Three Oxford students walk into a joke. The first makes a tedious observation about how privileged and behind the times everyone here is. The second cluelessly asks what the funny part was supposed to be. The third attempts to ask ‘what is comedy?’, deconstructing the original comment and starting a cloyingly pseudo-intellectual meta-debate about what subjects do and don’t constitute good comedy (a discourse which this article is about to shamelessly wade into). What, you were waiting for the punchline? This is Oxford, of course there isn’t one.
For a University that’s produced a stream of incredible comedic talents, our current population just seem, well, really, really unfunny. Like, Michael McIntyre unfunny. But why is this the case? Our primary interactions with humour in Oxford now no longer come with a trip to The Wheatsheaf to see the Imps, or to the Glee Club (better known to students as that circle of hell even Dante would have reservations about traversing, Wahoo). Instead, Oxford’s most notable student comics have become those who jump onto the bandwagon of the latest internet meme, ride it until the horse drawing it collapses, then continue to flog it long after it has ceased breathing. Take the ‘Harlem Shake’, the internet dance craze that saw groups of morons flail around in silly costumes to after the drop hit in the song of the same name by the American house producer, Bauuer. Oxford students waded in with, aside from an inventive take on the meme by those at St Catz, a series of increasingly tedious videos, seeing the same old dickheads don the same old masks and subfusc (“cos we go to Oxford, geddit?”) to bust out the same old moves, and even, in the case of St Hilda’s, get their librarian the sack. Even long after everyone had pushed Harlem Shake to the back of their minds as an unpleasant dream, the ever forward-looking Mertonians decided to make their contribution, with the participants continuing to study rather than break into dance at the video’s midpoint.
Whilst this subversion will perhaps raise a wry smile, what more often happens when Oxonians attempt to play upon the stereotypes surrounding them, is for it to come across as an incredibly smug “no one likes us, we don’t care” attitude. Take, for example, the recently founded ‘Things Oxford Students Don’t Say’, includes such gems as “I’ve never been travelling. Not even to Thailand” and “You got a B at GCSE? Not bad”. You may as well just add in “Yes, we are all belMalends.” That isn’t to say that this sort of humour can’t work. Take Matt Lacey’s 2009 sketch ‘Gap Yah’, which saw his creation, Orlando, relaying his travels to Peru, Tanzania and Burma, all of which see him chundering everywhere, a funny video in which the butt of the joke is clear to see. But this sort of well thought-out and witty commentary isn’t what you get from Oxford online humour in 2013. Instead we get freshers posting every inane little thought that comes into their head. Perhaps one of the few accurate additions to the ‘Things Oxford Students Don’t Say’ is that “Joe Miles is a great addition to the Overheard at Oxford group”, noting the perennial poster on the ‘OaOU’ page who’s managed to achieve university-wide notoriety for documenting the hilarious things that you could only ever hear amongst the spires. It’s perhaps unfair to single out Mr Miles, but in general, it seems unlikely that we’ll be seeing any of the prolific contributors to these groups joining the echelons of Oxford’s great comedic alumni any time soon.
The roll call of the funny-men and –women to make their first forays into the world of comedy at Oxford over the last 40 years or so is a who’s who of Britain’s finest joketellers. The legendary casts of Monty Python and Blackadder both count alumni amongst their ranks (Michael Palin and Rowan Atkinson respectively), one of the finest (and most criminally underrated) double-acts of the ‘90s, Richard Herring and Stewart Lee, both attended (with their contemporaries Boris Johnson and David Cameron supplying them with plenty of ammunition), whilst Armando Iannucci and Rebecca Front, writer and star of the best British sitcom of recent times, The Thick of It were also students. It’s not surprising that Oxford’s produced so many great comics. Notionally filled with the country’s cleverest young people, the university seeks to cultivate the intelligence and critical thought that truly great comedy requires. Stewart Lee’s deconstructing of comedy, not only forms an integral, and hilarious, part of his act, but also displays a focus and appreciation of his craft, detailed in his wonderful book, How I Escaped by Certain Fate – The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian. Similarly, Al Murray, a Teddy Hall alum’s ‘The Pub Landlord’ character, is a tremendously smart construction, sending up the prejudices of the little-Englander with an irony that seemed tragically lost on a primetime audience that took his stereotyped small-mindedness at face value. But moreover, as ‘Overheard at Oxford University’ demonstrates, both through its posters and the content of their musings, is that this place is filled with ridiculous individuals, prime targets for sending-up. The cast of Machiavellian hacks, journalists with ideas above their station, and Blues and BNOCs are easy comic fodder, especially when articulated to a wider audience and it being obvious just who the joke is on: Lee’s ‘Comedy Vehicle’ on his aspirations to join Cameron’s Buller inner-sanctum during his undergrad days is a perfect example of this, targeting both those who embody and those who buy into the stereotype.
Maybe all of this is taking things a bit too seriously. After all, isn’t it just a bit of a laugh? And true, we’ve all whiled away the hours on ‘Essay Crisis’ as a means of procrastination, with many of the .gif-entries being genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. But when you consider the cast of British Comedy Award and BAFTA-winners who’ve passed Oxford, and their incredible collective body of work, physicists dancing the Harlem Shake and sharing the hilarious toff snobbery you heard in the smoking area at Camera just seems to be falling a bit short. Maybe they’ll mature and go on to produce the next wave of great British comics. At the moment though, I’m not holding out much hope.