Thursday, 22 November 2012

Are Britain’s university-educated comedians ready to stop pretending they’re really uneducated proles?

I would never have guessed that Al Murray (aka The Pub Landlord) was an Oxford man (Modern History, St Edmund Hall, to be precise). Or that Dara O’Briain studied mathematics and theoretical physics at University College, Dublin. Or that Ben Miller has a PhD in quantum physics from Cambridge (actually, that I can believe.) Well, all of them have now freely confessed that – horror! – they benefitted from the most elite of elitist educations!

Makes a nice change from the dark days when David Badiel (Kings, Cambridge), Frank Skinner (Warwick – MA in English Literature) and Ben Elton (Manchester – he’s a nephew of the distinguished historian Sir G. R. Elton, don't you know) all pretended they were football-mad geezers who asked for nothing more than to ‘ang arahnd dahn ve pahb wiv veir mites drinkin' light 'n bitter in a stroight glass 'n talkin’ abaht footbaw 'n birds. Nick Hancock and Rory McGrath both made their name with the rib-tickling (?) lads’ sports quiz They Think It’s All Over – both Varsity chaps, of course - while Jonafun Woss, the laddest of all the boorish phwoar! wha-hey! comedy lads, studied Modern European History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London University – and Ricky Gervais studied Philosophy at UCL.

For goodness sake, it turns out that even Glasgow hard-man Frankie Boyle - the scourge of Downs Syndrome children and female Olympic swimmers - has a BA in English Literature from Sussex University!

It’s odd to find that the very funny and distinctly up-market Simon Evans attended Southampton – the same university once graced by the presence of that odious little communist blister, Jeremy Hardy.

Oxford should hang its head in shame for producing Richard Herring, possibly the least naturally funny comedian in the history of comedy (he’s the hilarious japester who spent a year  sporting a Hitler moustache while boring the tits off the rest of us by droning on about it on radio and television). Mind you, Oxford seems to specialise in unfunny comics – Armando Iannucci is a great writer and producer, but I’ve experienced his live act, and he’s an exceedingly dull performer; and I’ve always found Stewart Lee about as hilarious as the shipping forecast, and a lot less interesting.

Mind you, it’s no surprise to find that Cambridge has given us David Mitchell (just married to Victoria Coren, which just seems wrong, somehow); his comedy partner, Robert Webb (which explains Webb's programme on T.S. Eliot last year); Alexander Armstrong; Sacha Baron-Cohen; and professional potty-mouth and tax-avoider Jimmy Carr, whose endless smutty sex jokes must have kept his Political Sciences tutor in absolute stitches.

Inevitably, public schoolboy Marcus Brigstocke attended one of the poshest universities in the country – Bristol - which is no doubt why he finds it so awfully hard to sound consistently common.

Alan Davies, resident thicko on QI, went to private school and graduated from the University of Kent. Neither of these facts guarantee that he isn't a lovable moron - but they do suggest that it's all an act (albeit one that's rapidly palling - if ever a programme deserved to have a Do Not Resuscitate notice draped round its neck, it's QI).

Durham doesn’t seem to have produced any Masters of Mirth: this may very well be to its credit.

Mind you, when it comes to producing popular stand-up comics towards whom many feel genuine affection – i.e. they’ve either reached or are approaching “national treasure” status - the University of Life (by which I mean either no university education at all, or no education at a proper university) is evidently the one to attend: Peter Kay, Jack Dee, Lee Mack, Bill Bailey, Sarah Millican, Lee Evans, Ross Noble, Paul Merton, and Sean Lock may not be your cup of tea, but they’re undoubtedly natural comics – traditional “cards”, if you like, who rarely or never stoop to the sort of sneery, right-on, left-wing pseudo-satire that makes “Radio 4 comedy” an oxymoronic concept (although Merton's chippy republicanism and Bailey and Lock's anti-Americanism tend to set one's teeth on edge).

It was my wife who alerted me to the fact that comedians were starting to step out of the educational closet, and it led her to wonder whether we might be entering an era where being clever and well-read and cultured and ever-so-slightly, you know, “posh” might no longer be regarded as a source of career-threatening shame.

Let’s hope so!

Here’s a list of some current comedians and the universities they attended (I’ve omitted most of the older generation – Stephen Fry and the like – and a large number of apparently very well-known performers I’d never heard of):


David Baddiel (King’s)

Sacha Baron-Cohen (Christ’s)

Jimmy Carr (Gonville and Caius)

Hugh Dennis (St John’s)

Nick Hancock (Homerton)

Rory McGrath (Emmanuel)

David Mitchell (Peterhouse)

Ben Miller (St Catherine's)

Sue Perkins (New Hall)

Robert Webb (Robinson)

Steve Punt (St Catherine’s)

Alexander Armstrong (Trinity Hall)


Richard Herring (St Catherine’s)

Armando Iannucci (University College)

Sally Phillips (New College)

Laura Solon (Worcester)

Stewart Lee (St Edmund Hall)

Al Murray (St Edmund Hall)


Dara O’Briain (University College, Dublin)

Frankie Boyle (Sussex)

Michael Macintyre (Edinburgh)

Eddie Izzard (Sheffield)

Frank Skinner (Warwick)

Ricky Gervais (UCL)

Rhod Gilbert (Exeter)

Jonathan Ross (London)

Bob Mortimer (Sussex)

Chris Addison (Manchester)

Marcus Brigstocke (Bristol)

Simon Evans (Southampton)

Harry Hill (London)

Jeremy Hardy (Southampton)


  1. An exceptional post and fine piece of journalism. Welcome to the 60s+ Club."My sahn etc...."

  2. Do you consider Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as the exceptions that prove the rule?

    1. I think Peter Cook was a comedy genius - but I don't think he had the natural warmth or likability that invites affection, and he was never really a stand-up comedian. Dudley Moore wasn't a stand-up comedian either, but people did tend to feel affection for him - maybe because he came from Dagenham?

    2. The Harry Thompson biography of Cook captures the descent from undergraduate comedy genius to a ridiculously successful early twenties and subsequent bottle-fuelled burn-out before he was 30. He comes across as charming and charismatic but cruel, especially in his cups and particularly to Dudley Moore.

      His EL Wisty character was basically stand-up comedy (albeit sitting down), except that it was observational comedy rather than conventional joke telling, and all the better for it. And his piece as the judge in the Thorpe trial (the first recorded use of the term 'player of the pink oboe' ) at the Amnesty International fund raiser in the late 70s was the funniest live comedy I have ever seen.

  3. My Dear Old Ma loved Dudley Moore. I even have an old Dudley Moore LP somewhere in the west wing. He had warm eyes and was clearly vulnerable: very short; club-footed and in the shadow of the vituperative Cook AND he could play the piano and that was enough to warm the cockles of a middle aged woman in the 1960s.
    My father would rock and weep with laughter at Pete and Dud - the sitting room in those heady days was awash with joy.
    Sadly all four have gone.

  4. PS wasn't Dudley Moor a Music Scholar at Magdalen or am I more confused than ever?