In Conversation with Comedian and Oxford Grad Ivo Graham

Stage

‘Every bit of this is of enormous nostalgia for me’ Ivo Graham says. ‘At Oxford I read the OxStu, and I applied with my friend and roommate Matt to be music editors…we didn’t get it and we carried that bitterness with us.’ I assure him that since the OxStu let me loose on the music section last term their recruitment must have taken a serious turn for the worse since his day. ‘That’s very tactful of you to say. We wanted those gig tickets, I know you can get those just by doing the reviews but we wanted the prestige and control over the layout. But our application was poor, so we had only ourselves to blame.’ I’m amused by the idea that there might be prestige to editing a student paper, but I have no intention of dissuading anyone of that misguided belief.

I ask about his time at University College, where he studied French and Russian, to which I express the typical ‘wow!’ that anyone brave enough to study Russian is met with, which he offsets half-modestly half-cynically. ‘Well y’know, it was a degree, and I enjoyed it…but if I’m being very cynical it was, though this wasn’t entirely why I applied for it, as well as a fun niche thing to do it was almost an easier way of getting in, because it’s not so widely applied for and very few colleges do it.’ A bit taken aback by this level of candid honesty I ask more about Ivo’s Russian degree.

‘The problem was we were quite well taught at A Level, and we had a very laid back tutor who trusted us to do our own work, which most of the rest did. I think because I’d got a good grounding in Russian from my A Level it meant I slacked off in the first term, I could coast a bit, and then never got that work ethic back. I scraped a 2.1 but it was not a proud 2.1, so that’s the first of my many regrets about my degree and everything that’s gone since! The tutor was a guy called Dr Michael Nicholson, who’s long since retired, he retired in my last year, also the Dean. He was this incredibly wise man who’d lived in Russia and knew the Solzhenitsyns and had all these real connections to the literature and culture we were studying. He was brilliant, he’d get the vodka out at the termly dinner and sing us Russian songs.’

I loved being at university, I miss Oxford pathologically..

Feeling slightly cheated that English subject dinners never involve vodka or Russian songs, I wonder whether Ivo Graham has any thoughts on Russia’s famously impenetrable sense of humour.

‘Well, yes I didn’t penetrate it, I didn’t try hard enough. I loved the pithy humour of certain Russian authors, the lightly dark surrealist stuff in Gogol for example, Gogol’s one of the big lolz he was one of the authors I specialised in. And then there’s obviously the much sadder wry humour of Chekhov etc. But in terms of actually making any inroads towards being funny in Russian or making Russian people laugh on my own year abroad I had very little luck. That’s partly because I didn’t spend enough time there I did most of my year abroad in Paris and improved my French, which was already better, thus widening the gulf between my two languages rather than closing! I think that I appreciated the sort of blank humour of Russian literature and I guess, the Russian psyche but no more so because I did stand-up comedy than just your average dedicated student, I don’t think the two really helped each other out.

In a lot of shows you talk a lot slightly apologetically about coming from Eton and Oxford. Does that background only provide an endless stream of comedic material or is it formative in other ways?

Well Eton prepares you for anything, it’s the ‘ultimate life training’, and I’m very keen to stress at all times that I am very grateful to have gone there and then to Oxford (it’s easy to pretend Oxford was a slightly more meritocratic thing on account of the self-won grades but Eton to Oxford is still something of a conveyor belt). I got a lot out of it, but I didn’t have the best time at school and I think the fact that I wanted to try comedy when I got to Oxford was in part the result of having felt a bit invisible at Eton, and then you get to university and you’ve got that pathetic desire to make something of yourself in a new place.

I think going to Eton gave me a good education which I’m very grateful for, qualifications that I may yet fall back on should comedy turn to nothing, it gave me some friends that I’m still in touch with, but I think mostly it gave me the impetus to try comedy because of not enjoying school that much. Whereas I loved being at university, I miss Oxford pathologically. Doing comedy at uni and just having fun at uni intertwined themselves quite nicely and a lot of the same new friends that I was making at college were the ones that were coming to my gigs and supporting me, helping me run my own nights and are the friends I still know best today.

I read my sketches in front of the Oxford Revue, which were so excruciatingly bad that it’s still one of my most vivid anxiety memories of Oxford…

Did you do the Imps or Oxford Revue or was it always stand-up?

