It’s worth saying there’s something disingenuous in choosing the title of ‘comedian’. I’m not a comedian in a basic sense – I don’t get money to make people laugh. Though perhaps I’m being disingenuous when I say that, so we really have this bizarre Russian-doll situation of the increasingly disingenuous already, only three sentences in.
I spend most of my time in Oxford trying to make people laugh with friends, doing sketches and songs, taking them around the country, and it’s certainly what I want to do in life. But I’d eschew the label “comedian” for an altogether more pretentious reason.
To embrace any sense of the professional, even momentarily, and say, “I’m a comedian,” would instantly negate the claim. It’s like how you can’t consciously try to be ‘cool’ – if you’re trying, you’re not doing it right. You have to resist, perhaps even violently hate, the traditional forms of ‘comedy’ in order to do it right. Sketches are a perverse idea; a ridiculous art form that no one should be prevailed upon to sit and watch and enjoy, and it’s important to accept that. You certainly can’t say, “These are great, people love bizarre little microplays feebly acting as vehicles for contrived wordplay – people love me!”. We’re attention-addicts. There’s nothing noble or professional about it. The best you can do is be aware that wanting to make strangers laugh is so utterly strange.
My week has involved a gig in Cambridge – an exchange show featuring me and three contemporaries as the Oxford Revue, alongside the Durham Revue and Cambridge Footlights. For those unfamiliar with university troupes, Footlights is essentially the brand worth knowing. It’s been a club since the 1800s, and churns out famous comics like a Ford production line. The reputation is enough to get them sell-out international tours annually, regardless of specific personnel. There’s something irritatingly efficient about them – almost German. They don’t get the biggest laughs on the night, but I’m yet to see a Footlight fail.
Oxford, despite equally distinguished funny alumni (Alan Bennett, Stewart Lee, Laura Solon, Rebecca Front, Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis and two Pythons, to name a few) has never witnessed organization. ‘The Oxford Revue’, technically, isn’t a club – there are no equivalences here. A ‘revue’ is a name for a type of show containing light-entertainment cabaret, not a committee. Oxford comedy operates far more casually, and has been represented at the Fringe over the last 60 years by self-elected student teams who just ‘fancy it’. Despite efforts to formalise things, I think Oxford will always work this way. It means we’re far less consistent than Cambridge, but, arguably, things are more ‘free’.
I met Al Murray (ex-Revue) at the Fringe in 2014, who confirmed this long-standing hippyish disdain for Cambridge professionalism; a raised-eyebrow toward their fierce power struggles and machine-perfect comedy. In Murray’s words, an Oxford comic is “just trying to do something different, man”.
Durham are old-school, and there’s possibly something testing about their matching uniforms and puns (too unironic for me) – but I would be a comedy snob indeed to say they don’t do well.
I’m pleased to say, we more than hold our own on the night, everything goes down with gusto, and there’s a great sense of a sea-change when the troupes mingle afterwards, feeling a healthy rivalry, rather than the previous unworthiness that accompanies sitting near Footlights. We all share Edinburgh plans. Enjoying it while it lasts – there’s a statistical spectre abroad, as odds are not even one of us will end up doing it professionally.