Lecturer with a sideline in one-liners

December 24, 2004

For a stand-up comedian, Kevin McCarron is not that funny. At least, not in this interview and he claims his classes are not a flurry of jokes either.

But he and his classes are engaging: something he gets from the comic side of his dual life.

By day, Dr McCarron is reader in American literature at Roehampton University, based in a small office stacked with books from skirting board to ceiling, where he cuts an earnest figure. But by night, the gruff 50-year-old is a raucously funny compere on the London comedy circuit.

His stand-up career began seven years ago after an "exhilarating" first attempt at an open-mic night, where all and sundry can try their hand at comedy. Soon after, he started running his own comedy nights with Alex Petty, his business partner.

Now he combines an academic career with three nights a week playing MC and promoter for hopeful young comics, with the odd solo Edinburgh show thrown in for good measure.

"I prefer to compere than do a set because I can walk out on stage not knowing what I'm going to do. I enjoy that frisson and anxiety as to whether I'll get a laugh. With no preparation, it only takes the time it takes to be at the show, which when you've got a job is a major advantage."

His own routines often feature his children, aged ten and eight. Most children cringe at their father's jokes at some stage, but for now Dr McCarron's children are proud.

"It sets me apart from the other fathers. Lecturing I think would be embarrassing to them, but the comedy is quite cool."

One joke is about one of Dr McCarron's daughter's friends blocking the loo on an overnight visit, which he has to surreptitiously unblock. "A lot of it is about how horrible it is being a dad and how fathers are the unsung heroes."

Academic life, as rich a source as it might be, does not feature.

"My experience is that the audience doesn't like you to be better educated than they are. You're supposed to be funnier, but they wouldn't care for the fact that I've got a doctorate.

"If they are heckling and you keep getting the better of them - then they are perfectly happy to acknowledge that you're quick-witted or funny, that's what they've paid for.

"But to have someone well read on Dante on top of it is too much for any audience to bear and they shouldn't have to, they've come to be entertained, not intimidated."

Students or lecturers in the audience can prove useful, however. "I tend to pretend that I'm impressed but then get laughs by revealing knowledge they wouldn't expect me to have, particularly with this accent."

Dr McCarron is from New Zealand. "There's an assumption that an Antipodean accent means you have no access to English culture, so I can get laughs based on surprise. My rule is that if there's nothing in it for you, then don't tell them anything, as it's far better that they do not know anything about you."

Dr McCarron is convinced that the stand-up sideline has improved his teaching style.

"I'm much more aware of attention spans and body language and the seminar and the lecture as a performance. I can vary my voice tone and engage with everyone in the room.

"And I move. I was taught by academics who sat at the table in seminars, whereas I walk about the room. It's tiring, but at the same time I can't do it sitting down now. Even if they don't care for it, they can't ignore it.

It keeps them alert."

He does not go out of his way to be funny, telling jokes or rehearsing routines with them, but he can be quick-witted in response to what students have said.

And being an academic may not provide material, but it still helps. "The reason I can do comedy is because I've been trained academically. They are not mutually exclusive. Logic and precision of thinking are what's needed to write a joke; you can't allow any flab in there.

"It really has to move the narrative on and hopefully get a laugh at the same time. There's no space in a routine for waffle because you lose people. It's the same with a literary essay: every line and quotation should be furthering your case."

Dr McCarron says that comedy is an intellectual subject in its own right and he is starting a course on it in February. "The history, theory and performance of stand-up comedy are viable, stand-alone subjects that are as valuable as film or the novel, but constructing and drafting their own material should help them (students) shape other kinds of writing.

"It's a genuine transferable skill and a more entertaining one than usual."

Unsurprisingly, the course is already full.

Before his academic career took off, Dr McCarron toured the world as a stage manager with the likes of Dire Straits and the Rolling Stones, which was great fun. But as he approached 30, he wanted to do something more intellectually challenging and less backbreaking.

Studying was a way of imposing order on years of endless reading. "I'd read widely, but with no pattern or purpose," he said. He worked at London's Lyric Theatre during his degree, masters and PhD, reading in the green room between stints as a member of the stage crew.

Growing up in a postcolonial country gave him a greater understanding of America's relationship with Europe. "I think it helped me to understand Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, who were resisting the fact they were having to write in English. That's why I think I took to American literature from the beginning."

For Dr McCarron, this cultural distance also forms a large part of his humour. "I've been here 21 years, but when I'm talking about the rail service or conveyancing laws, I'm looking at it like a bewildered outsider."

Despite the success of his alternative life, he says that quitting academic life for comedy is not an imminent move.

"The teacher in me feels that undergraduate and postgraduate teaching are more important than entertaining. People work hard and deserve to be entertained, but I'm passionately attached to teaching," he said.

"I'm aware of what a responsibility it is and that it needs to be done entertainingly. The days of captive audiences are over. We're fighting for young people's attention, and we have to make the subject we are teaching genuinely interesting."

Lucky students.

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM
Westfield College, University of London

MY FIRST JOB WAS
jumping up and down in skips to compact the building rubbish

MY MAIN CHALLENGE  
is teaching well enough to stay out of those skips

WHAT I HATE MOST
is really deep skips

IN TEN YEARS
I will be too old for the skips, so having a pleasant sinecure at Oxford University while running several successful comedy clubs would be nice

MY FAVOURITE JOKE
Ahh, Tiger Woods! That was no place for a picnic

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