Naive adolescents, Oxbridge toffs and rugger buggers braying for knob jokes often makes campus comedy no laughing matter. Michael North learns how to tease a smile from an undergrad
Student gigs are a bit like water parks," muses comedian Russell Howard.
"Some rides are rubbish but every so often, you find yourself travelling down the flume to end all flumes, getting spat out at the end with your trunks buried deep in your anus and thinking 'I'll do that again - that was fun'."
It is a rollercoaster ride familiar to the many comedians who brave dozens of gigs every week on the university circuit. Most of the 18 funnymen and women who told The Times Higher about the highs and lows of coaxing laughter from undergraduates admit to enjoying them. But the peculiarities of student gigs often make them hard work.
"My worst was an amorous student with cerebral palsy and a penchant for heckling," recalls Anna Crilly. She adds, more thoughtfully: "My best was an amorous student with cerebral palsy and a penchant for heckling."
Marek Larwood was brought down to earth before a student audience at Bath University. "I ran on to the stage with my T-shirt over my head.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see the raised stage platform. The subsequent bang and the sight of me screaming and writhing caused much hilarity. But part of my shin will forever remain in Bath."
Russell Kane also paid a price for laughter: "I once consecutively guessed the degrees of five members of the audience. It was a weird Uri Geller moment. After that, I tried to bend a spoon and cut my finger so badly that I nearly had to stop the gig."
For Al Pitcher, it is the exuberant up-for-anything attitude that keeps him performing to student audiences. "At York, the musical society was rehearsing Fame in the theatre next to us, so to end the gig I ran through with 56 pissed students screaming 'We're gonna live for ever, remember my name - Fame !'" he recounts, adding ruefully: "The booker lost the gig."
Kane enjoys students' openness. "They are perhaps the best audiences," he says. "The chips on the shoulders have barely been fried. They have a liberal creative mindset. If I say bum, willy or poo it will get a laugh - provided, of course, I ground it in existential, feminist Marxism.
Basically, clever filthiness with long words works."
Howard remembers a sweet gesture by a Lincoln University audience. "I once came out in the second half of my act to a stage covered in bits of origami ranging from a beautiful swan to a crooked cock."
Students' inexperience can make them easy to tease, according to Alistair Barrie. He focuses, in particular, on the usefulness of arts degrees. "I ask if anyone is studying English lit and say that will come in fucking handy. It's not like being a doctor is it? Imagine a crisis and someone shouting 'Thank God you're here, lit crit man.'"
Howard once revelled in winding up agricultural students at Harper Adams University College. "The audience were stupid, rich, right-wing and full of cider," he says. "I thought it would be a bit of a laugh to poke fun at the merits of fox-hunting. To which they said they were going to kill me, sexually abuse me and show my remains to other comics who dared to mock their country ways. I feared for my life so I cried 'Hey, Freddie Flintoff's a good guy' and it was all fine again. I should have left it there but I couldn't resist suggesting that Flintoff thinks fox-hunting is for bummers."
Milton Jones once alienated a student audience by asking why one of them was sitting the wrong way round. "He pulled out a white stick and everyone booed me," he says. "I gradually pulled it round until he got up to go to the toilet. I shouted 'Not in there! That's the ladies.' I lost them again." Jones observes that many students have never experienced live entertainment before. "So you need to show them that they can't ignore you or put you on pause. The best way of doing this is to pick on one of them.
Students have short attention spans. I did a club once where on a Saturday night, if they didn't like you they turned on the giant TV screen and watched Casualty instead."
When gigs go wrong it is usually due to poor location, organisation and a crowd that is beyond comedy. Barrie recalls a nightmare freshers' ball at Staffordshire University when he was shown into a long room full of drunken, snogging students and directed to a microphone with tinsel around it at the far end. The set lasted an endless six minutes, with Barrie singing Love Me Tender as bouncers fended off an inebriated student with a death's-head tattoo demanding "Do you want some?".
Mike Gunn recalls a bad experience "in some cow shed" at an agricultural college. "At 8pm, it was already awash with spilt beer and extremely drunk students; others were passed out face down in the urinals. The show started at 10pm and we quickly realised that political satire and clever wordplay was not the order of the day. It rapidly degenerated into a drinking exhibition with volunteers joining us on stage and downing pints in one while the crowd chanted and danced like warriors in the film Zulu ."
Of course, sometimes a discerning student audience just gives the comic a hard time. "Students don't mess around," Pitcher says. "They laugh or don't laugh." He remembers a fellow comic "dying" on stage at Anglia Polytechnic University. "I did my time and walked to the station, leaving him to negotiate his set. As I got on the stationary train, there in front of me was the headline act. His only words were 'not good'."
Many of the comedians observe a lack of receptiveness to sharp wit at certain universities. Jones says: "These days every phone box is a university and A levels seem to be found at the bottom of cereal packets.
This means people are at university who have no right to be there. They go to places such as Son of Lampeter Institute."
Steve Hall complains about the Cardiff Institute and the University of Central England, which "seem only to allow in students who have more points on their driving licences than they do in their A levels". Such audiences, says Howard, can make comedy feel "a bit like dancing in front of the surviving cast members of the film Cocoon ".
Crilly's worst gig was at Aston University, where catatonic students "just stared at me. They didn't shout, they didn't laugh, they just stared. Four hundred glassy eyes... it still haunts me."
Gunn has had it with university gigs. "I have nothing in common with students," he says. "My stand-up routines are about things most students haven't experienced yet: work, tax, marriage, kids, impotence, living a life. Nowadays, if I try to perform at a student show I feel about as out of place as someone's dad who turned up in his dressing gown and slippers to collect them from adisco. And yes, I do still use the word disco."
Another middle-aged comic, Roger Monkhouse, also loathes student gigs because he "feels like a dodgy uncle at a wedding who never married". He bemoans that "students today seem unappealingly self-absorbed and politically unmotivated, even oblivious.
"The young are hilariously judgmental, and the smaller their world experience, the greater their moral certainty. They struggle with the subversion of morality and the moral confusion of the real world. That's why they prefer all that cobblers about woodland creatures and dwarves, I suppose."
Crilly admits to hating the university circuit. "Until I write jokes about knobs and being sick, I doubt there ever will be a good student gig for me," she says. "But I refuse! I will never compromise my art... unless the fee is over £250 and it's within the M25."
HIGHS AND LOWS ON THE COMEDY ROLLERCOASTER
Three worst gigs:
1 Posh venues: Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities - "public-school types behave badly" (Dan Atkinson)
2 Harper Adams University College - "like teasing an animal with learning difficulties" (Russell Howard)
3 Fresher balls - "You're fucking joking" (Alistair Barrie)
Three best gigs:
1 Lincoln University - "my God, do they feed on comedy" (Dan Atkinson)
2 Edinburgh University - "intelligent with just a hint of rowdiness" (Russell Howard)
3 Aberystwyth University - "just happy to see that the outside world exists" (Al Pitcher)