Camels: An Interview With UCL’s Rising Comedy Duo
On a bright day under the shadow of strike action, London Student met up with Patrick McPherson and Zac Peel. The two University College Londoners are the comedic stars of Camels, an independent, innovative series of sketch shows that has grown from a should-see amongst their mates to a must-see for you, your mate and their mum.
The close friends of seven years not only perform and write Camels, which is in its fourth instalment, but also head Beige Company. Set up in Autumn 2016, the company is a platform for their own work and the work of other young creatives. Current projects include developing ‘Dirty Work’ a mockumentary about wannabe mobsters: The Sopranos meets The Office.
But right now the focus is on ‘Camels IV’, the latest, and possibly the last, in a line of sell-out performances. It hits The Tabernacle on Thursday 22nd March.
Zac brought home-made lemon cake.
Where are you guys from?
Z: I’m from the Midlands – Peterborough.
P: I’m, originally, from Australia – the West Coast. Until we moved, after the war…
Aren’t you from Crawley?
P: I’m now from Crawley, yes.
How did you meet, when did you meet, how old were you?
Z: This is genuinely true: we met the first or second day of school and you had to do different sports…so we met doing fencing. That is genuinely true. I thought Patrick, he was about as tall then as he is now and I was five foot nothing…
P: He was intimidated is what he’s trying to say.
Z: I was intimated but I also thought he was the biggest prick I’d ever met.
P: I was awful ‘till the age of about 17, then I got progressively okay. I remember that meeting specifically. It took us about 3 or 4 years after then to relay the foundation of hate.
Z: I preferred his brother…I still do! [Patrick and I] first did a show together in 2013: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
So, you decided to do Camels in your gap year. Was there ever anyone else – a third, or a fourth Camel?
P: No. It definitely started with how we just enjoy making each other laugh. Like, “It’s not that big a deal if we have, initially, forty people as an audience size coming along to laugh with us.” At that point, it still feels like a bunch of mates putting something on and having a laugh. Then you realise “Oh, 300 people are coming and they’re all paying a tenner to watch us and be entertained.” And, because there’s only two of us, the majority of them we don’t know well – fringe friends or people inviting their flatmates and friends of friends.
Z: It’s very humbling, it genuinely is. We always laugh and say “We don’t have that many friends.” It’s insane to think that 300 people are prepared to sacrifice their evening and watch us make fools of ourselves in a big theatre.
P: And what you’ve got to remember, it is just two people on stage without any props except two chairs.
I was gonna say: UCL students! How do you find time to perform, produce and write sketch shows?
P: Something’s gotta give! I’ve been blessed to study English.
Z: I study French and Latin.
P: Yeah, unfortunately, Zac has to do work sometimes and that does get in the way of our writing. My tutor is very relaxed, so, I’ve had not issues as of yet.
Z: Well, the strikes!
P: The strikes! They’ve affected me a lot.
What is the official Camels statement on the lecturer strikes?
Z: We’ve tried, at all stages, to be completely apolitical. We’ve never made a political joke.
P: We’ve never made a political joke, or a political sketch.
Z: I don’t think people like it. The reason people go to the theatre is to get away.
P: It would be, genuinely, too easy. For example, in our next show coming up in two weeks, we could write a sketch about the lecturer strikes.
Z: We could refuse to do the show!
P: [Anyway…] everyone would understand the sketch, it’s very interpretable. Back when we started the show, a Brexit sketch would have been great. We could have done a general election sketch, we could have done Trump. If you go to the Edinburgh Fringe, they are all the rage. But you don’t want to be the people doing the easy sketches. That’s our anarchist response to your question. We don’t believe in commenting of political issues.
That’s really interesting. Hugh Laurie, of the famous Cambridge University Cellar Tapes, which won the Edinburgh Fringe Perrier Award back in the day, was saying that sketch is a “young man’s game” BECAUSE it’s so political. Y’know, there are far fewer politically rebellious 60-year-old men than there are politically rebellious students.
P: I think the error with the medium is to put a label on it. That’s the same as saying “with stand-up comedy, it’s all observational” when there are very successful comedians who don’t do that at all. We’d like our audience to be challenged in different ways. We’d like to challenge our audience with dark humour, or…
Z: Just not Donald Trump’s hair.
P: You go to any college campus and [political] jokes are being made. But, a joke about “what would Judas’ mum say” is not being made on university campuses.
You’re not lewd, you don’t really swear even. You don’t make sex jokes or dick jokes, and also you’re not very personal either. A lot of stand-up is awkward-stories-from-the-comedian’s-personal-life. Your sketches are more objective than that. It’s almost like a script that anyone could perform, it’s open to the biggest audience…
Z: The thing that’s nice about our script is that I feel like anyone could perform it.
P: I don’t think we find it that funny. I think, genuinely, not a lot of the process has changed between Zac and me sitting in a pub, over a pint, and laughing about “what would it be like, if…” to the actual performance. Zac and I wouldn’t be making the jokes that we do if we didn’t find those jokes funny. I think that’s what the strength of some of our shows has been. I hope people see that these are just two friends, who work well and find each other funny. [They are not] trying to be lewd, or have a twisted sense of humour. I think: welcome your audience into your show, and your writing process, is the best way to do it.
And there’s no personal stuff? You never think “oh, that awkward thing happened to me – I’m going to throw that on stage!”
P: We allude a lot to our crumbling friendship.
Z: Through song, normally.
P: Through song! It would be too painful to confront it without it being rhymed.
Z: There are occasionally sketches where it’s just, like, *Zac and Patrick having a conversation.* But we try and keep it slick and connected.
The show is over an hour with no breaks, but your comedy’s very quick and you make jokes IN THE NEXT SECOND…
Z: It is a bit of a scatter-gun thing. Every line, every word should be funny.
