Back in the day, pilgrimages weren’t always about having a good time. Sometimes they were about making you feel better about yourself, or finding a new husband (yes, we’re looking at you, Wife of Bath). But we live in a looser, more open-minded age, so now you can take a pilgrimage to celebrate almost anything, which is why, every year, 600,000 Elvis fans flock to Graceland, and more than a million descend on Monet’s waterlily garden in the Paris suburb of Giverny. But where do you go if you’re a comedy fan?
There are the official places: the Lucille Ball Memorial Park in Jamestown, New York or the Katharine Hepburn Garden on Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza in Manhattan. And surely everyone who’s ever set foot in Paris has done the obligatory shuffle past Oscar Wilde’s crypt in Père Lachaise ‒ a pilgrimage so ardently embraced by fans that the Parisian authorities had to put up a glass barrier to restrain them.
But public parks and lipstick-smeared gravestones don’t really seem the point. This is a subversive art. It can be cruel, but it’s very much alive. Comedy, after all, only survives as long as people are still laughing. Sure, you can visit a comedy club, but performances come and go. To give our heroes the proper level of respect, we need to revisit their sources of inspiration. We want to see what they saw, walk where they walked, drink in the ambience and just maybe what they were drinking.
Gone but not forgotten
Because, let’s face it, drinking as a comedic pastime comes up a lot. Sadly, many of the great haunts are now lost: from the Hollywood speakeasies of the prohibition era frequented by legendary wit Mae West to Peter Cook’s Soho comedy club The Establishment, formerly one of the most famous in London, now a restaurant called Zebrano’s.
Some legends live on, however ‒ and the good news is you can still nurse a signature Bellini cocktail in Harry’s Bar at the Cipriani in Venice. This was the backdrop for many of Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s drunken antics, but it was popular with Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin too (separately, sadly, although they certainly knew each other).
Equally grand is the The Cadogan in Knightsbridge, London where Oscar Wilde used to drink Perrier-Jouët champagne with the American actress Lily Langtry. It was also there that, on 6 April 1895, he awaited arrest in room number 16 ‒ now a luxury suite dedicated to the writer ‒ for ‘committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons’. He is alleged to have ordered the champagne to be brought to his cell instead.
If your pockets run more to sherbet than champagne, The Coach and Horses on Greek Street, London, has long been a great place to spot your idols. Peter Cook ate lunch here and journalist Jeffrey Bernard used to pop in for a drink. These days, you stand a strong chance of spotting Ian Hislop; the staff of Private Eye has been meeting for lunch in the upstairs dining room every fortnight for the past 40 years. (At this juncture we’d like to remind you that the point of visiting your idols’ haunts is to pay homage ‒ not to stalk them.)
Cross the Atlantic and you’ll find the US equivalent: the White Horse Tavern, established in 1880, and formerly frequented by Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol and both Dylans (Thomas and Bob). It was also a regular haunt of friends and Blues Brothers John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Belushi died of an overdose in 1982; on that night, Aykroyd is said to have turned up at the White Horse, locked the doors and bought the house a round.
If you’re in New York, you’ll also want to drop by The Algonquin Hotel, made famous in the 1920s by Dorothy Parker and her Vanity Fair colleagues. ‘The Vicious Circle’, as the group was known, was notorious for its acerbic wit, prompting Groucho Marx (a non-member) to comment, “The price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto.”
Parker and her set met to play games in the Rose Room (now called the Round Table Room, a nod to the nickname the group was given in contemporary society columns). One of the games they played involved creating a sentence around a single word – which gave birth to one of Parker’s more famous quips, “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”
Little has changed here since Parker’s day ‒ as general manager Geoffrey Mills told The Guardian, “There’s a real benefit to not having to reinvent yourself every three or four years. We’ve got a barman who’s 85 and can still mix two drinks at once.”
Moving east, we have the Fairmont Peace Hotel, Shanghai. In the 1930s, when it was known as The Cathay, this was the most glamorous hotel in Asia and attracted celebrities including Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw. It was here that a bedridden Noel Coward (he had flu) wrote Private Lives in just four days. The hotel has undergone a few radical transformations since then ‒ first by the Communists, and then the Fairmont group ‒ but you can still visit The Jazz Bar and almost hear what Chaplin, Coward and Bernard Shaw would have. Every member of the resident Old Jazz Band (average age 80) has been playing since the 1940s.
So do funny people ever eat? Well, occasionally. The most visited comedic eatery in New York is, without doubt, Katz’s Deli. Yes, where Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. The deli has a rich theatrical history: at the turn of the century, Jewish immigrants took up residence on the Lower East Side and, in the days of the Yiddish Theatre, Katz’s became a haunt for local actors and comedians. It’s still a lure: photos of celebrity clients line the walls and Ben Stiller, Kathleen Turner and Dan Aykroyd have all eaten here. The food is just as famous ‒ try the pastrami on rye.
But comedians don’t just like pastrami, they also like a burger. And for this Lena Dunham, New York native and creator of Girls, recommends Corner Bistro. (Also, as Dunham told gothamist.com, “A good place to use your fake ID in high school.”) Dunham fans will soon be able to take a New York Girls tour, too.
We might not be so great at burgers, but in London, we have cheese. When Neal’s Yard Dairy opened in Covent Garden in 1979, its first customer was John Cleese. The Monty Python production office was located in the yard so it was a natural pit stop. Unfortunately, although Cleese tried to buy cheese, he got yoghurt – the owners were still learning to master the process. We can assure you it has improved immeasurably since then.