With the Tealights just having dropped the curtain on their second show, and student-led comedy nights cropping up across campus and beyond, Charlotte Duffield questions the significance of university in helping young, budding comedians propel themselves into centre stage, speaking with Edy Hurst from the university’s Comedy Society
In the dingy underbelly of LUU a blackened room awaits its fledgling audience, who have paid not to be moved by musical prodigy, dazzled by theatrical splendour or to gluttonously guzzle alcohol, but to laugh. Such a scene encapsulates one of the growing outlets of student comedy, which attracts those with an urge to amuse and be amused. However, beyond the university bubble, can student comedy serve as a veritable advancement into a comedic career, or is it merely deemed a laughable act of self-indulgence and quest for self-appraisal?
Edy Hurst, a second year fine art student, has been involved with student comedy since his arrival in Leeds, and being disappointed by the absence of comedic opportunities at LUU, established a monthly comedy night at the Union, branded ‘Mutant Comedy’, later rebranded ‘Mutant Milk’. In Hurst’s view, ‘comedy at university is a place to learn and hone skills’ and ‘is important as it gives people a chance to perform where they might not have done before’. Leeds’ alumni founded ‘Pigeonhole’, at the much loved Brudenell Social Club, as a platform for newer comedians to perform alongside seasoned professionals to an expansive audience; independent nights further afield include ‘Dead Cat Comedy’ in Manchester and ‘Alt.Com.Cab’ in Sheffield, which are all poised to impact upon the professional comedy circuit in the following years.
Nevertheless, Hurst stresses the differentiation between those students involved in comedy for fun, and those with professional intentions. Whilst many student sketch groups seek comedic recognition at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Hurst argues that such intentions are hampered by the failure of such groups to ‘interact with their local comedy surroundings’ which inevitably leads to material which is ‘out of touch with the rest of the performing community’. Hurst cautions against ‘naïve and cliquey’ student attitudes and believes that the general impression of student comedy is more of a ‘give it a go’ type approach which can be counter-productive for those fervently jesting towards a job in the comedy circuit.
In Hurst’s view ‘no university provides frequent and consistent enough gigs to gain the skills for the real comedy world’; in order to make it, you have to travel, frequently gig and work hard to be good. However, undoubtedly university can act as a springboard for comedic recognition. The infamous Cambridge Footlights society, the contested and continuing breeding ground for modern British comedy, has spawned comedic legends such as Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. Most recently Footlights comedians Mitchell and Webb star in Peep Show, the longest running Channel 4 comedy. Beyond the Cambridge circle, Manchester polytechnic comedic graduates include Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, whilst Bristol University has spawned the mirth-making careers of David Walliams and Matt Lucas.
Arguably, university comedic establishments spurs ambition and comedic networks, rather than talent. There are multiple entry routes into comedy and it is not enough to merely perform comedy at university. Comedians such as Catherine Tate and Jack Dee forsook university altogether. However, as Hurst emphasises ‘the key is if you’re at university, using the time you have to prepare and learn’. The Leeds -founded student comedy award ‘Tickled Pig’ especially supports new acts and enables first time and revered performing students to gain exposure and clamber another rung of the comedy business ladder. Star of ‘The Inbetweeners’ Simon Bird was a finalist at the 2006 ‘Chortle Student Comedy Award’ and evidently such competitions can open doors to professional opportunities. Student comedy is a diverse experience, which should be wholeheartedly supported by the student community, yet essentially it is just that – ‘student’ comedy, the work of amateurs. To break the boundaries of such an enclosure requires an engagement with the rest of society. Student sketches, stand-ups, festivals and competitions offer experience, yet beyond the cloisters of university, your own wit, tenacity and resilience appear to be the most crucial components for giggle grabbing success.