P: Even if it’s building up to a larger laugh, it should be a giggle. The next show we’ve written is the quickest show we’ve written and the most technically difficult in terms of the words we’re saying. We’ve added some really good surprises into the sketches in the way we say our lines. But make no mistake, it’s absolutely exhausting. On stage for an hour, sharing half the lines…I’d say the show is about ten thousand words, five thousand words EACH, to learn. That is in the space of an hour, with characters to remember, running round the stage…
Z: Accents! Lyrics, improvised songs…
I guess the obvious question is: how did you come to it all? Where you always interested in artsy-drama things?
P: I think, at the centre of it is, we’re both narcissists. I think I’m more of a narcissist than Zac. Both of us have always been involved in artsy-stuff, as you put it so well, and I think university gives us the perfect platform to provide and create an audience. Students are connected, they’re interested in doing things together on their nights out. University students are alert and they want something, they want entertainment, and we’ve got a great opportunity here at university to create an audience, as there is an active audience of people who will come and see our shows. That’s another factor: we’re not rocking up to a student body where we struggle to get too many tickets sold, and we wouldn’t do it unless there were people who wanted to see it. This wouldn’t happen at any other university.
Z: Being in London, you have the opportunity to perform at incredible venues – like, The Tabernacle! I don’t know if you’ve ever been…
I’ve never been at The Tabernacle before, tell me about it.
Z: It’s incredible! Its 300 seats…
P: A huge bar!
Z: Frankie Boyle’s performing the week after us. It’s amazing. It’s a community centre, there’s a lot of theatre there…I’d say it’s not very comedy-based.
How did you get it? How did you decide?
Z: I’d seen shows there in the past…the last venue was 200 seats, and we wanted to have a bit of a bigger audience than that and we really like the idea of having it on one night. It feels a bit like a party! It feels like an event. The notion of doing long-runs is very admirable, but it’s very exhausting and I think people quite like the…
P: “CAMELS IS TONIGHT” rather than “Camels is this week.”
Z: If you miss out, there’s not gonna be another chance.
Z: I am on my year abroad next year.
Will there be a show when you’re back?
Z: Patrick will have left university by that stage.
P: I think, simultaneously, we’ll say “don’t hold your breath” and “never say never”.
So now is the fourth show. Why the fourth show? Why the last show?
P: It’s always tempting, when doing a sequence of performances, to end on a high. And, the last show we thought went well. It’s always a nervous time when you say you’re going to do a fourth one, because it disrupts the idea of a trilogy.
Like with Star Wars?
P: Exactly, and look what happened to that.
Z: It was awful. Samuel L Jackson couldn’t save that.
P: Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull – a perfect example!
Z: We could go on.
P: It’s a nervous thing, to make all your friends come back, to expand your audience more. But with that comes excitement, and it’s not worth doing unless it’s nervy.
Tell me about ‘Dirty Work’
P: Zac, me, and my brother wrote this TV pilot and we had a very good friend of ours, this director Connor Doyle, who directed it. And Zac produced it and we filmed it in the Christmas holidays and it’s in production at the moment.
Could you tell us a bit about it? Is it just going to be the one pilot?
P: It’s a half-an-hour mockumentary, like The Office. The pitch is: imagine The Office meets The Sopranos. It’s about twin brothers who clean up after dead bodies for the local Mafia and, y’know, hijinks ensue. We’ll see how development goes, obviously the idea is to produce more episodes. The first one was a lot of fun to do.
Is there a release date?
Z: No, no release date. Once you show it, it reduces in value.
So: the Beige Production Company – that’s you two. But there’s other people involved? But you two are the main writers/performers? Because there’s only been Camels shows.
P: This is the first Camels show produced by us, Beige Company Productions…
P: Incorporated. Technically we are directors of the company and we produce ourselves. Again, it’s the narcissism. But we are also on the lookout for other people who need material produced, who need a platform, who would like advice…
Z: On our website, there’s a thing where anyone can submit a script. I read a lot of scripts.
Has anyone sent anything that’s in the works?
Z: Yeah, we’ve had some exciting stuff.
P: People who have got in contact with us, who we have [then] got in contact with other people we know in the industry – for advice. And if that is all we ever do, at the very lower end of it, offer people advice… [For example, if they ask] “What’s it like setting up your own show in a venue?” And we say “try this, don’t do this.” A lot of it is trial and error, we weren’t perfect on the first show. We’ve made mistakes over our shows, which we shouldn’t have done. You live and you learn and you tell those people what not to do when they ask.
Z: If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t make anything.
P: What you’ve got to understand about sketch writing in general is: it’s massively hit and miss. And especially when in our first shows, we wanted it to be bolder. I think, like we said, it’s easy to write political stuff…it’s also easy to write shocking material. It’s pretty easy to write a sketch about running over a dead dog. It’s immediately shocking.
Z: Just to clarify: we have no sketches about hurting animals.
P: We have no sketches about hurting animals! Not after “the mistakes”! Because it’s such a hit-and-miss process, by the nature of it, you’re gonna get sketches where it’s like “that sketch didn’t work as well…people are gonna get a bit offended by that…let’s take that out.” I’m glad you said that the last show wasn’t crude or lewd, because we were working towards streamlining our process, to create comedy which is…
Z: Not divisive.
P: Not divisive, and also more universal. That doesn’t mean child-friendly, and that doesn’t mean boring.
Z: Or insipid.
P: Or insipid. That means fresh. And from that I think, as the shows have gone on, the audiences have gotten bigger, the responses have been more positive.
Z: I think people have liked each show more than the last. Although that might be just by dent of it being the newest one.
Camels IV takes place at The Tabernacle on Thursday 22nd March. Tickets are sold out.