Portrait of Dr Oliver Double

Dr Oliver Double

Reader in Drama
Head of Comedy and Popular Performance

About

Oliver Double has been at the University of Kent since 1999, teaching and researching comic and popular performance.

Before becoming an academic, he worked as a stand-up comedian on the national comedy circuit ('Delightful' -The Guardian), and set up the Last Laugh, Sheffield's longest running comedy club. He continues to perform occasionally, for example in his one-man shows Saint Pancreas (2006, DVD available here) and Break a Leg (2015, on YouTube here), and the monthly comedy club Funny Rabbit.

He has written a number of books, chapters and articles on stand-up, alternative comedy, variety theatre and popular performance, and helped to establish the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive (BSUCA), based at Kent’s Templeman Library. He about  a monthly podcast about the BSUCA archive,  A History of Comedy in Several Objects, is available here.

His teaching is based on his research, giving students access to cutting edge knowledge and an extraordinary range of unpublished historical documents. He is proud of the number of his graduates who are now working professionally as comedians and comic performers.

Research interests

I am interested in stand-up comedy and various other types of popular performance. What particularly interests me is anything in which the performer works straight out to the audience, performing in the first person and the present tense in which the audience can make their opinions known by laughing, applauding, heckling or booing.

In addition to my books on stand-up, alternative comedy and variety theatre, I have written articles and chapters on the early twentieth century German comedian Karl Valentin, Brecht's relationship with cabaret, punk rock as popular theatre, and the enormously fat xylophonist Teddy Brown. I am a contributing editor to New Theatre Quarterly, and I am on the Advisory Board of Comedy Studies. I've also written a number of entries for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Teaching

I teach students about stand-up comedy as well as more general performance techniques. This involves practical, theoretical and historical aspects, taught side by side. Students working with me might find themselves discussing the incongruity theory of comedy, analysing unpublished archive recordings, then performing their own stand-up routine to an audience of 100 people. Pretty much all of my teaching grows out of my research interests and professional experience, and for me, it’s about much more than just writing Powerpoint presentations for lectures and marking essays. It’s also about working with archive materials and practically exploring performance techniques in the studio to create deep intellectual and practical understanding.


Modules taught:

  • DR594 Popular Performance. Students examine particular popular performance genres (for example, variety theatre, slapstick, cabaret, pantomime, radio comedy). Initially, students develop relevant performance skills, which might include, for example, addressing an audience, developing a stage persona, dance, singing, and/or simple acrobatics. 
  • DR676 Introduction to Stand-Up. A third year module which introduces students to theoretical and historical aspects of stand-up comedy, and gives them a chance to perform their own short self-written routines.

Supervision

I am interested in supervising students researching stand-up comedy, comic performance in general, variety theatre, popular music performance (particularly punk), or any related area of popular performance.

