Published on February 11, 2014 | by Sean McKee


London’s free comedy circuit attracts poor students

Outside of the Camden Head pub, nw1

The Camden Head hosts regular free comedy nights. [Flickr: Ewanm]

Students love a good bargain, whether it comes in the form of 2-4-1’s, BOGOF’s or 20% off for 48 hours. Businesses thrive on attracting us to spend our money on their premises but, once the student loans dry up, there’s nothing better than getting stuff for diddly squat.

In London, one of the most consistent industries that provides cheap entertainment for the public is the free comedy circuit.

With comedians charging top dollar to go and watch them through binoculars from terrible seats at the O2, London’s impressive quantity of free gigs are a financially viable alternative.

There are plenty of up-and-coming funny men and women sharing their wares on stage for no money. But just how do they survive?

Luisa Omielan started from the bottom of the comedy circuit, and she admits that it’s really not all plain sailing: “Free shows are often reliant on donations from the audience at the end, so you live on loose coins until your next gig – its hand to mouth.”

So, just how do you become a comedian in the first place? Omielan explains: “I have always been funny and loved showing off. To be honest, though, it wasn’t until I was about 18 when I saw ‘stand up comedy’ as a module listing for a degree course and I thought: ‘That’s what I need to do! I need to learn how to do that!’”

Comedy ladder

The hardest place to survive on the comedy career ladder is at the very beginning. Building up hype about yourself without any funding to promote your act doesn’t sound like the easiest path in life.

However, Omielan has put her success down to luck, and a lot of grafting: “I have been in a very fortunate position where this show has sold out through word of mouth, pretty much independently.”

Some of London’s best free gigs have launched the careers of comedy behemoths like Russell Howard and Stephen Merchant.

Although both of these stars are among the fortunate few who now enjoy massive success after starting out doing freebies, most would-be comics have to hold down a day job because they may not make any money from stand-up for years.

Any comedian’s autobiography will probably have long passages about how they trudged around the country, performing in tiny pubs for years and years, collecting coppers, slowly learning their craft.

Omielan stresses it’s important to gig as much as possible, and wherever you can: “Whether it’s to four people or 180, you just have to keep gigging and through working hard and doing a good job, people start taking interest and then your profile gets elevated.”

“It is hand to mouth. I kind of like living like that, although I am hoping it won’t be like that for much longer. I am 31 now, come on!  I’m over being poor!”


It may not be for much longer after all, as Omielan has landed a rather impressive gig at Royal Albert Hall.

From playing tiny spaces above pubs, to one of the country’s most iconic performance spaces, this is quite a change of scene: “I am so excited! They got in touch with me and I was thrilled. I keep telling people I am playing the Royal Albert Hall and omitting to mention it’s in the small back room. If I get a chance, I am going to run on to the main stage and take a selfie.”

“Gig, go and perform and take improv classes, do script writing classes, immerse yourself in learning – you will find yourself along side like minded people and fit right in.” Luisa Omielan

Omielan may be funny for a living, but she does have some sensible advice for students who may be interested in getting into comedy: “Gig, go and perform and take improv classes, do script writing classes, immerse yourself in learning – you will find yourself alongside like minded people and fit right in.”

Omielan’s debut show is titled What Would Beyoncé Do? and can be seen from February 13-15 at Concrete, Shoreditch.

Keep up to date with future gigs by visiting, or contact her via Twitter using the hashtag #whatwouldbeyoncedo.

Luisa’s top free comedy venues:

1) We Love Comedy Balham Bowls Club, 7-9 Ramsden Road, London SW12 8QX

“Those guys are great for putting on fabulous comedy nights.”

Watch their comedy nights on the last Thursday of every month.

2) Always Be Comedy The Tommyfield, Kennington

“Its a joy to work with such well run clubs.”

There’s a show on every Thursday, and previous performers include Jason Manford, Russell Kane and Jack Whitehall.

3) Angel comedy Camden Head, Angel, Islington N1 8DY.

“One of my absolute favourites.”

It’s free and has comedy on every night of the week.

Other must-see free comedy shows:

Open Mic Night, This is a renowned open mic night, known for launching some of the biggest comedians we have today. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Comedy Café Theatre, 66 Rivington St, London, EC2A 3AY. Every Wednesday.

Lewis Schaffer: Free Until Famous, The longest continuously running solo stand-up show in the UK has Brooklyn-born Schaffer at the helm, always keeping it fresh with new jokes and refreshed material. The Source Below, 11 Lower John St, W1F 9TY. Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Weirdo’s Comedy Club, As the name suggests, this is a more alternative comedy night, hosting acts that aren’t quite suitable for the mainstream circuit. Definitely for the open-minded. The Lion, 2 Britannia St, WC1X 9JE. The second and fourth Tuesday of every month.

DISCLAIMER: Although venues advertise as free, most welcome a small donation to help with running costs.




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