Behind the Scenes: Fears of a Clown

News

The OxStu Culture Team meet budding stand-up and nervy finalist Ivo Graham.

There’s an audible pause when I ask Ivo Graham to tell me about his upcoming solo stand-up show: he stares at his feet and sways a little from side to side, displaying an awkward inarticulacy that I hadn’t expected from the So You Think You’re Funny? winner and self-proclaimed ‘best semi-professional comedian at University College.’ It doesn’t bode well for 7th week, when he will have to talk constantly for an aggregate total of 300 minutes in an attempt to entertain the famously impatient audiences that frequent the Burton Taylor Studio. I start to suspect that the title of the show, ‘A Degree of Uncertainty’, is actually grimly appropriate, even though he insists that it was only suggested by his friend Jack as a last-minute ‘quick fix’ mere minutes before the BT submission deadline. “Jack said that everyone likes a good pun,” Graham mutters to himself, in the tone of a man who has lost all faith in the project. “He said it always helps attract girls. But I’ve read Morice’s Dictionary of Wordplay, and I haven’t got with anyone since the second week of Hilary.”

I decide to try a different tack, and ask him about his first ever stand up comedy performance. “February 2004!” he exclaims, with a manic glint in his eye. “Malvolio’s ‘yellow stockings’ speech, from Twelfth Night’.” I chuckle, but it quickly becomes clear that this wasn’t intended as a joke. Surely a Shakespearean monologue doesn’t count as stand-up comedy? “I think the Bard would probably take offence at that,” he replies indignantly. “And I’ll have you know it won my school’s Junior Declamation Prize. I’m thinking of reviving it as a possible encore for the show. Or something from Henry V. Anything for a bit of credit with the thesps.” But what about the first proper gig? “That was at the Comma Club in Michaelmas 2008, my first term, above what’s now the TSK. They used to run a monthly comedy night, though it closed down shortly after my first performance. A coincidence, I think. Then the Oxford Revue kindly gave me a guest spot in their show at the Wheatsheaf, and by the end of the year I was doing regular unpaid support slots at the Cellar and my essays had slipped to 2:2 standard.”

This is an interesting, if awkward, point, and one that’s probably relevant to many an Oxford student. Is there a direct inverse correlation between extra-curricular commitment and academic performance? Graham pauses again. “I don’t think so. I hope not. I mean, I did a lot better in my exams at school, back when even my closest friends wouldn’t let me get to the end of an anecdote. And I haven’t spent as much time on my degree as I should have. I still love French and Russian literature, but it’s difficult to give 100 percent attention to a Monday morning Socialist Realism tute when you’re performing at the Lancaster University Student Union on a Saturday night. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to wade through Feodor Gladkov’s How The Steel Was Tempered on a 4-hour Megabus journey, but it’s not much of a laugh.”

That’s the impasse Graham seems to find himself in now – having dedicated a large amount of the last four years to doing stand-up, and possibly having failed to pull himself together in time to scrape a decent mark in Finals (How The Steel Was Tempered was actually written by Nikolai Ostrovsky, though I judge it best not to mention this to him the day after his period paper), is he drifting into this vain and risky profession purely out of lack of alternative? “That’s a bit much,” he says, over-defensively. “It has its perks. I’ve performed to six people at the Christchurch Ball, done two full runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, and even won an all-expenses paid trip to the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal. I had an ice cream with Jimmy Carr. He said he’d get in touch about an ‘8 Out Of 10 Cats’ audition when we were back in the UK, but I think he lost my number.”

Is there any hope for the future? Stand-up as a legitimate ‘art form’ has boomed following the success of the likes of Michael McIntyre, though Graham’s inspirations are clearly nerdier and more left field – having nicked, for one, the entire idea for this self-indulgent ‘fake interview’ from a much funnier piece by Stewart Lee in the Guardian in 2009. “There are more opportunities for young comics than ever, but the competition is pretty intense,” he concludes. “That’s why I wanted to do this BT run – to say goodbye to university and student comedy with a massively overambitious ‘farewell’ show to prove to people that I know what I’m doing. If anyone comes, that is.”