Publications

Article

  • Double, O. (2018). The origin of the term stand-up comedy update. Comedy Studies [Online] 9. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2040610X.2018.1428427.
    This article discusses a possible first usage of the term ‘stand-up comedian’, used in a column in the Yorkshire Evening Post from November 1917 to describe a performer called Finlay Dunn. This is significantly earlier than the previously identified first usage in a Variety review from 1948. This article discusses Dunn’s career in order to conjecture that that the term may have been in use significantly earlier even than 1917.
  • Double, O. (2017). ‘[T]his is eating your greens, this is doing your homework’: writing and rehearsing a full-length stand-up show. Comedy Studies [Online]:137-153. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2040610X.2017.1344477.
    Until recently, the processes which comedians use to create their performances have been seldom examined. This article draws on materials from the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive (BSUCA) and a recent practice-as-research project in which I documented the creative processes behind my full-length stand-up show Break a Leg, performed at the Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury in 2015. In the months leading up to the show, I regularly recorded my reflections on the creative processes in which I was engaged, publishing these in the podcast Breaking a Leg, which is available on iTunes. Using these reflections in conjunction with script notes, set lists and unpublished recordings from the BSUCA, this article articulates what Robin Nelson calls ‘know-what’ – the performer's tacit, experiential knowledge made explicit through critical reflection – to shed light on the processes of writing, structuring and rehearsing stand-up comedy. Matthew Reason has argued that the main motivation for documenting live performance is ‘not the creation of new art but ensuring the documentation of existing art’. Building on recent work by Christopher Molineux, here I argue that this is not the case with stand-up comedy, where the purpose of documentation is very much the creation of new art.
  • Double, O. (2017). Tragedy Plus Time: Transforming Life Experience into Stand-Up Comedy. New Theatre Quarterly [Online] 33:143-155. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0266464X17000057.
    In this article, Oliver Double examines the process of turning traumatic personal experience into viable stand-up comedy material by offering a detailed account of the creative process behind his 2015 show Break a Leg. Drawing on Bergson, Brecht, and Noël Carroll, he explores the origins of comic ideas in personal observation, and argues for a two-stage process of joke creation. This is fleshed out in a detailed examination of a particular routine, in which he uses Koestler's concept of bisociation to show how an initial observation was shaped into a series of punchlines. He also discusses authenticating strategies which comedians employ to demonstrate that they are recalling their actual experiences, and ways in which the dialogic qualities of stand-up affect empathy and intimacy. Oliver Double is a former professional comedian who is now a Reader in Drama at the University of Kent. He is the author of Stand-Up! On Being a Comedian (1997), Britain Had Talent: a History of Variety Theatre (2012), and Getting the Joke: the Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy (2nd edition, 2014). A film of Break a Leg is available on YouTube, and the related podcast Breaking a Leg is accessible via iTunes.
  • Ainsworth, A., Double, O. and Peacock, L. (2017). Editorial. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training [Online] 8:125-128. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19443927.2017.1326736.
    An editorial for a special issue of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, entitled 'Training the Popular Performer'
  • Double, O. (2017). The origin of the term ‘stand-up comedy’. Comedy Studies [Online] 8:1 -4. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2040610X.2017.1279912.
    The Oxford English Dictionary gives the earliest usage of the term
    ‘stand-up comic’ as 1966, but in fact it has been in use for much
    longer. This short article searches newspapers and trade
    publications like Variety and The Stage to try and find the earliest
    uses of the related terms ‘stand-up comedy’, ‘stand-up comedian’
    and ‘stand-up comic’ in a search for their origin.
  • Double, O. (2015). What do you do?: Stand-up comedy versus the proper job. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization [Online] 15:651-669. Available at: http://www.ephemerajournal.org/contribution/%E2%80%98what-do-you-do%E2%80%99-stand-comedy-versus-proper-job.
    Stand-up comedy is often seen as such an unusual choice of profession that it barely even qualifies as being a ‘proper job’. Because comedians are seen as existing outside the world of conventional employment, they have a unique position from which to view the everyday reality of work as most people experience it. This paper looks at a range of gags and routines from the early 1970s onwards that either reflect on the unusual nature of the job of being a comedian or cast an amused light on more conventional forms of employment. Theories about stand-up comedy and humour in the workplace will be used to explore the relationship between comedy as work and comedy about work.
  • Double, O. (2012). Max Miller plays with Freud’s obstacle: Innuendo and performance technique in variety comedy. Comedy Studies [Online] 3:93-104. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/cost.3.1.93_1.
    This article examines the performance dynamics of the variety comedian Max Miller's use of innuendo. I argue that whilst Miller's use of sexual humour fits Freud's basic model of obscene tendentious jokes, his techniques go beyond the forms of wordplay, which Freud discussed and are firmly situated in the performance itself. I draw on the various live recordings of Miller's act, as well as contemporary criticism, the 'Little Kinsey' report into attitudes to sexuality, and theories of stand-up comedy and popular performance to analyse how stage persona and audience-performer rapport were central to conveying hidden sexual meanings.
  • Double, O. (2010). Not the Definitive Version: an Interview with Ross Noble. Comedy Studies [Online] 1:5-19. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/cost.1.1.5/1.
