Standing up in front of a crowd and telling jokes: for most, it’s their idea of hell, but for some, it’s where they feel most at home.
When people ask what it’s like, I often say that it’s like telling a funny story to a group of friends in the pub: except they’re not your friends, you’re not in a pub, and your hands are sweating. No sympathy laughs from your mate when the joke doesn’t quite land; no in-jokes to fall back on; no new haircut to make fun of. Comedy is a savage mistress.
Arriving at Oxford in 2018, I joined the Oxford Revue, performing my first show in Hilary of my first year. Put together with 5 others whom I barely knew, we had to write a show which would be funny enough for a 5-night run at the BT: the zenith of any Oxford performer’s career. Some sketches you write are good, some are bad. Some are really, really bad.
Amongst the ones I submitted for the show was a sketch where a toothpaste is so powerfully whitening that a man is blinded by his own teeth. There was another where a toothbrush factory begins manufacturing brushes to brush the toothbrushes themselves. I don’t know why the dental sector had such a powerful impact on my creative output, but it’s safe to say that neither of those sketches made it into the final cut: apparently the realm of dental comedy was already ‘saturated enough’.
It can be humbling to bring your work to a roomful of others. It’s essentially saying ‘look at what I wrote here – isn’t it really funny?’ So, when it turns out to be not as funny as you initially thought – when you were wiping away the tears of laughter as you typed it up – it can be tough, and even humiliating.
However, it’s the bad ones which make you feel so good when you write one that lands: the affirmation you feel when other people tell you ‘this is funny’ is like no other. Not to mention when the thing which you have written gets laughs from a real audience of real people. It’s like getting a big laugh amongst your mates but on crack.
Performing in Oxford was one thing, but going elsewhere felt like different gravy. The Revue go up to the Edinburgh Fringe every year, and I performed both sketch and stand up there in 2019. I remember walking up to the microphone, about to do my first ever stand-up set, thinking ‘How has someone let me do this? Is this allowed? Where’s my mum?’: I was just a man, in a t-shirt, standing there and telling some jokes.
Despite all the challenges that come with doing comedy, I think it’s easier than most people realise. It’s not some god-given charm or natural wit, but it is far more a learnt art: after a while, you realise what people tend to find funny, and what people don’t. For instance, the elderly audience of the Edinburgh Fringe don’t particularly enjoy too many jokes on poo and wee; they do, however, love jokes about Joanna Lumley and Milton Keynes. Each to their own.
Nonetheless, comedy still has the ability to be beautifully unpredictable. For the Fringe, I wrote what I thought was a fairly average sketch, depicting a scene between two friends, a wolf and an elk. In the scene, the wolf has mistakenly eaten the elk’s mother.
Wolf: Yeah, I guess I must have got the wrong one. I swear I asked one of them which one Gary was.
Elk: Yeah, you did. My sister pointed him out to you. [He points]
Wolf: Ah right. Ok yeah. I think what might have happened here is that, because the elk hoof doesn’t lend itself particularly well to pointing, I may have thought she was pointing at Gary, when she was in fact pointing at Mrs Elk, your mother.
Elk: [he examines hoof] Ah yes. Yes, I think you may be right. Damn our cloven hooves!
Wolf: Ah what a pickle!
Elk: How silly! Well no worries, wolf, not your fault. Just try not to do it again!
Wolf: I’ll do my best!
This sketch, which I wrote after seeing a nature documentary, turned out to be by far the most popular one each day. Others were more polished and more sensical, but it was the absurd which appeared to capture people’s imaginations: such is comedy’s ability to unite people in the strangest of ways.
So, where are we now? Comedy in Covid times is, like everything, pretty difficult. Because of the limitations of social distancing, shows have been pretty much non-existent, and thus laughter – a comedian’s one real affirmation – is gone. The Oxford Revue have moved their content online, which has presented its own challenges. Writing together in groups over Teams isn’t the most seamless of journeys: the bad Wi-Fi, the delays and the lack of proper eye contact all makes it difficult to cultivate an authentic, natural comic atmosphere. Because comedy, to me, often strikes at the very heart of the human condition, it requires a certain human connection which is far more difficult to garner on-screen. Nonetheless, we do our best: we release videos every Monday on Facebook and Instagram, and have welcomed a new cohort of writers. Likewise, we ran a successful set of comedy workshops for women in 3rd Week.
Who knows when this thing will come to an end? But, when it does, you can bet on me being on stage once more, with sweaty thighs and a gentle shake, asking myself how on earth I got there.
Image Credit: Justin Lim.