Clowning Around with Simply the Jest
Alice Scoble-Rees interviews fresh-from-the-Fringe Exeter Uni sketch group Simply the Jest.
When I met sketch troupe Simply the Jest, there were much fewer of them than I was expecting. Their official headcount is nine, but I saw only four: Tristan Rogers, Zac Prince, Jack Stanley and Izzy Rabey. They were at the beginning of three hours of sound and video editing; apparently their new live show will be a multimedia experience. “It’s the first time we’ve used projection,” explains Tristan.
After a run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival that they can count as a modest success, Simply the Jest are performing right here in Exeter’s Bikeshed Theatre – a venue with which they have what they describe as ‘a gentleman’s deal’ to keep playing there as long as the Bikeshed keeps booking them. Was there anything they learnt in Edinburgh that they put into creating the new show?
“We write stuff now!” Izzy says, before breaking into a shout of raucous laughter (in fact the whole interview is marked by easy-going laughter and jokes from start to finish). “Previously we were working from improv and just tightening it up for the shows, but now we actually sit down and write together.”
“Also we realised that all of the good shows had a theme to them,” adds Jack. It was Edinburgh, too, that gave them the theme for the new show: Middle Class Tripe. Tristan elaborates: “There was an old Scottish guy, and his wife, and about twenty minutes into our show they got up and walked out, and half way up the stairs he just turned around and shouted ‘What a load of middle class tripe!’”. Thus Simply the Jest decided they ought to stick to what they do best.
Middle Class Tripe is part of Exeter’s LOLFest comedy festival, now in its third year, and Tristan says the group are finding it a positive experience. “Last year I thought to myself ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could be involved in this’, and now we are!” – billed opposite Nicolas Parsons, no less, which Jack finds a particular source of joy. Zac talks animatedly about how the world of comedy has expanded in front of them. “You have a nice little bubble here [in Exeter] and when you move out of that… it’s like ‘woah!’. We played in Balham in London… now this show is like the ‘difficult second album’”.
Indeed, Simply the Jest are having more success than any Exeter University comedy group in recent memory, and theorise that it’s down to the ambition of some of their members. “I mean we have some people in the group who are really serious about comedy, you know, and comedy is what they want to do,” says Izzy, nodding seriously to emphasise her point and looking to her peers to back her up. Tristan agrees. “We have a lot of people that don’t wanna give up.”
In fact they have a lot of people full stop. Izzy doesn’t deny that “it is tricky trying to keep the balance” sometimes, but the group feel there are a lot of advantages to their nine-strong number as well. Their troupe is much more gender balanced than other comedy groups, with five girls to four guys – though for tomorrow’s show Izzy is holding down the female side herself, due to clashing commitments for the others. They’re also able to make writing and pitching material a more collaborative group process so that in the end, as Tristan puts it, “when something’s bad, it’s everyone’s fault.”
Izzy describes the troupe as “a really good group of friends”, and indeed the four sitting in front of me are a good representational slice of variety, with different demeanours that nevertheless gel well together. Jack makes jokes about his River Island cardigan being ‘edgy’, whilst when Izzy launches into a particularly animated story, about how she once got her top caught on her earring in the middle of a sketch, I notice the earrings she is wearing today are deliberately mismatched. In fact the more I talk to them, the more I sense my journalistic integrity is in danger of toppling. I find myself becoming predisposed to like Middle Class Tripe because Simply the Jest are themselves so likeable.
Not that I would need to worry. As a group they seem very good at brushing off criticism with a smile. “You can never make comedy to appeal to everyone,” says Tristan, with a shrug. When I ask what it is that they would most like to hear from somebody who has been to one of their shows, the answer is predictably one part serious to two parts playing for laughs.
“Just that there were no dips and it was funny all the way through."
"Consistency, that’s the word,” is Izzy’s answer, eyes wide and earnest. Zac, completely deadpan, goes with “Wow, that was better than average”. “Either that,” says Jack, “or ‘My dad’s a producer at the BBC’.” And with that they’re all falling about laughing again.