    In this interview, the celebrated improvisational stand-up comedian Ross Noble discusses his early influences, starting his career in the anarchic Newcastle comedy scene of the early 1990s, the gruelling experience of building his career in London, the process of becoming successful, the creative possibilities of the DVD format, and his current working processes
  • Double, O. (2009). Teddy Brown and the Art of Performing for the British Variety Stage. New Theatre Quarterly [Online] 25:379-390. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0266464X09000669.
    British variety theatre has been largely ignored by theatre historians, in spite of its huge popularity in the early twentieth century. Here, Oliver Double examines variety through its exemplification in the work of one performer, Teddy Brown, a virtuoso xylophone player whose career coincided with the heyday of the variety stage between and just after the two world wars. The key historical and stylistic aspects of the form typified by Brown's success included the development of a stage persona, novelty, skill, participation, a distinctive musical style, and the ability to exploit the complex relationship between variety and the other types of popular entertainment of the time, notably cinema, revue, and radio.
  • Double, O. and Wilson, M. (2008). ’"I am a Poor, Skinny Man": Persona and physicality in the work of Karl Valentin’. Studies in Theatre and Performance [Online] 28:213-221. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/stap.28.3.213/1.
    The celebrated Munich cabaret artist Karl Valentin first came to prominence with his performance of his sketch Das Aquarium in 1908. This was also the moment at which he first established a comedy based on extreme logic, wordplay and misunderstanding, which in turn created a world in which his innocent "matter-of-fact-ness" exposed the absurdities of social situations. This article explores Valentin's use of his extraordinary skinniness to create both an effective comic persona and a comic physicality in his work. The authors argue that it was in Valentin's slightly earlier sketch, Ich Bin ein armer magerer Mann, that the comedian found his physical "comic voice", and they go on to provide an analysis of the improtance of physicality in Valentin's work, particularly in relation to this sketch. A bew translation of the sketch is also provided.
  • Double, O. (2007). Punk rock as popular theatre. New Theatre Quarterly [Online] 23:35-48. Available at: http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FNTQ%2FNTQ23_01%2FS0266464X06000613a.pdf&code=685b746786337e7a968140bc4db80943.
    Punk rock performance consciously draws on popular theatre forms like music hall and
    stand-up comedy, as exemplified by the occasion when Max Wall appeared with Ian Dury
    at the Hammersmith Odeon. Oliver Double traces the historical and stylistic connections
    between punk, music hall and stand-up, and argues that punk shows can be considered a
    form of popular theatre in their own right. He examines a wide range of punk bands and
    performers- including Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, Devo, Spizz, The Ramones, The Clash, and
    Dead Kennedys- and considers how they use costume, staging, persona,
    characterisation, and audience-performer relationships, arguing that these are as
    important and carefully considered as the music they play. Art movements like Dada and
    Futurism were important influences on the early punk scene, and Double shows how, as
    with early 20th Century cabaret, punk performance manages to include avant garde
    elements within popular theatre forms. Oliver Double started his career performing a
    comedy act alongside anarchist punk bands in Exeter, going on to spend ten years on the
    alternative comedy circuit. Currently, he lectures in Drama at the University of Kent, and
    he is the author of Stand-Up! On Being a Comedian (Methuen, 1997) and Getting the
    Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy (Methuen, 2005).
  • Double, O. (2007). Karl Valentin’s “Father and Son Discuss the War". Studies in Theatre and Performance 27:5-11.
  • Double, O. and Wilson, M. (2004). Karl Valentin’s illogical subversion: stand-up comedy and the alienation effect. New Theatre Quarterly XX:203-215.
  • Double, O. (2000). Characterization in stand-up comedy: From Ted Ray to Billy Connolly, via Bertolt Brecht. New Theatre Quarterly [Online] 16:315-323. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0266464X00014068.
    Stand-up comedy is often distinguished from straight acting by its apparent lack of characterization-the comedian appearing onstage apparently as him or herself. But within gags and routines, comics often briefly take on the voice and posture of the characters they describe. Here Oliver Double contrasts the approach of two comedians of different generations-Ted Ray and Billy Connolly-to this technique of 'momentary characterization.' He notes the links between Connolly's conversational approach and Brecht's notions of acting, and goes on to examine the broader questions of comic personae, representation of the self, and the changing performance conventions within British stand-up comedy.
  • Double, O. (2000). Teaching Stand-Up Comedy. A Mission: Impossible?. Studies in Theatre and Performance 20:14-23.
  • Double, O. (1994). Laughing all the way to the bank? Alternative comedy in the provinces. New Theatre Quarterly [Online] X:255-262. Available at: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2340432&fileId=S0266464X00000555.
    Metropolitan snobbery and the logistics of scale both militate against the success of comedians working in the regions. Yet, as Oliver Double here argues, the scene has been a lively one, often daring in its style and range alike – at least until the absorption of its big names into the London circuits by the agencies which increasingly control most of the bookings and much of the talent. Oliver Double, himself a working comic, describes the distinctive characteristics of regional alternative comedy, and the now very real dangers of stagnation, illustrating his argument from interviews with leading comics on the regional circuits – Nick Toczek, Stu Who?, Roger Monkhouse, Malcolm Bailey, Anvil Springsteen, Adam Caveleri, Kevin Seisay, Henry Normal, and John Simmit. Offering some hopes for the future, he points out the relatively low audience figures required to ensure a vigorous growth – if only emerging talent can be nurtured rather than condemned to still birth.

