The performers of the Footlights BME Smoker in OctoberFootlights Company

“I don’t know what race the person is when I’m reading the jokes. I’m just trying to see whether it makes me laugh.” When asked about the diversity of his writing staff, Stephen Colbert gave this reply on the 2013 Behind the Scenes at The Colbert Report panel. Colbert has a total of 19 people on his writing staff; only two of them are women, and exactly zero are people of colour. It isn’t Colbert’s most impressive soundbite. And for someone who consistently talks about issues of race and gender, he doesn’t exactly put his money where his mouth is. Yet the response he gives isn’t that unfamiliar – it’s the sort of response that for years has been used to justify lack of diversity everywhere in media, and, most relevant to us, the lack of diversity within the microcosm that is Cambridge comedy. A lack of diversity which was set to continue, that is, until the monumental reforms the system is set to undergo this and next year: the switch from the Footlights Committee to the Footlights Administrative Committee, and the slow but steady journey towards a fully democratic system.

What is the purpose of the Footlights Committee? As discussed in the BME open meeting, one of the primary purposes of the Committee is to help foster comedy within Cambridge, and most would agree that this includes accessibility. Cambridge comedy must be inviting to all, irrespective of gender, class or race. And yet at the moment there is a massive statistical misrepresentation. According to a 2015-16 report, BME students made up 25.3 per cent of the undergraduate population – but in the last four years, there has only been one BME person on a Footlights Committee. Footlights smokers over the years have consistently hosted all white line-ups; although a lot of improvement has been made recently, there is still a long way to go. In the past some people have said that they are “simply choosing the best comedians, that the system is a meritocracy”, but the incredibly high standard of comedy showcased at events like the past two BME Footlights smokers would suggest otherwise. The standard at these was arguably higher than a regular smoker, even though many were performing comedy for the first time. There is no shortage of comedic talent in the BME community.

“Diversity can’t help but make shows a lot more interesting”

The problem is that many BME people, and to be honest many others, simply don’t want to get involved with the Footlights. And frankly, why would they? Bringing your own material to an audition or a crowd of judging eyes to say ‘I wrote this and I think it’s funny’ is absolutely terrifying, and requires the sort of confidence that – I know I’m generalising here – is mostly prevalent in white middle-upper class males who went to good schools with well-funded arts programmes. This is especially true in sketch comedy, which tends to rely more heavily on some form of theatrical knowledge or training. Once you’ve (likely) been rejected, it’s even more terrifying to do that again.

However, all this is surpassed by the issue of representation. The history of the Footlights is undeniably star-studded, from the makers of Monty Python to the Inbetweeners, from Fry and Laurie to Mitchell and Webb – but it’s also really white. Couple this with the lack of representation at committee level in the past few years and it’s understandable that many BME people may think it’s not a space for them. This affects many other underrepresented groups as well, such as those from working class backgrounds, those who don’t speak with perfect received pronunciation – or even those who just aren’t overwhelmingly confident as they approach their first year of university.

“It is now time to learn the lessons of active change and apply them”

What’s more, the structure of the system really doesn’t help representation. In an ideal world maybe the old committee choosing the new committee could be entirely meritocratic, but in reality people choose the people they relate to the most, and these tend to be people from similar backgrounds, or people who know how to network and play the system. Moreover, it benefits those who succeed in comedy right from the start of their time in Cambridge: those who make a good impression in their first term and therefore can build their comedic reputation, allowing them access to more opportunities. A lot of progress toward gender balance in Cambridge comedy has been recently achieved through active efforts to increase representation, as well as through the introduction of places to comfortably test out new material, such as the open mic nights run by Stockings. It is now time to learn the lessons of active change and apply them elsewhere.


Mountain View

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The planned changes to the Footlights Committee are groundbreaking. Previously there has always been a dichotomy with the positions, in that they were chosen based on whether the old committee thought someone was funny or had done enough shows, yet the actual roles require helping comedy function and blossom in Cambridge. Changing the focus from “commitment to comedy” to ability to fulfil the specific administrative role shows that, after decades of a flawed system, this year’s Committee have finally and decidedly come down on one side of the issue – that the point of the Footlights is to help comedy thrive, in all its forms. There is debate over how exactly this change came about, but what matters now is that the Footlights’ focus is one of accessibility. Some may worry that the lack of exclusivity will decrease the standard of Cambridge comedy, but with the amount of opportunities here I assure you that won’t be the case. In the world of comedy, where material is often formed by an individual’s upbringing and background, diversity can’t help but make shows a lot more interesting.

With these sweeping reforms, the future of the Cambridge Footlights looks bright and hopeful; but currently it is just that – a future. The decisions enacted by the Committee are powerful, but we must remember during this transition that change does not happen in a moment, but requires constant force. Accessibility and diversity should be ever-present in our minds, for fear we let ourselves slip back into the past. It will be a long and arduous process, but I wholeheartedly believe it is something we can achieve.

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