Star Turn: Oliver Double

October 27, 2000

Mandy Garner enjoys a game of bingo in a Kent lecture theatre as a teaser to learning about working-men's club comedy

Stand-up comedians have arrived. Just a few years ago, they were deeply uncool; now they are so popular that television companies pay millions for star performers and universities recruit academics to lecture in stand-up.

Oliver Double is the University of Kent drama department's comedy expert. After studying drama, he did a thesis on stand-up comedy, coupled with regular live performances. So he knows his stuff.

But is teaching stand-up a contradiction in terms? Isn't it something you learn through years of heckling and chronic indigestion? "There is a danger that it is seen to be more respectable as a result. That is the kiss of death to stand-up. Most comedians think it is a waste of time, vaguely fascinating or a bit sad," Double acknowledges.

However, he believes universities can become hot-beds of comic innovation and that even those who do not go on to do stand-up can learn a whole range of "transferable skills", such as speech making.

"A lot of students say it is the most amazing thing they have ever done. It is a scary thing, but those who succeed feel great," he says.

This year is his second at Kent and since last year he has separated the practical and theoretical elements of the course so students have more concentrated time for each discipline.

Double begins his lecture about working-men's clubs with some warm-up jokes and television clips of stand-ups. Then it is the serious stuff about packaged jokes.

It is his second lecture on working-men's clubs and he tells how stand-up began to get more professional with the advent of television. He plays a tape of the infamous Bernard Manning, showing how difficult it is to get the audience's attention against the background chat.

The easiest forms of entertainment are therefore things such as stripping and bingo. To wake up dozing students, Double illustrates his point with a brief bingo game. The stakes are high - a Mars bar and a Snickers. The game has everyone's attention.

Stand-up comedy, by contrast, requires people to listen and to think. To make this easier, comics often revert to packaged jokes - familiar structures that need less attention; unconnected streams of jokes you can opt in and out of; or tried and tested gags.

"The atmosphere discourages innovation," says Double. Former variety theatre comic Jimmy Jewel complained that the clubs had turned him into "a computer gag man", but others thrived.

They included Bobby Thompson, one of a generation of working-class stand-ups who were more laid back, discursive and less reliant on packaged jokes. He rose to fame in the Northeast after the second world war and was almost destroyed by television, where his material was written by script-writers. He had to rebuild his career in the 1960s on the circuit. A television clip of Thompson in his 70s doing his thing showed how this move paid off.

Students are enthusiastic about the course. "It certainly keeps your attention," says one. "Anyone who has a sense of humour would like it," says another, adding that a seminar that followed a lecture on jokes about women had led to a particularly lively debate. "It really made you think," he says. The seminars are complemented by essays with titles like "Is innuendo funny? Why?" The course has proven very popular: only 16 students should have been on it, but demand has pushed the number to 35.

Double, who admits to missing his stand-up days, says he finds it hard to keep the comic in him at bay. "In stand-up, you are acclimatised to testing how good you are by a tangible audience response. It's hard to turn that off, but I do try to lighten the tone of the lecture," he says.

Lecturing is always a bit of a performance anyway. Double manages to get the balance between performing and teaching just right so that students can see the serious side of having a laugh.

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