Comedy is an often under-appreciated art form that has a thriving presence in Oxford, both through regular entertainers who come to perform here and through the diverse wealth of comedy talent in the students of the University. But what lies behind the mask of comedy and the comedian? We interviewed Olly Jackon, a 3rd year Classicist at St Hilda’s, to find out. Olly has been performing sketch comedy since his first term at university and started doing stand up last year. He is currently part of a sketch group called Three Men in a Boot, whose show, ‘A Sketchy History’, is going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and is as passionate about getting others into all types of comedy as he is about comedy itself.
When did you first know you wanted to get involved with comedy?
When I was 16. I was binge-watching loads of Mitchell & Webb DVDs at the time and basically decided I wanted to become David Mitchell, with or without his consent. So on a school trip in Tunisia, a friend and I wrote a short comedy sketch about a Tunisian tour guide. It was definitively shit. But I’d got the buzz, so carried on.
What’s the most daunting aspect of comedy to you?
The crushing, never-ending fear that I’m not funny. That’s fairly daunting. But it is a serious fear I think a lot of comics go through, especially when writing. Because if you’re writing a script you’re in a room, on your own, and you have no way of verifying whether the words you’ve written will actually make people laugh. I mean, you can open your window and shout at strangers on the street, but I live opposite a Catholic Church and they never seem in the mood for sketches that posit God as a camp and ineffectual builder of the universe. So one of the reasons I love writing with other people, even though you lose some creative control, is that you gain validation for your work as at least your writing partner finds you funny! Plus, doing comedy in a team/partnership is so much more fun. Some of my happiest times last term were either at sketch rehearsals or coming up with new ideas I wanted to write with my other writing partner.
What’s the best joke you’ve ever told?
I once told someone I had a small ego and low self-esteem. They laughed.
… and what’s the worst?
Oh that’s a much easier question! In my first sketch-show in Oxford, I did a 15 second sketch which was as follows: “And tension and drama next, here on Radio Four, as the plot thickens in…The Allotment Mysteries”. Yeah. We did that five nights in a row and it only got a laugh the night my mother came. She told me afterwards she only laughed “to be nice”.
What makes improv comedy so unique?
Improv is fantastic. It’s so unlike all other comedy because there’s no pretence or ‘performance’. You and the audience are really in it together. If you mess up or start laughing from the situation it doesn’t detract from the show, because the audience are sort of expecting it to be awful anyway: you’ve just promised to make a funny sketch about a spatula for crying out loud! I am in complete awe of the good improvisers in the world, and that’s the main aspect of comedy I wish I did better.
Do you think you have to be a certain type of person in order to get up on stage and try to make people laugh?
I think on some level you have to believe you are funny, otherwise you’d catch yourself moments before going on stage wondering “Why the hell do these people care about the time I got locked in a toilet in France. This is highly personal information. What am I doing with my life?!” However, you do have to have a lot more self-confidence to do stand-up. With sketches, you can always pretend that you’re doing it for ‘the drama’; that, in some way, three men dressed in togas made from mum’s bed-sheets doing silly voices is just a piece of ‘theatre’. Which it isn’t. Ever. But you don’t have the luxury of that self-delusion in stand up.
Is comedy more about the comedian or the audience?
In live comedy, definitely both. Put Eddie Izzard in front of an audience of earnest hedge-fund managers and he will look awful. Every comic feeds off the audience; they tell you how long you’re allowed to hold a pause for, or how far you can push a joke.
What do you think about jokes that have been termed ‘risqué’? (eg comedians like Frankie Boyle)
In my opinion, there is no subject matter that you should not joke about, but it does all depend on what the joke is. You have to know what your joke is laughing at, when you write it. To give you an example: we wrote a sketch for A Sketchy History in which we imagined that a disabled man had been hired to work as a runner between the trenches in the First World War, as part of an equal-opportunities work-experience scheme, but that the captain in charge of the trench was unaware of his disability. So we had the captain shouting about how dreadful his new runner was, his aide-de-camp all the time attempting to explain that it wasn’t the runner’s fault, but never able to get a word in. Eventually, the runner rolls onto stage and the captain doesn’t know how to deal with it. His entire manner shifts from angry to awkwardly over-polite and simpering, even ordering in champagne for the bemused runner. Now, we wrote that sketch in order to mock the way some people still treat disability; the sort of people who treat the disabled as some kind of different species, who must be constantly deferred to, so as not to be seen causing offence – because, you can’t shout at a disabled person, right? Well, of course you can. Those people who view disability like that are inherently funny, because they look so pathetic. However, a sketch with that same premise could have been written in a very different way; where the butt of the joke was the runner and how incompetent he was at his job, due to his disability. But not only would that sort of sketch not have been funny, but it would also have been offensive. It’s not the subject matter of the joke which is important, it’s who the joke is laughing at.
Who is your favourite comedian, and why?
There are so many funny people in the world that I love! Izzard is my favourite stand-up, but I’ve just started adoring James Acaster too. For sketch comedy Mitchell & Webb are always golden, and they are my biggest inspiration. Tom Basden writes incredible comedy, but then John Finnemore, god of all things funny, exists. But if you put a gun to my head, and told me I had to pick one, then I’d probably call the police and you’d never get your answer. So don’t do that.