No, I was never in the Revue. One of my early gigs, probably gigs four or five, were guest spots in the Revue. As I’m sure they still do they put on nights a bit more in the style of a Cambridge Footlights smoker, where Revue members old and new would do their sketches along with the odd guest. A guy called Jack Bernhardt who was in the Revue (who now writes lots for the Guardian and Radio 4) gave me a stand-up spot, and that went well which was nice, or sort of well for a newbie it was probably dreadful but ‘good enough’. Then off the back of that they said ‘if you’d like to try writing some sketches then come and audition them’, so I did that and I read my sketches in front of the Oxford Revue, which were so excruciatingly bad that it’s still one of my most vivid anxiety memories of Oxford. Afterwards Jack very tactfully said to me afterwards ‘we’d love to have you back to do some more stand-up’.

I did the Imps in my last year. It was a bit weird because most people went the other way round, they did something like the Imps or Revue and then tried stand-up. Lots of people who are really well known in UK comedy now have come from that sort path like Rachel Parris, but I’d done some stand-up for three years and was now going into improv, which was much more intimidating and I was not terrifically good at it, but it ticked off another experience. It was my sort of ‘I’m leaving soon let’s do something else roll of the dice’ and it was a lot of fun.

Did you go straight into comedy after university?

I’ve never done a proper 9-5 to my great shame. I started comedy in my first term at Oxford and did it pretty much all the way through slightly to the detriment of my degree, except on my year abroad which was a failure. So I’d done a couple of fringes by the time I left, and I’d got an agent so they were able to be lining up gigs for me pretty much from when I graduated, which was an incredibly lucky position to be in. It was really just a testament to, to an extent I guess to me having put the work in and having a bit of talent, but basically just to having started comedy in my first term and having had a four year runup at it. But the first year or two out I wasn’t getting enough gigs or enough work and so I was doing a little bit of temping little bit of tutoring and it’s really only been the last probably four or five years that it’s been fulltime.

What’s made you laugh most this week?

It’s early in the week of course, only a few days in. I don’t know, I don’t want to make my week sound too depressing but nothing springs to mind, nothing hugely heavy-duty funny. I did a charity gig on Monday (throwing in a very self-serving piece of context there) no fee but we got given a box of chocolates from Hotel Chocolat, no less. And a bunch of the comics, myself included, played a game of chocolate battleships where we were trying to guess where the chocolates were from the other side of each other’s boxes. I don’t know whether that sounds interesting or completely tedious from where you’re sitting but it was a good time, it was a simple time. There was a forfeit where you had to eat a certain amount of chocolates before going onstage so, y’know, we were playing fast and loose with professionalism. That’s been the high point of the week so far.

Who are your big influences?

Probably the big one was Simon Amstell, in terms of content he’s somebody that I would undeniably want to aspire to in terms of how honest his work is. I really started on the Simon Amstell journey because I was obsessed with Never Mind the Buzzcocks as a teenager when he was at the helm. I remember my second week at Oxford getting cross with people in the JCR for making too much noise when I wanted to watch Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which is one of those really dated memories, the thought of rallying a common room to watch something on TV in 2019 just feels so outdated.

I loved him on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and then he did a stand-up tour, and I went along as a Buzzcocks fan and was met with all this incredibly self-effacing material about his insecurities. It was a bit of a gearchange, and very exciting to see how someone who could be so sarcastic to a member of The Kooks could also be living such an existential crisis, to see those two sides of the same personality coin. I’ve always followed his work, he’s done a sitcom which I love and a documentary about veganism which I haven’t watched because I’m too scared of how it will make me feel. But I think he’s great, and he was probably the main influence when I started.

There were lots of other people who I loved who perhaps don’t draw as direct a line between myself and them as I do with Simon Amstell. I will always seek out Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran. Bill Bailey’s stand-up and his musical comedy is just so inventive. There’s an American called Maria Bamford who is amazing and does all these voices and psyches, I think she’s fantastic. And then increasingly it’s my peers, it’s James Acaster or Meg Martin who are just really interesting constructors of one hour shows, anything that’s got a good narrative and a good bit of honesty.

Truth be told, I can smash it anywhere, and I can die on my arse anywhere…

On the subject of shows, your current show is called Motion Sickness, and it’s coming to Oxford in March. Could you tell me a bit about it?

Yes, it’s the hoariest of old clichés it’s about growing up and sort of facing up to that even though it can be quite scary. My girlfriend and I are engaged and we’re having a baby, thank you very much, out of wedlock, very much to the disconcertion of our extended families. It’s not a totally unusual age to be doing those things but it’s a bit ahead of the curve of most of my friends, particularly in comedy where I think most people grow up a bit later. It’s something that I’ve not found totally easy to get my head around mentally and the show is broadly about that whilst hopefully still being quite fun and inane.

