Sunday 18 March 2012

Myths - #1 The Oxbridge Conspiracy

Recently, Sam Bain wrote an excellent article for the Guardian about the reality of being a writer with a show in production. It made me laugh out loud several times – and I particularly enjoyed the comparison of turning up to filming being rather like having to stand next a photocopier for seven weeks in case there's a massive paper jam.

Rather than discussions and questions about the nitty-gritty of turning a good script into a great TV show, the comments beneath the article made very depressing reading. Reactions ranged from “Oh, poor poor you, having to do this for a living” to “you only get to do this because you went to right school or university.” The debate descended into a sad discussion of paranoia that the comedy industry is a closed shop, and that the door has been firmly locked from the inside by people who went to Oxbridge. This is a myth, as I will argue shortly and briefly.

But in time I hope to address a number of myths that circulate about ‘breaking in’ to the industry. These myths have power firstly because there is a grain of truth in all of them, but secondly because they are easy scapegoats for failure. If you’ve written a script and no-one’s biting, it’s easier to blame a conspiracy than admit that the script isn’t much good.

This self-delusion takes place at all levels. Writers who don’t make a living from it believe one set of myths to explain why they’re not making a living from it. Writers who do make a living from it believe another set of myths to explain why they’re not making as much money as they’d like to from it. Wealthy writers believe another set a myths about why critics don’t like their work. The list goes on.

So let’s take a look at these starting out myths beginning with:

Myth #1 It’s all about where you went to college
One can look at the Pythons, the Goodies, the Mary Whitehouse Experience and a long list of Oxbridge alumni and assume that your career is decided the day you’re rejected from Oxbridge. (I was rejected by Cambridge. At least twice. Seriously. And I applied because I wanted to be in The Footlights.) It’s easy to think that Oxbridgers not only have an advantage but rule the roost in comedy.

In my experience, my university education has made almost no difference to my career progression. I’ve had shows rejected down by production companies, BBC TV, BBC Radio, ITV and Channel 4 for some pretty spurious reasons. None of them were related to where I went to college. (I believe my own set of myths for these failures, one of which being that all executives are idiots, which simply isn’t true. Some are, maybe most, but not all. Besides exec idiocy isn’t always harmful and sometimes works in your favour).

The industry doesn’t favour Oxbridge-types. It favours good writers (and tolerates plenty of bad ones). The reason Oxbridge-types seem to be favoured is because good writers tend be fairly intelligent people who read a lot of books, try new things and encounter a wide spectrum of people – and learn to see the world from their point of view. This is simply university life.

I just said “my university education has made almost no difference to my career progression “. This is only half true. For three years, I did read lots of books, try news things (not that many to be honest), and encountered lots of different people. My horizons were broadened. But at university, I also met other people who wanted to do comedy and so we put on sketch shows and revues. We had mixed success, but learnt through success and failure. So by the time three of us did Edinburgh in 1999 as Infinite Number of Monkeys, it was our third Fringe, we had done about a hundred performances over the previous three years and were not totally clueless. And we were nominated for best ‘Newcomer’ and that opened a few doors.

Oxbridgers, then, do have one advantage – a tradition of comedy and a bit of structure which means they can start doing comedy earlier. This means failing quicker and therefore succeeding faster. It means time on stage performing your own material in front of other human beings who will let you know very quickly how well you’re doing.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “I takes 10,000 hours to get good at stuff” theory is pretty obvious, isn’t it? In which case, spend three years reading some books, trying new things and meeting new people. Write about them, put on a show with them and hey presto, you just went to Oxbridge.

You could also try going on a day-long course or two with Sitcomgeek and the highly experienced comedy writer Dave Cohen (yes, this is a plug) on April 20th and 4th May. More details here.


  1. er - I think it is very fair to question why an elite university which is not really geared toward 'cultural production' seems to 'unearth' so much comic talent.

    And even odder that many of its alumni mysteriously stop being funny at a certain age and suddenly start presenting BBC2 Two documentaries.!

    No doubt these people are talented and funny. And no doubt there are lots of people who have written crap scripts.

    The world of sitcom is a bit of a racket, with only really three channels able to make shows that rarely employ teams of writers. Also some of them are actually intended to not be funny (My Family) and are in fact more whimsical soaps.

    Compare that to the US where opportunities abound.

    Writing comedy is obviously not easy but I think BBC could do more to find new talent and some of the stuff that gets made is so conservative.

    In film and music, much more stuff gets made because the old hegemonies are less influential.

    1. i can see what you're saying, but look at the figures.

      0.25% of the uk went to oxbridge, 25% of actors / writers working in tv / radio are oxbridge alumni (esp at bbc - yet 10,000 comedy scripts are received every year by them, not all by posh grads).

      check out any show and at least one of them went. yet most stand ups are not, because stand ups get judged in comedy clubs, not by execs who favour review style humour.

      the numbers speak for themselves.

