Exeter is a small city in Devon in the South West of England. Famous for its historic Cathedral, Roman walls and picturesque quay, Exeter has transformed in the last few decades as the University has expanded. It’s now a city of about 130,000 people with 25,000 students.
For as long as anyone can remember, there has been a distinction made between the way that the private sector and the public sector operate, but as we all know it isn’t always that clear cut. Many local authorities are involved in non-statutory services that add to the quality of life for the regions they serve, and also contribute financially to their organisation.
One such example happens in the South West, or to be more precise Exeter, where Exeter Comedy Club has been entertaining audiences for more than 25 years. The monthly comedy night is organised by the team at Exeter Corn Exchange, a multi-purpose venue run by Exeter City Council. The venue strives to break even with its revenue budget, and that is without receiving any external funding.
The team at the venue are always looking for ways to improve income, and way back in February 1997 they decided that could be achieved by starting Exeter’s first regular comedy night. Dave Lewis, who is responsible for the venue as one of the City Council’s service leads explains “I was a stand-up comedy fan myself and used to attend nights occasionally, at venues like the Comedy Store, when I visited London. “I was frustrated that it wasn’t easy to watch good comedy in the south west and then it occurred to me: we could put that right ourselves.” Dave was manager of the Corn Exchange at the time (he still programmes the venue now) and he saw the chance to bring the bourgeoning stand-up scene to Devon, whilst making a positive financial contribution for the City Council.
The comedy nights were an immediate success and many of the big names of comedy appeared at Exeter Comedy Club in the early days of their careers. Frankie Boyle, Fern Brady, Marcus Brigstocke, Alan Carr, Micky Flanagan, Rhod Gilbert, Romesh Ranganathan, Jon Richardson, Katherine Ryan and Catherine Tate are just a few of the names that took to the stage in the days before they achieved national and international fame.
Not only was the club night a success in itself, but it led to the Corn Exchange securing dates on tours by many of the established names in comedy. Jo Brand, Eddie Izzard, John Bishop, Sarah Millican and Jimmy Carr are typical of the acts that have appeared at the venue, which is often the smallest venue to be included on these tours.
Another benefit has been recognition, by comedy promoters and agents, of Exeter as a place with an eager comedy audience which means that other venues across the city have also seen an upturn in the number of comedy shows they host.
Since Exeter Comedy Club started there have been several other comedy club nights in the city, some of which have come and gone, and some of which continue today. Not that that has affected the success of the original, which comfortably seats around 250 people, in cabaret style, watching four stand-up acts each night, and in 2022 every single Exeter Comedy Club night sold out in advance. This led to record income levels from ticket sales, and bar and catering spend. It also helped the club secure a booking for the Wales and South West heat of the televised BBC New Comedian of the Year. The club also helps by providing free tables for fund-raising auctions and raffles for local charities and other good causes.
Exeter Comedy Club is an excellent example of how the public sector can operate commercially, and how a commercial venture can benefit a public-funded organisation. 26 years now, and still going strong, here’s to the next quarter of a century making the good people of Exeter laugh.
Dave Lewis is the events, facilities and markets manager for Exeter City Council with responsibility for Exeter Corn Exchange, Exeter Livestock Centre, the City’s Underground Passages, Red Coat Guided Tours and Custom House Visitor Centre. He started working for the council more than 30 years ago when he was recruited as manager of Exeter Corn Exchange (then known as St George’s Hall).