Book

  • Double, O. (2020). Alternative Comedy: 1979 and the Reinvention of British Stand-Up. [Online]. London, UK: Bloomsbury. Available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/alternative-comedy-9781350052819/.
    In the late 1970s, the alternative comedy scene exploded into life in Britain and completely changed the style, subject matter and politics of British stand-up. Contemporary critics talked about it as 'anti-matter comedy' that 'makes you laugh while actually rearranging large chunks of your brain'. This book draws on a wealth of archive material – including unpublished recordings of early performances – and new interviews with key figures such as Alexei Sayle, Andy de la Tour and Jim Barclay, to provide a detailed history of the early scene and an examination of the distinctive modes of performance style which developed.

    Beginning with its origins, the volume traces the influence of American stand-up, and in particular the significance of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce as the originators of a style of stand-up that influenced the British pioneers of alternative comedy. It shows how the opening of the Comedy Store in 1979 provided a catalyst for a new movement, which grew outward from there with the foundation of the group Alternative Cabaret and the opening of the Comic Strip. But it also looks at smaller venues and less celebrated acts that have not been as well remembered, including ranting poets and street performers. Finally, it looks at alternative comedy's legacy, showing how it was the starting point for the UK's thriving and varied live scene, which encompasses anything from small pub gigs to huge arena tours.
  • Double, O. (2014). Getting the Joke (2nd edition)The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
  • Double, O. (2012). Britain Had Talent: A History of Variety Theatre. [Online]. Houndsmills, basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Available at: http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?is=9780230284609.
    In the first major academic work to examine British variety theatre, Double provides a detailed history of this art form and analyses its performance dynamics and techniques. Encompassing singers, comedians, dancers, magicians, ventriloquists and diverse speciality acts, this vibrant book draws on a series of new interviews with variety veterans.
  • Double, O. (2005). Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-up Comedy. London: Methuen.
  • Double, O. (1997). Stand-Up! On Being a Comedian. London: Methuen Drama.