  2. A quick look at the commissioning editors ranks, along with a scope at who has just been commissioned on these channels, reveals that the Oxbridge dominance of TV/radio comedy is very much alive and well. You only have to look at the BBC's latest offering Watson and Oliver or look at the Production team on any TV comedy to see that. In my experience (as a commissioned writer and performer who went to UCL), the Oxbridge thing isn't about talent - it's about a network. Whilst the rest of us have to put in those 10,000 hours either writing or doing comedy gigs, the Oxbridgers seem to walk into opportunities as soon as they finish their finals and their last season on the Footlights/Revue. They just have a readily available (and listening) network.

    The old (college) tie is very much alive and well and I really don't think its about being erudite or intelligent. What you write/perform is either funny or it isn't and Watson/Oliver very definitely isn't.

  3. if all the people who leave the footlights and oxford review were good writers and went for a comedy career every year...

    ... and only 5% of all the other non oxbridge writers are any good, that's about, what... 50 good oxbridge versus 500 good non oxbridge writers.

    then it should be 10-1 in favour of non oxbridge. but in reality it's 1-1 i'd say.

    you average out all the armstrong & millers, mitchell & webbs, all the writers / stars of new sitcom 'chickens'...

    ... and compare them to the fast show, mrs browns boys, caroline ahernes...

    ... the small minority of oxbridge grads are obviously at an advantage.

  4. These responses are hilarious.

    Whoever would have imagined that people who have received an excellent education at one of the top 10 universities in the world would then go on to have successful careers in their chosen field.

    By the way neither Armstrong and Miller nor Mitchell and Webb "walked into opportunities as soon as they finished their finals". They got their breaks in comedy by putting on successful shows at the Fringe, being nominated for the Perrier in the case of A&M.

    And I don't believe the Perrier judges give out awards based on what university the performers attended, as quite a lot of plebs have won it.

    1. No, they don't, but the fact that several of the biggest venues in Edinburgh are run by/have Oxbridge grads on their boards and one or two of the key journalists reviewing Edinburgh shows went to Oxbridge AND the BBC and other broadcasters regularly scout at the Footlights/Revue shows...MAY be a factor...that is all I'm saying. I went to UCL, and UCL has a much lower quotient of alumni working in TV/TV comedy. Is that because UCL is any less of a "top 10" education or produces less talented people? I think not. Occam's Razor....if there is a disproportionate amount of Oxbridge types running TV/in TV shows, is it because they are more talented on the whole or because the network opportunities they get are greater?

      As a sidebar, Mitchell was President of the Footlights (and stayed on quite a bit after), ergo, he had the attention of those ex-Cambridge types who increasingly run comedy and whom are embedded in TV.

      Are you sir, an Oxbridge graduate by any chance?

  5. Hello Mr Anonymous,
    I don't like Watson/Oliver either, but I know plenty of people who do. So to say it ISN'T funny is kind of over stretching your remit...right?
    But back to the point, not every rich person goes to Oxbridge, not every Oxbridger gets into Footlights and not every Footlighter becomes David Mitchell. Even with all the advantages in the world you can still only become David Mitchell if you happen to be as unquestionably brilliant as David Mitchell.
    We could bang on about how unfair it seems that being in the Footlights gives one an unfair advantage in comedy...but let's be clear, getting into Footlights in the first place is a hell of an achievement (as our hosts double attempt and failure would suggest).
    Maybe Footlighters do have an advantage over the rest of us, but surely it is an advantage that has to be earnt by passing the unbelievably difficult and rigorous selection processes in the first place. And yes, doing well in your A-levels does count as putting the work in.
    As the BBC trawl through 9,900 crap scripts a year in the search for a speck of gold, perhaps it makes absolute sense that they would turn first to people who have already proved themselves to have...something.
    Or is this where you tell me I'm simply being naive?

    1. It's 'Ms' actually.. :-)

      Mitchell is brilliant. Webb is brilliant. Armstrong and Miller are brilliant. That isn't my argument. Mine rests upon the fact there there are many many talented performers out there who don't get the breaks because they are not part of that particular network. If the BBC was run by say, Bristol grads, no doubt I'd be saying the same thing about Bristol grads monopolising the airwaves.

      There is an unfair disadvantage - that is all I'm saying.

  6. Interesting discussion. Lots of poorly qualified statistics are being thrown around. Can we avoid those, please? Certainly, the reality is that having connections is really handy. Maybe it is easier to 'get seen' if you're a Footlighter. But getting auditions and scripts read is a long way from getting parts in TV show and having your show actually made.

    There are valid points made in the comments section of original Sam Bain posting about lower-income folks being unable to afford unpaid internships and being excluded that way. This is true, I'm sure, but that's a slightly separate issue - and one that is more about the preponderance of middle-class people in television. As far as sitcom scripts go - and get your show on TV - I genuinely don't think that the Oxbridge education/background is a significant advantage. Write a decent script. Send it to people who make shows you like. If the script is really good, you will get called in by someone sometime.

