Dead funny, or what?

October 22, 1999

For student comics flooding out of universities, the jokes are about drugs and being poor. Harriet Swain reports

Did you hear the one about tuition fees, the Student Loans Company and the exploitative part-time job? By all accounts there is not a lot to laugh about for students these days. But this does not seem to stop them flocking to comedy evenings or wanting to be comedians themselves.

The recent burgeoning comedy scene has seen some of its fastest growth in universities. Avalon's Comedy Network, which organises comedy evenings for students across the country, started with 15 venues in 1993. Now it has 50. And the majority of the well-known names on its books are recent graduates.

One such is Danny Bhoy, who graduated in history from Glasgow University two years ago and now writes for Channel 4's 11 O'Clock Show. He likes playing to student audiences because he feels he can take more risks than at other gigs. "Students are a fantastic audience because they are really up for it," he says. "They are not rowdy, but they are interactive."

Richard Morris, a second-year student of French and Spanish and a comp re of University College London's Ministry of Comedy club, is less keen on student audiences. "Often I can't command respect because they see I'm just like them."

Morris chose to leave Cardiff to study in London because of its comedy scene. He usually takes part in two or three stand-up gigs a week. "Part of the thrill is the risk," he says. "But you also see the lifestyle of people who have been working hard in comedy for ten years and think, 'I could have some of that'." The income, though irregular, is not bad for a student job. Sometimes Morris will earn Pounds 300 in two days, sometimes nothing for a week.

Helena Hewett, who runs the Ministry of Comedy, says: "If you are are good at it, there are a lot worse things you can do as a part-time job. If you work for 20 minutes and earn Pounds 100, it beats working in a student bar for Pounds 3.65 an hour."

But it takes guts. Most comedy is stand-up - if it fails, the comedian is to blame.

Traditional student comedy of the sort associated with the Cambridge Footlights or medical schools was revue and sketch-based, and it continues. Footlights still attracts plenty of attention from television companies and agents looking for writers.

Many students starting in comedy, especially if they have a drama background, begin by developing characters or sketches before attempting riskier ventures. This can help provide an entry platform into television because TV companies like a known face who will attract ratings.

But the advantage of stand-up for those confident enough is the chance to entertain a wide audience while still at university.

Claire Nosworthy, organiser of the BBC comedy awards, says: "The fact that they are students is irrelevant. The comedy scene is so vibrant and so many clubs have open nights that there are plenty of opportunities for anybody to give it a go."

Lloyd Peters, a former student comedian at Manchester University, alongside Rik Mayall, now teaches stand-up comedy as course leader of the media and performance degree at Salford University. He says "anything goes" now in student comedy, which tends to mirror what is happening on the main comedy circuit. The only slight trend appears to be a particular emphasis on developing a character to focus a stand-up routine.

"For many students, politics doesn't raise its head very much," Peters says. "The big topics are things around sexuality and drugs or being poor. It is what they know about and have encountered."

This is little different from the professional comedy circuit, where seaside comedy club humour and mother-in-law jokes gave way first to anarchic political satire in the 1980s and, more recently, to New Laddism. Political correctness had made sexist and racist jokes out-of-bounds, but the PC lobby is now a target of humour.

Rob Aslett, director of the Avalon management group, is adamant that there is no particular humour that appeals to students more than anyone else. "Funny is funny," he says. "I would encourage anyone thinking of having a go to produce their own thing."

For Morris, the other secret is perseverance - being prepared to stand up to repeated knocks to one's confidence.

As for up-and-coming talent, Nosworthy tips Caroline Quinlan, a recent graduate from Bristol, now writing for Radio 4. Daniel Morgenstern, administration officer at the Cambridge Footlights, suggests Matthew Green, who performed in this year's Edinburgh revue. Peters tips Mark Small, who left the Salford course last year and recently won a BBC newcomers' award, while Aslett suggests Danny Bhoy, Warwick graduate Karen Taylor and UCL graduate Dan Antopolski.

An entertainments spokesman at the National Union of Students says: "There will be something new coming out of student comedy soon - there always is. There is a vast pool of talent and university experience offers people the chance to have a go."

Keep your eyes peeled, he advises, for the next big thing.

To enter the Pounds 2,000 Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award 2000, run in conjunction with the Carlsberg Ice Comedy Network, budding comedians should write to The Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award 2000, PO Box 13048, London W10 6WQ or call 0171 598 7303.

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