It’s a slightly more introspective sort of wander through being afraid to move into the next stage of your life, when you’re still slightly enslaved to the idea of going back to Oxford and editing the OxStu music section. Those were the days!

At the moment the show’s in this weird limbo. I wrote it last year when we were thinking about trying for a baby, we then succeeded very quickly which is lovely but from a show perspective very complicated. So in Edinburgh I was doing a show about wondering about having a baby whilst knowing, but not yet telling anyone, that I was going to have a baby, and by March this year it’s going to be a show about wondering whether I’m going to have a baby when I’ve already had one. All going well I’m going to be a dad in a few weeks so the show’s going to undergo a little bit of a rewrite to accommodate all of this quite rapid life progression. At the very least it’ll be an interesting insight into someone attempting to inhabit a lot of different stages of his mental state all within one show.

As you go around the country do you ever find that some jokes work better in some places than others. Have you noticed any patterns?

Truth be told, I can smash it anywhere, and I can die on my arse anywhere, it’s not an exact science at all. I like being in London partly because I’m lazy and travelling to it is easy, and partly because you get quite a broad audience that isn’t defined by any one identity which I think is nice.

I’m trying to think of a way of saying this without sounding rude…I think that certain places, the home counties, Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, my hoods, are areas where I feel very safe with my funny accent and boarding school background, largely amongst friends. But equally those places can often feel almost too cosy. Gigs in places that have a bit more of an innate identity, Manchester or Liverpool for example, are now the ones I enjoy the most, though when I started out they were the most intimidating. Because when they go well you’ve ingratiated yourself as an outsider, but in an interesting way, and been accepted, and that feels like far more of a victory in the connection with the audience than just making jokes about Waitrose to the citizens of Chipping Norton.

I guess I just figured more people at the Birmingham Glee Club would have heard of Homer than Virgil…

In a few of your gigs you talk about how school gave you a valuable ability to translate Homer, how do you feel about translating Virgil?

Absolutely no problems with translating Virgil at all. I think I had to make a decision fairly early on what the best intersection of a niche classical reference but still a largely relatable one was, and I guess I just figured more people at the Birmingham Glee Club would have heard of Homer than Virgil. Really I was much more of a Latin student than Greek, I’ve almost certainly spent much more of my life translating Virgil than Homer, so the whole act is a lie!

We discuss the rise of Netflix, and the ‘Netflix Special’ that is becoming holy grail of comedy limelight. ‘The truth is that you don’t really have to be in hoc to anyone anymore’ Graham says. ‘If you’ve got a brilliant idea you can sell then that’s increasingly the way people are getting ahead, I’m just not very good at that guerrilla approach. I need to do more Instagram I need to do more vlogs, I need to be creating more content all of the time I just find it all so exhausting.

In comedy you can be on the circuit without touring under your own name, which is quite a comforting existence where you just do ten, twenty minutes per place and get a fee regardless of how many people turn up. That’s what I do most of the year and that’s what most comics do. It was one of the things that I had no idea about when I started and really amazed me, the number of comics who are earning in some cases a decent living without ever being close to a household name. It’s through a mixture of vanity and a desire to build a fanbase that people want to get off the circuit. But it’s also a chance to form a full hour piece rather than just twenty minutes. And of course because it’s your show people turn up then you keep all that money, but then occasionally you’ll go somewhere very remote and not a lot of people will come and then financially you’d have been better off just being a small cog in a more established comedy night, so it’s quite a fine balance to strike.

My last question for Ivo Graham is one that I asked expecting a well-worn, pre-packaged answer, which I was rather charmed to learn he didn’t have. Perhaps not the funniest thing to have happened on stage but certainly one of the most bizarre apparently occurred a few days ago in London. ‘There’s a bit in the show about losing my virginity to someone called Barbara, and how that’s just not an appropriate name to lose one’s virginity to, and though I pride myself it’s a funny bit there was a couple on the front row who laughed too much, so I said to the woman ‘are you called Barbara?’ and she said ‘no, but my sister is’, so I asked what her sister did, and she and her husband said ‘she’s dead’, and laughed so much it was the most astonishing thing, because everyone in the audience was laughing because they were laughing at it. I felt that as long as they were laughing it was fine, but to be honest I really didn’t know where to take the gig from there, so it was a wobbly last couple of minutes as I tried to navigate the various areas of bereavement in front of this couple. I want to believe it was in some way that cathartic experience people speak about very pretentiously with comedy, where people learn to laugh at things that are very distressing, but who knows.

Ivo Graham’s show Motion Sickness is coming to the North Wall Arts Centre on 8th March.

Image Credit: Matt Stronge