Further education for comedians...

Sarah Slack's dos and don'ts of university gigs

Professional comedy nights are as much a part of the student entertainment circuit as big-name DJs and booze-sponsored balls. As a recent graduate, I saw a lot of shows at my local theatre in Colchester, but repeated visits led to me accumulating a list of grievances with the acts performing.

Attending stand-up gigs outside university demonstrated further that when it comes to student crowds, there are some simple rules that comedians ought to recognise. So with the hopes of providing some enlightenment on student crowds, here are my tips for acts heading for uni gigs.

DO go onto the university’s campus and research for gags.

This is a staple technique used by comedians on tours of universities, but only a few who I’ve seen have done it properly, with most performers often making simple mistakes.

Students are always going to be interested in what comedians think of our campus, not just because they predict it will be funny, but because most universities have areas, such as dodgy restaurants, legendary occupants or a certain bizarre layouts that we want to see ridiculed.

A lot of comedians sensibly choose to perform their observations at the beginning of their set, as it helps forge a relationship with the audience by introducing familiar ground. However, do pay attention to the minute details, as even talking about the South Court rather than the South Courts in making jokes about accommodation halls will make the audience want to correct you rather than laugh. You’ll also feel like a tit when someone tells you afterwards.

However, DON’T be obvious in your observations.

If I were to tell you that I graduated at the University of Essex, what would you automatically think? TOWIE? Bleach-blonde girls with their knickers round their ankles on a Friday night? Yeah, well so has every other comedian who has visited, so try to bring some originality if you want to pull off observational gags successfully. And most people who study at Essex aren’t from there, anyway.

Jokes based on your own perceptions are usually the best way to do this, so for example at one gig I went to, a joke about how our library looks like an unfinished game of Jenga (Google Albert Sloman Library for the proof) went down a lot better than someone merely mentioning there’s a town nearby called Fingringhoe. This is because with the first joke, you are bringing to the gig an observation that not every comedian will make, but with the latter, us students discovered Fingringhoe in our Freshers’ week, we laughed, and within a week we got over it.

DO realise that there’s a fine line between making a funny observation and mocking the university and its residents.

Yes, Essex and education, what a juxtaposition you’ll say, but we’ve paid money to come and see you perform, money we consistently lack because of the continuous increase in tuition fees. Mocking an educational institution which the audience has chosen to attend will only annoy them, making your 15-20 minute set go a lot slower, and in some minor cases will lead to an onslaught of Snakebite being thrown at you (and at only £2 a pint it’s not a big deal).

DON’T expect good heckles.

Snakebite is strong. So strong that commonly it affects the wit of what originally was going to be an absolute belter of a heckle, but what has come out as a series of unintelligible blurbs. We like a drink (didn’t you at university?), so asking whether we do is like shooting fish in a barrel. But not everyone in the audience will be drinking, so if you do get a heckle, chances are it will be largely from an intoxicated and ridiculously cocky student, either sitting in the front row or at the back so you can’t see them (and nine times out of 10, they’re usually Freshers). In this situation:

DO lampoon student hecklers.

With the public humiliation of student hecklers, you cannot lose. Why? Because often the audience wants this to happen as much as you do. So while you are formulating this amazing punchline, remember, we are all behind you. If you feel really guilty, don’t; the target of your putdown might not even remember it in the morning. But I bet you their friends will.

And my final point, DON’T assume it’s an ‘easy’ gig.

I find that those most likely to under-perform at a student gig are the MCs, who just assume their job is to talk to people in the front row and get us shouting for each act, which they perceive as an easy task because in their minds we’re all drunk.

Student crowds however are no different from a crowd at the Comedy Store: if we’re bored we’re bored and if you’re rubbish we’ll heckle. A gig can especially backfire if the main act thinks it’s an easy gig too, because it’s their face on the poster, or name in a slightly bigger writing. Due to this extra promotion we, like any other audience, expect more and are more likely to be critical of their act if it’s lacklustre.

So in short, comedians of the British circuit who tour universities, know your boundaries when it comes to observational jokes on the location, wholeheartedly tackle student hecklers, and don’t underestimate a student crowd. If all goes well, we might actually buy you a drink afterwards (although it’s unlikely at £9,000 tuition fees a year, but you never know).

Published: 1 Oct 2012

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.