Love Handles: A conversation with the Cambridge Footlights

Alice Mottram 12 June 2015

When looking back at our undergraduate days in years to come, most of us won’t be able to say Cambridge gave them the opportunity to go on an all-expenses-paid two-and-a-half month tour of six countries (including Scotland – and the Cayman Islands). Yesterday, I spoke to some of the lucky few who will, as part of this year’s Footlights International Tour Show: Joe Winters – one of two tour managers – with performers Luke Sumner and Olivia Le Andersen.

What are you doing this summer? Image credit: http://www.footlightsontour.co.uk/

"Love handles vary in size, to small, cute, and curvaceous; all the way to massive, obese, and covered with stretch marks": the top definition of the Tour Show’s name on Urban Dictionary – when I googled it in the ADC bar – was ambiguous; so, I asked: what’s with the name? 

Joe: It’s actually one of the first things the team has to write together – those two words. The logistics necessitate it, because we have to book our slot at Edinburgh months in advance, and you have to have a bit more than the promise that it’ll be a funny show of sketches. So we had to gather everyone together and say, ‘Name your show. It’s important: it has to be coherent, it can’t be offensive, it has to be memorable but not too specific. Go.’ 

Olivia: I think it was in March?

Luke: Yeah, so there’s maybe some sly allusion to it in the show. But it’s not about love handles.

J: But it does say something about what we wanted from the show – one that was nice, rather than one that’s pointing and laughing at stuff. ‘Love Handles’ is an affectionate name, it’s not cynical. 

Affection, the team went on to suggest, is pretty crucial to the success of such an ambitious show. Over the Easter holidays, they spent seven days in the middle of nowhere on ‘writing week’.

J: Obviously it’s practically very helpful for writing, because there are no distractions; but on the third day we said: right, you have to go bond now.

O: A lot of it was just getting to know each other. 

L: It’s really intense. It was the first time we’d all properly met, let alone hung out – and it was in this house by the sea…

O: You couldn’t get anywhere. There was nothing. 

L: …so it forces you to understand where everyone’s coming from. 

J: Because we’re going to be spending a lot of time together, in small cars and aeroplanes and under a lot of pressure. From my experience of tours, there’s nothing worse than a slightly tense atmosphere, and nothing better than it feeling like a group of friends.

O: I’m sure we’ll still get annoyed with each other.

L: Comedians are generally quite cynical, neurotic people.

O: I’m bring my ‘dammit doll’.

L: Olivia’s got this doll that she bought when we were on tour in America last year.

O: It’s for just hitting when you get annoyed. 

J: We also have the elusive Ken Cheng [Director], who can take anything. 

The team go on a 'writing week' Image credit: Joe Winters

The tour doesn’t only present personal challenges, but artistic ones: the team are performing everywhere from the Leicester Square Theatre to Princeton University; Paris to the Cayman Islands. 

J: It’s a show that has to pull itself apart and put itself back together quite frequently. Here it’s almost the length of a normal mainshow, but in places like Edinburgh we only have an hour; so we need lots of different variations, which is a challenge that’s quite unique to a touring sketch show.  

O: It’s quite elastic.

L: There’s quite a big narrative line that’s been written for the Cambridge run, and then we’ll hopefully learn from that and see what we really like across the board, and what we want to take on the road. Here we’re playing with something that’s both a pro and con of sketch – that you get to spend three minutes with people in their most concentrated form, and then end up wishing you could see more of them; it’s always fun to have that laugh of recognition when a favourite character comes back.

J: And this is just pushing that a bit further; we don’t just tie individual callbacks together.

L: For these two weeks, it’s set in a forgotten English town called Pudgley – so all the characters of the individual sketches coexist. 

O: And hopefully towards the end, they find some sort of harmony. Well, that’s what we’re working on.

L: We won’t ruin the ending, but there’s something that they need to deal with, which forces them together.

In playing with the sketch show format itself, rather than just presenting stellar sketches, the team are pushing some of the conventions of comedy; innovation, they argue, is key. I suggested that there might be pressure to live up to the stereotypical image of the Cambridge Footlights.

L: If anything we try and move away from that. You see it when you’re really young and fantasise about doing that someday, but once you’ve seen a lot of stuff like that and come to producing something of your own, you feel like it’s something you want to make for yourself and your mates, rather than for an institution. I think it’s something that the show gets lambasted for every year – a lot of older audiences will see it and think, ‘well this isn’t Fry and Laurie; this isn’t John Cleese’. But I’d far rather try and do something that’s representative of us. 

J: And the institution itself values that innovation. I remember reading an interview about the writing of Blackadder that said they didn’t want it to be like Fawlty Towers, so they deliberately set it in the past. So continuity in comedic institutions comes from the fact that they are always trying to be new – they’re constantly reacting to things. Sketch comedy is an old form, but what seems to unite the Footlights from generation to generation is doing something new with it. 

It’s odd, because we emphasise exactly the opposite when we’re marketing the show, because when you go to America you have to say, ‘Fry and Laurie are coming!’ We sell the show off the back of the Footlights’ famous alumni, but we aim to suggest not that we’re presenting impersonators, more that we’re part of an institution that accommodates a variety of different styles. It’s a myth that Footlights is the same style and standard from year to year. It’s a different group of people. That means it can be strange to pitch it: we’re pitching completely unknown people, as if they were famous. 