  7. Here's what I think (for what it's worth). Going to Oxford or Cambridge is really helpful, whatever your line of work. Oxbridge graduates are disproportionately more successful at politics, the civil service, the media, the church, comedy - just about everything except snooker and embroidery.

    And people who succeed like to work with people they get on with, don't we all, so a disproportionate number of successful people's best mates also went to Oxbridge.

    There is an unfair disadvantage and it's getting unfairer. There are fewer working class writers and performers getting into Cambridge now, not because they're less clever but because the system is even more stacked against poor people getting there in the first place.

    When I started out in the early 80s I felt like a lot of the people writing above, angry at the bias towards Oxbridge. But you just have to find your way round it. I genuinely believe that a combination of talent and persistence will always win through. An untalented Oxbridge graduate will survive longer in the business than an untalented non-Oxbridge graduate, but only by a year or two.

    You can moan about it all you want but it isn't going to change. In the meantime you have to keep working away at what you do, and make sure what you produce is as good, or better than everything else.

    Mind you I would say that, wouldn't I, I got lucky with the comedy/Jew thing.

  8. As an outsider to the UK I do find Oxbridge Conspiracy myth quite curious. I'm more than willing to believe that going to the Edinburgh festival under the banner of Footlights garners a little more notoriety and attention, but beyond a superior education and development supported by a dedicated humour society, you have still got to do the hard comedy yards and ultimately be funny to succeed. Rather than focusing upon the Oxbridge success stories, I think looking at the barriers presented that stop working class participation in the profession is the key issue. From personal experience attempting to set up a comedy society at a mid-range university in the early noughties, despite some keen supporters, financial pressures ensured that keeness was often compromised by work commitments. The time necessary to develop skit-based humour and props was a luxury not afforded by the vast majority - likely why working class comedy tends to be more stand-up based, I imagine. Also free time to associate with peers and develop new ideas was at a premium, as well. Looking further down the scale, apart from a few amateur dramatic societies dotted around the landscape, I don't imagine true working individuals have many dedicated outlets to develop and hone their skit-based humour. I'd imagine even if you found a group of like-minded people to perform with, you would still face problems finding the finances to put on a solid show/revue. I also think the image of the increasing disparity in performers is also slightly askew. We tend to look back at the explosion of alternative UK humour in the early 80s as a working class revolt against Thatcher. Unfortunately, the main protagonists were good old Oxbridge alumni. The tradition of the middle-class creative either slumming it or having pretentions to join the aristocracy being scrupulously maintained.

  9. Hiya James!
    I should point out 2 things.

    1) You were actually applying to try and get into Cambridge twice, which would suggest you are from the section of society where this is an option.

    2) The stuff you write is just as anecdotal as the stuff that you criticise other people for. I don't have a big problem with little anecdotes and stuff, in fact I think they are fun! However I don't think it's write to point the finger at others for what you are doing yourself.

    Aside from this, I do like the fact you are reaching out to ordinary people who disagree with you and trying to discuss the matter. I really like that. :)

  10. Hello, Anonymous,

    Thank you for your polite objections. Good points. Kind of. In response, I'd say:
    1) Either Oxbridge is an advantage. Or it isn't. I didn't go there. So how is 'being the sort of person how could have done' benefit me within the context of comedy?

    2) There are clearly no stats either way.

    My overall concern is that new writers are looking for ways to fail - or things on which to blame their failure. An imagined Bilderburg-style Oxbridge mafia is one. And it's a fantasy. "Oh, it's a closed shop. I don't stand a chance." You do. Write a funny script. And you will get meetings. You will. You really will. Because most scripts are dreadful. Those clever chaps at Oxbridge occasionally tend to write better ones because they read books and have had more practice.

    But I don't expect to convince anyone of this, sadly.

  11. There was a comment that I've decided against publishing - as it was quite offensive (not to me, but to named individuals), but also alleged plagiarism, which is not something that should be taken lightly. So I don't want to be responsible for publishing content or allegations that I can't verify. Sorry.

  12. I think it was true in the past that there were very few places for people to get any practice in sketch-based comedy. And - based on personal experience here - sketch comedy is a VERY useful thing to have done when tackling the much bigger and arduous task of writing a sitcom script. I liken it to lifting small weights at the gym in order to build up to the big weights. If you try and start on the big weights, you'll likely run into trouble.

    The Pythons and the Goodies have been mentioned here, but go back further than that and the picture shifts. British comedy had a massive infusion of ex-servicemen after the war. They won their sketch comedy spurs in concert parties. Jimmy Perry, Eric Sykes, Larry Stephens, Hancock, all of the Goons, Denis Norden.

    Once the forces tap was turned off, that's when things got more Oxbridgey because they were the people who had a nursery slope.

    But in the last ten years, it's all changed again. Anyone can put out little skits, whether good, bad or indifferent, on YouTube. That's a place to get some practice.