matter.

'There are so many touring shows around at the moment — you know, the Playhouse have generally got something on, the Arts Centre too and the Theatre Royal brings the bigger names,' says Derek, who isn't convinced by young comedians rushing to produce full touring shows rather than traditional stand-up slots.

'I'm not saying this out of bitterness, but a lot of these young comics haven't got enough material for an hour and a half set. They've probably got a fantastic 20 minute set, but they've probably got agents who say they'll get them a tour, and that's caused a bit of a glut.'

The sheer number of touring comedians together with the economic downturn has hit ticket sales.

'What we are finding is that people will probably save up and go to a touring show by a big name comic because they've seen them on TV and are willing to pay �20. But coming down the football ground to see four comics, one of whom they might have heard of but three who are more of a punt is a tougher sell.

'We are down by about 35% in terms of numbers over the year. However it has been a busy year and people don't generally have a lot of money at the moment.

'I still think �12 is a great night out value wise. And we've got people who always come and haven't missed a show in 10 years. They love it as an institution.

'We've spoken about moving it a couple of times, but they've said 'no don't do that, its great fun'. And it is a great venue. Comedy works well in rooms with a ceiling that's quite low because it brings in the atmosphere and adds to the intimacy of it, and the room at the football ground has it.'

Red Card still has big plans however, noticeably the return of the Laughs in the Park big top to Chapelfield Gardens next year after being absent in 2012.

'We didn't do it this year because of the Olympics and the European Championships, but we'll be back next year definitely' confirms Derek.

'There was just so much going on this year we just decided not to do it and I think wisely. We booked the line-up for the Unthank Arms Comedy Festival and they ended up having to cancel that show too because I think everyone was struggling for numbers this year.

'We are already looking ahead to getting the festival up and running and booking acts. We've also got a regular show in Diss as well and one in Milton Keynes. We've done shows in Stowmarket and down in Woodbridge and we've got a plan to get a show in every Premiership ground soon — a touring show around football clubs, which would be fantastic.'

Let's hope they have us laughing long into the future…

t The 10th Birthday Red Card Comedy Club takes place at Carrow Road on October 25, �12, 0844 8261902, www.ueaticketbookings.com

t Tickets are also now available for upcoming Red Card Comedy Club shows in Dereham on November 2 and Diss on November 30 and at Carrow Road on November 29 and December 27.