It was a dark, miserable night in the third week of Michaelmas that we trudged over to the Wheatsheaf for our first taste of Oxford’s comedic offerings. Being dragged by an overly-enthusiastic fresher to see the Oxford Imps and with only thoughts of essays and sleep in my head, I wasn’t expecting much from a city where all conversations seemed to revolve around hours spent in the library that week and A-Level results. Two hours later, I was beginning to change my mind. You see, it turns out little old Oxford isn’t just libraries and tourists buying hideously overpriced hoodies. Oxford is really rather funny. When replies to what our friends thought of the Oxford comedy scene were ‘what scene?’, we set out to talk to the best that Oxford had to offer. Because while most students have heard of the Imps and the Oxford Revue, there’s a lot more going on for people to indulge in.
‘Oxford has a great mix of comedy’, Imp Jamie Cooke enthuses, ‘You have stand-ups like Ivo Graham, the Revue doing sketches, improvised comedy like us, and comic plays like Turn Again Lane’. The formula for the Imps is pretty simple – you give them a word and they turn it into a scene. ‘The weirder the word, the better,’ Jamie continues. ‘When we were in Edinburgh last year, there was a little boy who gave us the word ‘toothbrush’. When we asked for something a bit different, he came back with ‘the fifth circle of hell’. That made for some pretty inventive comedy. But the best words are ones that some people in the group don’t know; there was a game a couple of weeks ago when an American Imp had to guess the Elgin Marbles. I don’t think even I would have guessed the Elgin Marbles’. ‘It’s family-friendly comedy,’ Ali Hall adds. ‘It doesn’t make a joke funny just to have swearing as the punch-line.’ He’s right, just with their brains, a word and some pretty serious raw comic talent, each week the Imps offer hilarious funny and totally original comedy. What makes it even more amazing is that it is all completely improvised. ‘We rehearse for three hours in the week and warm up for two hours before the show, but what you see on stage is completely new for us and the audience’. With a mixture of games, musical numbers and rap battles, and for only £3.50 for two hours, it’s easy to see why the Imps are at the forefront of the Oxford comedy scene.
But perhaps students are looking for something with a bit more history. The Oxford Revue was founded by Michael Palin in the early 1950s and, with alumni including Rowan Atkinson, Armando Ianucci, Angus Deyton and Richard Curtis, its legacy makes it more prominent. The Revue’s name was thrust back into the limelight recently with ex-Revue member Matt Lacey and his YouTube hit ‘Gap Yah’. ‘Oxford is very good for comedy but you have to look hard to find it’ says Ollie Mann, the group’s current president. But with the Revue maybe this isn’t the case; their most recent show The Oxford Revue and Friends, featuring the Durham Revue and the Cambridge Footlights, packed the Playhouse and time and time again people flock to see their mix of quirky, sharp and energetic sketches. ‘Imp Comedy is engaging because its improvised, however, with sketch comedy you have the opportunity to make the sketch as funny as possible and you don’t have the case of ‘Oh I wish I said that, that would have been funnier’. We meet as a group and brainstorm our ideas, but each sketch will have a different style depending on who wrote it’. With sketch comedy every scene is different so you can be guaranteed a laugh, especially if you go to the Revue’s shows where they choose only their best and most polished sketches. ‘We put on shows at the Wheatsheaf to try out new material and see whether it works, and that’s where we try out the students auditioning to join us’. Ollie is certain about one thing – they aren’t about to make their show family friendly.
‘Primarily, we do what we love and that produces the best comedy’. But it’s not only the Revue keeping people entertained, a new sketch comedy group Little Dark has just emerged on the scene, and following a successful show at the Burton Taylor, they seem ready to rival the Revue for the place of Oxford’s kings of sketch comedy.
Dark horses on the Oxford comedy scene are the stand-ups. ‘It’s the purest form of comedy,’ says Ivo Graham, ‘but in Oxford it’s far from being an institution. You wouldn’t want to start out in comedy here, but people obviously want it.’ Ivo incidentally won the So You Think You’re Funny? award at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and runs a packed stand-up comedy night ‘Ministry of Mirth’ twice a term at the Wheatsheaf. Ivo, Chris Turner and Rory O’ Keeffe are just some of the comedians working Oxford’s circuit at the moment. ‘There aren’t many nights especially for stand-up comedy, so you have to do college events and just try and get your name out there,’ Chris comments. ‘Also Paddy Luscombe runs the ‘The Free Beer Show’ on Mondays at The Cellar, where there is always a well-known headlining act and then student comedy afterwards’. There is stand-up comedy out there in Oxford if you know where to look for it, and there’s some to suit every taste. Rory describes himself appropriately as funny; Chris describes himself as witty; and Ivo as rambling. But having spent an evening with these three, we can definitely assure you that they’re highly amusing (although Rory did try to argue that ‘there’s a fine line between a serial killer and a comedian’).
So much great comedy is on in Oxford; all it needs is people to seek it out. An evening of comedy is going to cheer you infinitely more than that chocolate muffin if you have an essay looming, and definitely perk you up more than that third espresso. So put on a comedy night at your college or spend an evening with Oxford’s finest. If you can’t catch them in Oxford, show your support if you’re at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer – catch the Imps, Racing Minds (a group of ex-Imps), the Revue and Ivo all doing shows. If you don’t, you’ll never know what you’re missing out on.