Irrespective of the quality of its comics, the Pembroke Black Tie Smoker should be commended simply for giving its guests something a bit different. Any excuse to don black tie on a Saturday night is a welcome one in my book, and the Pembroke Old Library, with its beautiful high ceilings and grandiose atmosphere, makes a nice change from the Corpus Playrooms or ADC. Though the £10 ticket is perhaps not worth the comedy itself (at least compared to the usual £5 offerings), with wine and champagne available all night you can’t complain.
The all-male line up (bar one female sketch performer) was consistently strong, and no-one let the quality drop to an uncomfortable level. Conversely, no-one raised the bar above typical smoker standard; the acts blended into a sea of ‘pretty funny’, and though Ken Cheng won the £50 prize for best act for his undeniably great routine, I suspect he was helped by performing last since he was fresh in the audience’s minds as they voted.
A decent turnout meant the atmosphere was good and it was not a tough crowd, although I did feel somewhat swamped in a sea of Pembroke(ians?). Compere Kit Holden’s many references to Pembroke life and its students were not particularly funny to an outsider, but in Holden’s defence he had been roped into the job at the last minute, and his stand-up was far stronger than his hosting. Ben Pope provided a strong start to the night, particularly his jokes about what it means to be ‘alternative’ and ‘so vegetarian you can’t even watch John Hamm’. As usual in student comedy at least four out of eight of the acts make jokes about advertising, none of which were actually that bad, but none were original enough to stop their ubiquity annoying me.
Yaseen Kader and Ken Cheng are both great comedians because they strike the right balance between awkward and confident, making them endearing but easy to watch. Perhaps too far across the latter side of this line were sketch group Cows Drink Milk, who performed with undeniable gusto and enthusiasm, and appeared well-rehearsed, but had a few too many of their jokes fall slightly flat. Nevertheless they had some great punchlines which effectively subverted their predictable premises, and their snappiest scenes – for example a game of gay chicken that has gone way too far – were the most effective.
Returning alumnus Jamie Mathieson was evidently experienced and it paid off. He played up to his audience, joking about the usefulness of being a ‘qualified historian’ and the Hermes-exclusive word ‘expunge’. As mentioned, Kit Holden had a great routine, and was determinedly breaking taboos like a bull in a china shop. From Anne Frank to Oscar Pistorius, he had all bases covered. Milo Edwards was also strong, and some of his best jokes – especially one about an inappropriate sign in the classics faculty library – were brilliant. It was Ken Cheng who (literally) won the show for his hilarious routine about being a paedophilic time-traveller; but although he was my personal favourite, he wasn’t miles ahead of his fellow comics.
The Pembroke Black Tie Smoker seemed to be greatly enjoyed by all in attendance, and provided everything you look for in a smoker as well as some special touches. It only comes around once a year, but this is an event well worth checking out.