“There was no pressure to do exams or get Firsts”: Stephen Fry on comedy and Cambridge

Joanna Taylor 26 April 2017

Greeted by enormous queues and a packed-out chamber, Stephen Fry is one of the Cambridge Union’s first major speakers of a glittering Easter term lineup. His enchanting style of story-telling takes us through his Cambridge years, struggles with bipolar disorder, and friendships with J. K. Rowling, Hugh Laurie and Douglas Adams, and is peppered as always with characteristic sharp wit. 

At one point in his speech Fry jokes that he loves the sound of his own voice, and he does clearly have something to say about everything, answering questions from the press and audience members alike with tireless warmth. Before his speech I talked to Fry about his own entrance into comedy and how it has changed since he was a Cambridge student like us, before touching on some of his thoughts on mental health. 

Comedy is “a huge palace and it has many rooms”, some of which are still “people doing sketches about Bertrand Russell and Nietzsche with pipes and tweed jackets” but “the chances of them getting a wider ventilation to the world is much more remote”, than in his own day, he says. “We knew we were lucky, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and I when we joined the Footlights. We saw all the Pythons and various other people on the walls of the clubhouse and thought that that door had been closed; we thought that’ll never happen again.

“So the fact that the BBC wanted to do our show on television and things happened — we got a new series, then Blackadder happened —  didn’t seem natural, but it was an amazing thing. Looking back, we were incredibly lucky, outrageously so. I’m not sure it could ever happen again in quite that way. Now you’ve just got to feed the beast, feed this TV and radio thing or even this podcast and Youtube thing.” 

In answer to another reporter’s question on comedy, Fry continues to reminisce about his early days in the Cambridge Footlights. “I did plays with Emma Thompson in my first two years, and then she introduced me to to Hugh and Hugh and we just naturally started to write together.” 

“Cambridge is unique”, he says, because of the “three years’ space” we have for creativity: “Hugh went to one lecture; I went to three in three years. Hugh’s one lecture was the basis of one of his sketches. There was no pressure to do exams, or get Firsts, or worry about the academic side of things. Your supervisors and deans in the college would just say ‘oh, you’re very funny, we go and see your shows every other term, so you carry on doing that. Don’t you worry about any of this other nonsense.’” 

Fry was in fact on probation when he arrived at Cambridge, something Queens’ College was unaware of at the time, simply because they never asked. Getting involved in comedy at Cambridge “gave me a career” — “I owe it absolutely everything”, he says. Intelligent comedy and satire is still being made as in his own day, he believes, but he has no time for laziness in modern comedy: “it’s so easy to mock Trump, for heaven’s sake. There’s never been a more obvious cunt!” 

Turning to mental health, Fry says that “you really just have to use your wit and intelligence” when supporting someone with a mental health problem because “minds are not all identical”. He uses the analogy of alcohol consumption: having drunk the same amount, someone will become “annoying and aggressive. Another one will become maudlin and soppy. Another one will throw up. They’ve all had the same chemicals but they’ll respond completely differently. 

“It’s the same with mental health and medication. Bipolar or anxiety disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder will play differently with different people’s different attributes and different feelings. I suppose one must use the affection you have for someone and try and figure out what they’d best respond to.” 

Whether talking about his own time at Cambridge, creating comedy during his life or his experiences and opinions on mental health, Fry is — as one audience member remarked — a supremely eloquent and engaging speaker. Having recently left QI after 13 years and now living in the States, it might seem to most like the end of an era for Stephen Fry— but if his Union visit proves anything, it’s that he’s still got it.