O: It’s a bit scary. Cambridge gives you so many amazing opportunities to do anything you want really, and then you must come out the other side of it all and lose that. You have to build it all up again.

L: But of course just getting to do it once is amazing in itself. 

J: I was speaking to John Finnemore recently, and he said it’s also weird from a performer’s perspective, because it’s the most high profile show that you do for 10 years: you go from extremely prestigious, sold-out venues, to playing in Bury St Edmunds to 20 people. 

John Finnemore is the writer of the radio sitcom Cabin Pressure and makes frequent appearances on The Now Show. He is a Petrean, and just one of many ex-Footlights that the team have had the opportunity to chat to. Just as I asked they’d been talking to past Footlights and watching old tour shows, the ‘elusive’ director Ken Cheng entered. 

L: Ken is a good person to talk about this.

J: Ken’s knowledge is encyclopaedic. 

L: Ken’s been in Cambridge – is it all your life? – yeah, forever – and has seen – how many different shows? 

Ken: Five, I think? 

L: So Ken has a deep knowledge of what this thing is about. And anyway, by virtue of it being a club and a committee, we talk to the people who went last year and in the years before. 

K: The comedy scene is so big here, so we’ve all been influenced by shows we’ve seen here. There are so many people who’ve been amazing, and it trickles down into the rest of Cambridge.

L: It’s helpful when there are 30 or 40 people doing similar things, trying to make people laugh, all testing different styles and finding what works. It’s better than having a really closed-off society.

The team go on a walk and fall in love, ahead of their long summer together Image credit: Joe Winters

The variety of comedy on offer at Cambridge is certainly impressive; and being part of it, the team suggested, has helped them prepare for producing something for a very various audience.

K: The show will obviously need to develop on the road.

J: It’ll have to, otherwise we’ll get terribly bored – it’s 61 shows at the moment.

K: And also because we’ll leave Cambridge and find a completely different audience out there. In America there’s a different sense of humour: we can go broader and cruder.

L: We took a comedy there last summer, and, not to say it’s culturally worse or better, the things that worked well were slapstick. 

J: Even within the American audience there will be variation, because playing a San Francisco audience will be different from playing a Chicago audience, or a Princeton student audience and then … a Cayman Island audience. 

L: I’d love it if a load of people from the Cayman Islands were inspired to do comedy.

J: Wouldn’t it be amazing if cultural historians in 100 years time refer to this one year when comedy became huge in the Cayman Islands, and we can trace it back to two stupid tour managers.

K: I hope that is the legacy. 

J: We’ll have textbooks written about us.

K: Having said that we hope the audience enjoy it, at the end of the day the show has to be something we’re happy with.

J: It’s not a focus group where you sit down and decide what people want and then give them that, it’s trying to make yourself laugh first. 

The cast bond on their weekend away Image credit: Joe Winters

It seemed high time to point out the elephant in the room: what’s with the Cayman Islands?

J: My fellow producer Marthe and I are very ambitious to do otherwise impossible things off the back of Cambridge; this university affords an ability to do ridiculous and amazing things. We wanted to make the tour properly international, so we gave it a strong presence in the West of America, and then I was keen to take us to New Orleans.

It then transpired that the cheapest way to fly home from New Orleans was to go via the Cayman Islands, so we thought we’d give everyone a treat and stay there a couple of days. The team will have just done a month in America, and before that they’ll have had exactly a month in Edinburgh, which anyone knows is a gruelling experience – they’ll have had one day off in two months, in terms of not having anything to do with the show, which is 31st August.

And then it turned out that we knew someone there, so Marthe worked her magic and rang up the only theatre they have and it turned out they wanted a show! Once you have the weight of the Footlights name behind you, you can do incredible things. Although there is this myth around Cambridge that the Footlights are completely rolling in it. They’re doing very well, but they’re not rolling in it, and this show is separate from club money, so all of the money that is spent on this show…

L: Has to be got back.

J: It’s not like we’re spending the panto’s money on a trip to the Cayman Islands. We have to raise 60 grand before we can spend 60 grand. 

L: Just drop that number in there.

J: Just put that out there.

K: Sixty.

L: Four zeros.

J: I mean, if you’re going to put yourself through months of admin, it might as well end in the Cayman Islands. 

One thing that’s clear from talking to the team is that they’ve all put an enormous amount of love, time and effort into the show.

O: We’re putting in about 14 hours a day at the moment.

J: But it’s not just the time – a lot of consideration and thought and heart has gone into this from the very beginning.

L: So what we’re saying is look out for the most beautifully crafted dick jokes you’ve ever heard.

K: Yeah. Exactly. It’s easy for audiences to say, ‘oh, they’ve been lazy'

J: Or think, ‘that was the first dick joke they thought of’

K: But I think it’d be hard to think that of this show. 

Having seen the show last night, I have to agree. One thing it cannot be described as is lazy. It’s energetic, and at times genius – but what makes it exceptional is that everyone behind it is giving it 100%. May it have every success as it globetrots.