Book section

  • Double, O. (2020). ‘If you laugh at something then I’ll potentially keep it’: the Praxis of Live Comedy. In: Peacock, L. ed. A Cultural History of Comedy. Bloomsbury. Available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/a-cultural-history-of-comedy-9781350000827/.
  • Quirk, S. (2017). What’s Special About Stand-up Comedy? Josie Long’s Lost Treasures of the Black Heart. In: Ainsworth, A., Double, O. and Peacock, L. eds. Popular Performance. Bloomsbury, pp. 223-246. Available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/popular-performance-9781474247344/.
  • Double, O. (2017). ’It Feels Like a Group of Friends Messing Around Onstage’: Pappy’s and Live Sketch Comedy. In: Ainsworth, A., Double, O. and Peacock, L. eds. Popular Performance. London, UK; New York, USA: Methuen Drama, pp. 247-268. Available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/popular-performance-9781474247344/.
  • Double, O. (2017). Introduction: What is Popular Performance?. In: Ainsworth, A., Double, O. and Peacock, L. eds. Popular Performance. London, UK; New York, USA: Methuen Drama, pp. 1-29. Available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/popular-performance-9781474247351/.
  • Double, O. and Wilson, M. (2006). Brecht and cabaret. In: Thomson, P. and Sacks, G. eds. Cambridge Companion to Brecht, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press.
  • Double, O. (1996). Alternative comedy: from radicalism to commercialism. In: Merkin, R. ed. Popular Theatres?. Liverpool: Liverpool John Moores University, pp. 127-139.

Edited book

  • Double, O. and Quirk, S. (2017). Popular Performance. [Online]. Ainsworth, A., Double, O. and Peacock, L. eds. London, UK: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. Available at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/popular-performance-9781474247351/.

Show / exhibition

  • Sleigh, C. (2009). Charles Darwin Presents . Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. [Dramatic performance with music].
    A comic monologue interspersing movements of the Carnival of the Animals. In celebration of Darwin Bicentenary.

Performance

  • Double, O. (2015). Break a Leg. [YouTube video]. KTV. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reI7wNujQkQ.
    A 95-minute stand-up comedy show written and performed by Oliver Double.

    Venue: The Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury
    Date: Sunday, 6th December 2015
    Audience: 176

    Description: A show about the recovery process following a broken femur, exploring such themes as ageing and mortality. There is also an associated podcast about the making of the show, entitled Breaking a Leg, available on iTunes.
  • Double, O. (2007). Saint Pancreas. [DVD and Live Performance].
    The show is based on my experiences as a parent of two diabetic children, and includes material that would normally be considered too difficult and traumatic for comedy. Whilst devising and rehearsing, the effect of working with such material on the creative process was explored. In performance, the effect of the material on the audience's responses and how the performer connected with this was a particular focus. Throughout the project, contextual research was carried out into other comedians who have dealt with traumatic subjects (including interviews with key performers e.g. Mark Thomas, Andre Vincent), as well as relevant theories of comedy and theatre (e.g. Freud, Bergson, Stanislavski). The project has been documented on DVD, reflecting and thus interrogating professional industry practice: commercial DVDs are the predominant means for documenting stand-up, and often include performance analysis in the extras. The DVD includes a complete film of the show and multiple reflections on the project.

Thesis

  • Bolsover, N. (2015). Costume and Cross-Dressing in Stand-up Comedy.
    Name a funny and successful man who has dressed up as a woman. Danny LaRue, Robin Williams, Les Dawson; the list roles off the tongue. But it is a little tougher to name the women who get laughs while dressing as men. Kathy Burke parodied teenager Perry in Harry Enfield and Chums in the 1990s, then around ten years later Catherine Tate took on the role of an effeminate middle-aged man. Why is there not an abundance of female comedians dressing up as men to get laughs? What are the taboos surrounding this medium and are they too significant to find a mainstream audience?

