Culture Film & TV Interviews

‘Oxbridge ghosts, punk and Milky Milky’ – in conversation with Steve Punt

“I think there’s a sort of naughty kid element in comedy. The instinct of some comedians is to go, if this is the rules, well we’re going to break them.”

We had planned to meet in the Mansfield College café, known to its’ students as The Crypt. Steve was here to host ‘The 3rd Degree’ radio recording for the BBC series, a show putting students and their professors head-to-head against a sequence of subject specific and mainstream questions.

Steve arrived with one of the producers on time, in spite of an intense schedule of final preparations and script checks. We sit down and chat about his train being delayed. Although this is my first shot at an interview, Steve’s relaxed and amiable nature means that the conversation fails to run dry. He is simultaneously humble and yet larger-than-life: useful traits it seems for a comedian.

It must be fun to travel to all these different universities for the show? I ask.  “Yes, it is! They’re all so unique, they all have special something about them, they’re all little bubbles!”; I understand you went to Cambridge? “Yeah, yeah I did.”

How did you find student culture at Cambridge specifically?

“If I’m absolutely honest, I already had a big association with Cambridge and comedy. I sort of knew about the Footlights – I mean I didn’t know anything sort of practical about it, how you joined it, got into it, but I knew it was there, roughly what it did and I knew people who’d been in it.”

With a cup of tea now in hand, I notice Steve starting to reminisce.

“It was a place where, and I think Oxford’s similar, you’re followed around by ghosts the whole time. I think that’s the thing about both of the places: whatever you want to do, there will have been someone, walking those very pavements who is like a legend.” Steve dramatically gestures with his hands. “And sometimes you’re being taught by these people!”

“I was at Cambridge in the mid 80s. I would walk from St Catherine’s college to my accommodation through Kings, and, quite often, I would see someone in a wheelchair. I had no idea who it was. One time, I asked my friend, who was a physicist, and he said ‘Oh that’s Stephen Hawking’.”

That’s crazy, I say. Steve takes a sip from his tea.

“It’s very odd in both places. You have the sense that these people are lurking, or even their ghosts are lurking, and they’re kind of watching you. Even just the element of confidence you get from walking the streets is very valuable. Beyond any actual teaching.”

I say I definitely agree. Steve nods.

“Cambridge is a physically very beautiful place, a very inspiring place. I forget that my walk to college was one of the most photographed routes in the country. I’m actually a great believer that if you give people nice environments, they respond to it, it may be completely subconscious. I’m not saying you have to surround people with cathedrals and turrets, but just landscapes that are thought about and that have some respect for you.”

I agree, the atmospheres of place often have more of an impact on your experience than you’d think. I’m aware that it was at Cambridge where you met your comedy partner Hugh Dennis?

“Yeah, he was at John’s doing Geography. There was always a bit of a myth about the Footlights, that it was full of people that were going to be diplomats or lawyers. But, in fact, most of the people wanted to be writers, in comedy or entertainment. There was quite a careerist feel to it.”

“Hugh, however, was the exception to this rule: he genuinely fell into it by accident. He had no intention of wanting to work in entertainment. He was really entangled into it because he was good at doing funny voices.”

I tell Steve that I agree, and that Hugh comes across as quite a visual performer.

“Well yes, he was doing a different thing entirely. I think the Oxford/Cambridge tradition at the time was very verbal. Very intense verbal humour. You know, people saying clever things to each other. Whereas Hugh always liked to do funny voices and quite big visual stuff. And as a writer, we started working together, and this gave me more to write about, different kinds of jokes.”

I suggest that this must’ve given him more exciting elements to work with, such as impressions.

“Yeah! And just sort of a big jumble of silliness, without everything having to be a one liner.”

That’s interesting to think about how your partnership effected your creative scope. Do you think nowadays with comedy, this freedom will be lost? Many people have referred to millennials as the ‘snowflake generation’, as people become more prone to taking offence. Do you think that political correctness could affect the punky nature of comedy?

“It’s affected in the sense that comedy is always pushing to go the other way. There was a time where comedy on telly was very old-fashioned and very sexist. Comedy pushed against that, threw all that out and went very determinedly the other way. It alienated a lot of older people as it did so.”

“The problem with political correctness is that comedy wants to do that again: as soon as political correctness becomes the norm, or the establishment, there is going to be some sort of thought in the comedy brain going: ‘well that’s boring because everyone does that!’.”

“I think there’s a sort of naughty kid element in comedy. The instinct of some comedians is to go, if this is the rules, well we’re going to break them.”

Do you think then, that comedy serves a purpose beyond just simply entertainment?

“I think it can do, yeah. Because it disarms people. You’re never really offended by a joke that really makes you laugh, because it’s caught you out! You can’t laugh your head off and go ‘ahh I’m really offended by that’. Comedy will disarm you if it’s good enough. The difficultly is, it’s often not good enough. When people are offended by jokes it’s probably because they’re not funny.”

I laugh, and point out that these attempts at jokes must fall flat.

“Yes exactly, it becomes just a point. Humour, on the other hand, sugars the pill. Some comedians get away with very harsh or critical, politically very edgy stuff because they’re very funny with it!”

Your work on ‘Holy Flying Circus’ offered an interesting perspective the outrage surrounding ‘Life of Brian’, would you say that the productions of Monty Python are good examples of comedy sugaring the pill?

“I mean yes, I guess when Monty Python did that, they were very experienced. It did always strike me as the work of very confident people.”

I agree that it was a very bold statement for them to make.

“You’d have to be very confident in your position and your ability, because religion is not just a subject that you wouldn’t have realised was problematic.  You can rationalise away to your hearts content. Many often go ‘this is about media coverage and attitudes rather than the substance of religion’, but ultimately there will be people who will go, ‘well you shouldn’t be making jokes about the subject at all’. That is a value judgement that producers and broadcasters have to make all the time.”.

To finish, I ask him what is his favourite character that he’d created?

“Ahh well… that’s a good question.” Steve leans back in his chair.  “I think the most memorable probably was co-created. Hugh and I had a character in the nineties who was based on a real bloke who Hugh had seen in the supermarket. He was hovering about near the dairy counter sniffing all the milk. For some reason we just both found this hilarious, and we worked this up into a weird character in a mac who hung around sniffing milk. It was in a show called ‘The Mary Whitehouse experience’ and it became a bit of a catchphrase.”

Is this ‘Milky Milky’?, I ask.

“Haha yes, the Milky Milky man.”

I tell him that my parents had actually named their cat after that.

Steve laughs modestly. “But he was real, and the reason I liked it was it was the kind of thing you just couldn’t make up.”

No yes, just bizarre! I say in agreement.

“Exactly. The reason he was particularly funny was we thought you never could have invented that, you just had to see him. Quite a lot of comedy is based on very little observations.”

“Hugh also had this thing about how old people would use the word ‘dear’ for expensive, a term people of another generation would never use.”

Steve puts on an affected accent: “‘Oh that’s very dear’; ‘Ooh that’s terribly, terribly dear’. It just felt funny as people our age never did that, just peoples’ grandparents did.”

Steve picks up his cardboard cup of tea, and morphs into character “Ooh look at the price of that tea, oh it’s so dear.”

“So we had a character who said ‘dear’ all the time which is kind of funny to whose parents did that. So sometimes it’s just little things, very little things.”