Creating an archive just for a giggle

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Oliver Double, senior lecturer and head of drama at the University of Kent in the UK, describes the foundation of the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive

Stand-up comedy is an intensely live experience. In a play, the actors represent events from another time and place, but a stand-up show is firmly rooted in the here and now. The comedian looks directly at you and talks to you as if it’s an actual conversation. Unlike straight theatre, the audience take an active role, giving the show its rhythm by laughing and clapping. They can also destroy the show by heckling – or just remaining devastatingly silent. This makes performing stand-up a nerve-racking experience, because the stakes are high. If the show goes well, the experience of making a roomful of strangers laugh brings on a heady feeling of elation and affirmation. On the other hand, if it goes badly, you get a blow to the ego which can leave its mark for days afterwards. This makes the audience powerful, but stand-up can be scary for them too. In comedy clubs with unreserved seating, it often fills up from the back. Nobody wants to sit near the stage in case the comic picks on them.

I’ve seen this from both sides, having been a professional comedian myself and having enjoyed watching many stand-up shows as an ordinary punter. I now work as a lecturer at the University of Kent, and I’ve done extensive academic research into the art of stand-up, including writing two books on the subject. For me, the intense 'liveness' is part of what attracts me to stand-up. Even if material is repeated word for word, night after night, the fact that the audience’s response is never the same twice means that every show is different. More than this, stand-up always carries with it the possibility that the unexpected might happen. There might be a particularly funny heckle or the comedian might go off-script in an improvised comic rant. I have even seen shows where the stand-up has got the entire audience to hide, or taken a punter’s inappropriate response as a cue to lead the audience in an extraordinarily tasteless song which has been whipped up in the heat of the moment.

What’s frustrating is that once that moment is over, it’s gone forever. Being rooted in the here and now makes stand-up comedy ephemeral and hard to hold on to. We have an idea of what was going on in straight theatre hundreds or even thousands of years ago, because we can read the scripts of the plays that were performed. Stand-up comedy, on the other hand, always risks disappearing without trace.

It’s for this reason that we have established the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive at the University of Kent. Our aim is to collect whatever might be left behind once the show is over. This might include posters, flyers, publicity shots, bits of costume, scripts, set lists or post-it notes with ideas for gags hastily scribbled on. It might also include recordings of performance.

Paradoxically, for an intensely live form, stand-up works surprisingly well in recordings. Audio recordings of live stand-up performances have been made since the 1930s, by broadcasters and by commercial companies who make comedy records on formats varying across the decades from shellac 78rpm discs to digital downloads. Similarly, stand-up has appeared on TV since its earliest days, and stand-up DVDs are bestselling items, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. The problem is that it’s usually only the more established acts in the bigger venues who get recorded. The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive has started to collect the private, unpublished recordings that comedians make for themselves. These are fascinating to listen to, because they allow us to hear unvarnished, warts-and-all performances in tiny little venues. Every ad lib, every failed gag, every once-only bit of improvised brilliance is preserved.

The idea for the archive was hatched when Warren Lakin donated the personal archive of his partner, the late Linda Smith, to the university. Linda was a brilliant comedian, who combined a friendly and down-to-earth demeanour with a razor-sharp wit used in the service of comically eviscerating politicians and hypocrites from all walks of life. You might have seen her on Room 101 or early episodes of QI, but she was particularly beloved of the Radio 4 audience for her regular appearances on The News Quiz, and her own series A Brief History of Timewasting. The archive she left behind when she died in 2006 is a real treasure trove. A series of plastic crates holds anything from off-air recordings to radio scripts, from contracts to audio cassettes, from childhood diaries to a book that she used to use as a prop, entitled For Men Against Sexism.

Having received such a great resource, my colleague Nick Hiley, who’s in charge of special collections at the university library suggested we should use this as the basis of a new national archive of stand-up comedy. This would sit nicely alongside the British Cartoon Archive, which was established at Kent over 40 years ago. I liked the idea of the archive, but I wasn’t sure how comedians would react to it because they can be very protective of their work. My fear was that we could set up an archive, but nobody would want to donate to it. I suggested that I should sound out a couple of comics about it before we took the idea any further.

The first person I asked was Mark Thomas, the amazing political comedian whose solo shows delight critics and audiences but sometimes leave politicians a bit pissed off. Not only did he instantly agree to donate, within a few weeks he had come along in person to the university to bring two massive rucksacks full of material for the archive. This included some of the props and costumes he has used in his campaigning stunts – like a high-vis jacket with ‘trainee shoplifter’ emblazoned across the back – but also letters and legal documents which provide evidence of just how much he has unsettled those in power with his comedy.

We have also had donations from Tony Allen, a seminal figure in the early alternative comedy scene. Among these is an audio recording of his first-ever stand-up gig, which he did over a month before the Comedy Store opened in 1979. Listening to this for the first time was an incredibly exciting experience for me, not least because it’s a really funny performance. You hear a complete novice getting laugh after laugh with material that seriously challenged prevailing ideas and more, at a time when most comedians just reeled off unoriginal racist gags and mother-in-law jokes. I’d argue that what we have on this battered old cassette is a record of a pivotal moment in the history of British comedy.

The University of Kent is celebrating its 50th birthday this year by funding a series of beacon projects that celebrate its past and build for the future. The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive is now being funded under this scheme, and this has opened up all kinds of exciting possibilities. The first thing is that we have appointed an archivist, Elspeth Millar, and a digitisation assistant, Errin Hussey. In the last month or so, they have been working their way through the material we have so far, starting to catalogue what’s there and digitise it to make it more accessible to anybody who might want to use it. I’ve got some third-year drama students on a stand-up comedy module who will be using some of the digitised unpublished recordings in their research.

In addition to this, we’re also running a series of in-conversation events with comedians like Alexei Sayle and Richard Herring, and in May, Mark Thomas will be giving the inaugural Linda Smith lecture, which will become an annual event. Mark is a particularly fitting choice, because he knew and worked with Linda, and is now represented by Warren.

For the present, the archive is still very much in its infancy. We have a lot of material from a fairly limited number of sources. However, many comedians have offered to loan or donate material and Elspeth is currently chasing them up, hoping to turn vague promises into concrete donations. Our hope is that over the next few years, the archive will grow and thrive into a rich collection which will inform the work of students and academic researchers. Despite its popularity, stand-up comedy is often looked down on as mere entertainment. By preserving the materials that are donated to us, we hope to recognise stand-up comedy as the exciting, innovative, and intensely live art form that it really is.

Oliver Double is a Senior Lecturer in Drama and Deputy Head of the School of Arts at the University of Kent. But in a former life he was a stand-up on the national comedy circuit ('Delightful' -The Guardian), a member of Red Grape Cabaret ('Whoever it was that wrote off alternative comedy, they forgot to tell Red Grape Cabaret' -William Cook, The Guardian), and used to run the Last Laugh, Sheffield's longest running comedy club