After my second consecutive trip to see Look and Learn’s new one-hour sketch show ‘Back to the Excellent Hot Tub Time Machine’, I am delighted to be going for drinks and a chat with the four boys, Dan Byam Shaw, Oli Johnson-Munday, Tom Dowling and Josh Dolphin, post-show.
We start with the obvious: why, with so eye-catching a title, was there such a disappointing lack of hot tub/time travel in their show? Affably, Oli volunteers the truth: “Oh, well we got our bid for the show at the eleventh hour, and the guys decided really strongly, without consulting me, that they wanted to do a time travel spoof, with a hot tub. They realised soon afterwards that this was completely unfeasible, but flyers had been printed, so we kind of had to stick with it by this stage.” This minor hiccup, however, was not allowed to bring things to a standstill: “we decided we might as well make fun of our balls up and crack on anyway.”
Quickly, we’re moving away from the surface of the sketch show itself, and into the realms of exactly how Look and Learn come up with their material. It is here that we begin to unearth the rhythms of creative interaction that underlie the magic of their comedy. They are a team who more than complement each other; they perfecteach other, with an innate sense of timing and balance of conversation that often takes years to get right – rather than the fragile two-and-a-half Oxford terms that these boys have collectively had.
So how did they even get started? “Well, Oli and I knew each other before Oxford – we were at school together and ran the Comedy Society there,” Dan informs me. “Actually, I’ve taken some stuff to the Fringe before, with the school.” In fact, all four members of Look and Learn have been hard at work earning their comedy stripes before they ever got here. “Josh and Tom came at it from a different angle,” Oli concedes, with Josh helpfully supplying, “we were actors more than anything else – we’ve done a few serious productions, and comedy just seemed like a really exciting new challenge to take on board.”
Thinking about great comic teams – The Two Ronnies, Mitchell and Webb, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley – the best often come as a pair. Yet the boys in Look and Learn have the air of two originally-separate teams who have melded together fairly organically, with a magnifying end result. It means, they tell me, that they bring different perspectives to the comedy they create, accounting for the variety in their sketch show.
The boys all agree that their personality differences made writing the show an exciting experience, with everybody contributing a different style of sketch. There is also a cheerfully candid attitude to taking parts – the writer often willingly offering the part to the more suited actor. “I never wrote the Telanovella sketch,” Oli says, of what is arguably his most impressive role. “We’re taking a vote on who gets the last stand-up slot,” Josh adds. “It’ll have to be an anonymous ballot. And nobody can vote for themselves.” Despite the sly little winks that filter around the table here, I can see they’re sincere in their commitment to each other.
And some of their sketches have been readapted to suit their new team and new audience. “The Newspaper Sketch was originally one we did at school,” Dan explains, “but we felt it worked so well in context here with student press that we just had to revise it.” Of course, their adaptability is key to their success as comedians – “we cut two sketches from the first night that just didn’t work, and we’re obviously going to have to amend the sketches that focus on Oxford to make them accessible at Edinburgh.”
At last, we’re onto the big subject – how did they end up getting to the Fringe? “Well, we all met through Dan,” Josh tells me, “and started putting stuff together. Then it was the usual route – auditioned for an Audrey, started performing regularly at the Wheatsheaf. We were lucky enough to get invited for a Revue audition, and they decided to back us – all as we were putting Back to… together. So it’s been pretty intense, but really exciting.”
Dan gives the impression of being the cerebral glue of the foursome. He tells me that “…it’s a great time to be getting involved in comedy in Oxford. Because I think it’s seeing a resurgence. I mean, the Audreys are a fairly recent phenomenon – they only started last year, but it’s an excellent platform. The audiences are enthusiastic because they get to see new comedy; and the comedians have a great space to perform original work.”
So what are they thinking, post-Edinburgh? “Well, we’re not sure,” Oli muses. “These two [Josh and Tom] will be busy with finals.” I ask about potentially pursuing comedy beyond Oxford – exploring the circuit, if you like. Josh is quick to self-deprecate: “to be honest, I’ve never thought about it before – I’m probably not good enough for that, and there’s a lot a talent in Oxford.” The others intervene laughing: “Oh, don’t worry, Josh is going to be the Robbie of the group. He’s going to leave the rest of us in the dust, go solo and take off. He’ll be on Have I Got News for You by the end of the year, living the cushy panel show dream.”
Despite all the teasing, it’s evident that there is a solidarity about the group – in spite of their individual talents, it is their work as a team that produces their most comically-exciting stuff. I’m left without a real answer about future plans; I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. “Well, we like the idea, but obviously, it’s hard to break into,” Dan hedges. “So we’re not building our hopes up. But Edinburgh will be cool.”