Comic on tour (...sort of)

Richard O. Smith on his unusual gigs

I’m probably Britain’s only stand-up comedian who mainly works mornings and early afternoons.

Tending to perform at 11am or 2pm, I never work with a microphone, perform to a wide demographic, and no one can get a drink at any of my gigs. I also dispense with the unblushingly bourgeois requirement of having a roof. Oh, and part of my job is a daily requirement to namecheck Armando Iannucci, Sally Phillips, Josie Long, Michael Palin, Stewart Lee, Terry Jones and William Makepeace Thackeray’s great-great-great-grandson (aka Al Murray…aka The Pub Landlord).

Can you guess what I do, yet?

I’m a tour guide, who delivers a stand-up history of Oxford titled the Eccentric Oxford Walking Tour that mines comedy value from the city’s lush history. Each gig covers 1,000 years of Oxford in 90 minutes (give or take the odd minute – or year).

Delivering a comedy set purely based on the limited subject of one location can be restraining – yet I’ve got about four hours of accrued material in the locker – the equivalent of four Edinburgh shows on exactly the same subject. And arch-rival Cambridge – aka Fenland Polytechnic – is a hapless perennial fall guy that takes a lot of the punch lines.

Recently I had a Cambridge graduate in the audience proudly wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the initials of her former college CCC; I asked if these were the 3 A-level grades currently required for Cambridge entry. Apparently not. Besides, does anyone know if Cambridge is still going?

Drunks are an occupational blight for many stand-ups, and the same encounters occur gigging outdoors in cerebral Oxford. Erudite hecklers abound, and only yesterday, while I was performing outside Edmund Halley’s former house, a passer-by shouted out ‘Principia Mathematica’. Only in Oxford do you get heckled in Latin.

Audiences expect from my leaflets that they’re attending a comedy show, but – and I’m guessing this is also a unique requirement for a stand-up – they also expect me to answer highly technical questions on Oxford’s architecture too; and demonstrate an ability to date absolutely everything when asked (errr.. not in a David Walliams way).

However, there is a stronger limitation capping my material: the requirement to only tell the truth – quite a restriction for any stand-up. Frequently stand-ups punctuate their set-ups with liberal sprinklings of “and this is absolutely true…”, thus inadvertently signalling to the comedy literate that the opposite may be more likely. Although I can deliver inventive jokes, these can only follow dispensed historical truths. While everyone knows they are aboard for a comedy ride, audiences wouldn’t expect me to skimp on the proper history.

Gigging outdoors in the streets provides multiple challenges; firstly, although the average boozed-up Jongleurs can provide a noisy environment, at least no one’s going to attempt to illegally ride a bike through the crowd. Oxford has produced 47 Nobel Prize winners, but Oxford’s also produced many more cyclists with no bells too (see what I did there!)

Another potentially unique requirement for a stand-up in this genre is an ability, which is occasionally needed, to switch to delivering a gagless, straight 90-minute set devoid of any comedy (well, just me and Jim Davidson, then). This happens when I unadvisedly accept private gigs with the audience not sure what they are getting.

Once I started a performance to a large crowd (in tour guide terms, anything above 20 is an impractically large audience – try conversing with that number of people in a busy city street, and see if everyone can adequately hear your material). Opening with a couple of bankers, I died like a hedgehog on the M25. Looking back, I should have deduced the problem earlier, but fully two minutes into my set, I realised the unresponsive audience couldn’t speak any English. After that, it was lots of smiles, pointing and showing a lovely Thai group the best photo locations. Eventually I discovered one guy could speak a little English, so suggested he translate – though this provided speed bumps in my comedic timing that even the strongest material could barely survive.

Most comics don’t have to police interlopers either. Curious passers-by will be attracted by the beckoning sound of laughter, and require reminding that they’re welcome to join the tour if they wish to pay, but stooping down a bit at the back doesn’t render you invisible. They need to discover this essential truth from me, before being arrested whilst stooping in netball changing rooms.

In common with other stand-ups, there’s the odd corporate gig too. A group of fastidious lawyers once booked me for corporate jolly, and sensing some Cambridge affiliations in the crowd, I didn’t spare the gags at Fenland Polytechnic’s expense, though I ensured devoted attention to helping the lawyers crossing roads, in case I was expertly sued.

One day, I may write and deliver a Stand-up History of Cambridge – and boy, will it be payback time for Oxford!

Richard O. Smith has written for several Radio 4 comedy shows including The News Quiz and The Now Show.

Published: 23 Jun 2008

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