    In this project I discover what the performance benefits and pitfalls are of experimenting with cross-dressing and through that, notions of femininity. Can dressing up as a man give female comics – like me - freedom to be funnier? Or does the process result in a loss of self-identity and truth which makes it more difficult to step out on stage, under the spotlight with a microphone in hand.

    Drawing on previous research literature on notions of ‘self’ in comedic performance and the use of costume to make an impact, I use these theories as a base to conduct original research through my own performance. I explore the perceived wisdom that women parodying men is less successful due to their respective gender roles in society and the ideas of introversion/extroversion attached to each gender. By experimenting with different forms of gendered costuming, I discover the effects it has on the performer and how s/he can use these effects to their advantage. My focus is on the experience of the performer, not on the experience of the audience. Practical experimentation and existing academic theory is combined with first-hand interviews with drag performers. The result is a break away from preconceptions, both the audience's and my own.
  • Hudson, B. (2015). The New Comedian: Media and Technology in Stand-up Comedy.
    This thesis is an investigation of media and technology in stand-up comedy performance and a reflection on Practice as Research undertaken at the University of Kent, UK. Using case studies of experimental stand-up practice and the work of professional comedians, I examine the application of technology in stand-up comedy and analyse the performance dynamics of mediatized stand-up.

    The framework of this study is formed by three Practice as Research performances, considering issues of time, body and space fundamental to live performance and media theory. Ben Hudson’s Super Media World (2012) used digital projection and an internet connection to play simultaneously to a live studio and online audience, exploring the presence and liveness of screened media. Ben Hudson, Not A Real Person (2013) staged a personal journey of discovery through online social networking profiles and an animated double-act, presenting the comedian at odds with their media double. Finally, Ben Hudson’s Dead Funny (2014) used the hypermedium of videogame streaming as a model for stand-up performance in cyberspace, featuring the videogame DayZ (2013) as its online venue.

    Analysis of these performances, combined with critical reflection on the work of relevant comedians, is placed within a framework of media and performance discourse. Stand-up is presented as a basic model of theatre performance; a present tense encounter with a requirement for two-way communication between audience and performer. This thesis argues that instead of threatening stand-up as a quintessentially live and co-present art-form, media and technology are shown to create exciting potential in comic performance. In their role as cultural mediators, stand-up comedians self-reflexively acknowledge the process of technological mediation. Responding to the specificity of the performance situation and playing with the temporalities of recorded and broadcast media, stand-ups are able to find humour in the juxtaposition of media elements and subvert audience expectations of presence and liveness.

Forthcoming

  • Gillespie, T. (2019). Empathy and Intimacy in Stand-up Comedy: How Can the Performer Negotiate With an Audience in Order to Encourage Empathy and Intimacy in Stand-up Comedy?.
    This thesis examines the use of empathy and intimacy in stand-up comedy. It considers the potential harm that these elements are often considered to bring to comedy, partly through an examination of existing theory and practice, but primarily via practice as research. Empathy is explored through the comedian's manipulation of the audience which is managed by the identification of specific tools and skills employed in the practice. Intimacy is used both physically and emotionally to make use of, at various points, the audience members' potential tension, feelings of solidarity and willingness to connect to the other people around them, as well as their willingness to connect with the performer. Performances designed, written and performed with the investigation in mind enable a targeted approach to the question and allow insight into the intention of the performer and how that translates (or doesn't) rather than the 'end goal' of whether or not the audience laughed. These stand-up comedy experiences include Ulster Loves Me! which was performed only once to curated audience and with a specific aim. Baby Madness is a Real Disease, however, was performed fourteen times to largely unpredictable audiences.
    By demonstrating the potential benefits of utilising empathy and intimacy, including social inclusion, heightened theatrical experience and most importantly, comic effect, this thesis seeks to encourage the exploration of more intimate moments so often feared by comedians and audiences alike, suggesting that the tiniest of audiences are no enemy of stand-up comedy, but can be utilised as the conduit of a more enriching comedy experience.
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