Still funny, even after 15 years

21 December 2023

Tickets are once again selling fast for the Lily Comedy Night on Monday 19th February, which got us wondering what it is about this event that makes it so successful, year after year.

Over the years we’ve seen sell-out show after sell-out show featuring star-studded line ups including Tim Vine, Josh Widdicombe, Alan Davies, Joe Pasquale, Shaun Walsh, Sarah Millican, Marcus Brigstock, Katherine Ryan and many more.

Next year will be the milestone 15th Lily Comedy Night, so we chatted with The Comedy Store’s Founder, Owner and Executive Producer, Don Ward, about how the two organisations got together in the beginning, what he remembers about that very first show and why this has become such a winning partnership.

What made you first get involved with The Lily Foundation?

I’d never heard of The Lily Foundation until Liz contacted us back in 2009. She told us all about the work she was doing and why she was doing it, and asked if we would help by hosting a show. Bearing in mind I’ve got three children of my own, and mito being such a terrible disease, as a father how could I say no? Each week, if it’s possible, we allocate a day to a registered charity for them to raise funds, so as I own The Comedy Store this was the way I could help.

Had you done anything similar with other charities before?

At that point in the noughties, we were already working with quite a few registered charities, and I also had my own charity, The Comedy Store Fund for Sick Children. When my son Sebastien was a baby, he contracted pneumococcus and nearly died – I felt I needed to give something back to the medical profession so that’s how I got involved with charity in the first place. When Liz came to me, obviously my heart opened up and what else could I do? That’s how we got together, and we’ve been together for 15 years now. That was the start of a long and fruitful relationship.

What can you remember about the very first Lily Comedy Night back in 2010?

In our first year we had two MCs, Kevin Day, who is one of the organisers, and Andre Vincent, and they did half the show each. We had Jo Brand and a very young Jason Manford, Terry Alderton and John Moloney. Russell Howard had to pull out at the last minute and Jack Dee stepped in heroically to avoid mass disappointment! The comedy world is like a big family and invariably comedians are charity minded so they’ll give their services for free to a worthwhile cause. And there’s nothing more deserving than The Lily Foundation.

I always remember on that first show when Liz got up and did her speech, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, she reached everybody. Every year we all have tears in our eyes, my staff as well, because they drop everything and just listen to her.

Has the event changed much over the years?

The format has stayed more or less the same, except Liz now presents a short film rather than just making a speech. That’s the only difference really. We always have a good line up, there’s always a good attendance and everyone always has a great evening and gives generously, and that’s the main thing. It’s a winning formula so why should we change it? A good laugh is essential, especially with how awful mito is, you’ve got to have a release and comedy is the perfect answer. Music wouldn’t do it, but comedy does. It’s almost Shakespearean, isn’t it? Tragedy and comedy are great bedfellows.

What challenges are involved in putting on an event like this?

Probably the only challenge is that we always like to have a headliner or two and it’s whether they’re available. There’s a certain number of touring comedians who will put bums on seats, and that’s what we want to do. There’s so much happening on a Monday night in London, so we want to make sure we hook people in. If we can get someone like Jimmy Carr, well that’s great, he’s going to put bums on seats. So would Jason Manford and Jack Dee, John Bishop… We’ve got to have a name at the top so people will want to buy the ticket.

It’s up to us to find the right ingredient to bring people along so they can learn more about The Lily Foundation and this terrible disease. It’s Kevin (Day) who’s the pied piper – he always picks the Lily bill and hosts the show. He’s been in the comedy business for 25 years now, maybe even more. He’s a writer for television and has access to lots of people.

How do you feel at the end of another Lily Comedy Night?

Ultimately it’s whether we’ve done enough. We’ve helped with the show, we’ve helped with the room, we’ve put money in the bucket – what else can we do? And I think a lot of people feel like that. Let’s hope next year is the year they find the golden chalice that will sort this awful disease out. Because that’s ultimately why we’re all there, to find that cure.

From what I understand, that’s a daunting job though. This isn’t just a disease that popped up in 2009, it had to be there all along, didn’t it? And because there’s such a small percentage of people who have it, there’s so little work done on it. But I’m an optimist, the glass is half full. All we can do is give generously and hope something comes through one day. And keep raising awareness. Liz has done a pretty good job so far, and everything we can do to help, we will.

Why do you and the team support us year after year?

The Lily Foundation is the one charity that’s special to us all. It’s been there every year, we’ve all got to know Liz, she comes to the door, she knows the same security that was there in 2010, I’m still there. We feel we’re part of the Lily family and we’re helping Liz to fight mito as best we can. And the best we can do is make people laugh and give them a drink.

It’s such a small team, that’s part of the affection we have. The Lily Foundation isn’t big time, you’re not a huge charity with gigs at the Royal Albert Hall. I don’t know what the percentage is of people who have mitochondrial disease but it’s probably quite small compared to something like Teenage Cancer, so they get all the publicity. Add to that the fact that no one’s ever heard of it, and that’s why we’re so behind it. We don’t get involved with big charities like Comic Relief, we prefer to stay away and help the smaller charities. We’re like a dustpan and brush – we clean up the little ones and take care of them as best we can!

Finally, what do you admire most about The Lily Foundation?

All charity work is difficult, but I admire the tenacity of such a small charity, still largely with the same core team pushing on for well over a decade. It’s hard for an ordinary brain like mine to totally understand about mitochondrial disease, but I promise you this – the next big anniversary night I have at The Comedy Store, I’ll do it for The Lily Foundation this time. That’ll be the 50th anniversary in 5 years’ time!

Well that’s certainly going to be a night to remember – thank you Don! In the meantime, if you’d like to book tickets for next year’s event you can do so here. But be quick – it looks like this show is going to be as popular as previous ones.