The student who just wants to make people laugh

He insists that his brother is funnier — but John Tothill is a talented comedian. His desire to perform began with the piano at primary school. A love affair with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony set him on track to study music at Cambridge. Alongside his course assignments, Tothill has been making a name in student comedy and he stars in this year’s Footlights.

John Tothill in Simone’s Speaking Session (Replay Filming)

I’ve always been a show-off. It started when I was about five. At my primary school in Southend, a teacher called Mrs Luxford played the piano in assemblies, and I just adored her. My parents were bemused: I literally wanted to be Mrs Luxford. I learnt the piano for a while but I had absolutely no talent for it. I swapped to the clarinet. My mum had an old one in the loft and I took to it.

The first piece of grown-up music I remember is Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. I found it on Youtube and sat there listening to it for hours. I’d never felt so energised by music before. I’ve tried to recreate that experience loads of times, and sometimes I’m successful and sometimes not, but that’s what made me want to study music at university.

I love being the centre of attention, which probably isn’t a great thing. But I have this insane need to perform. It’s the driving force behind my clarinet playing, my conducting and my comedy. I get horribly, ridiculously nervous. But there’s nothing quite like captivating an audience with a piece of music, having an orchestra do exactly what you want, or making a room full of people laugh.

Comedy is something I discovered during visits to my gran. My younger brother and I would watch her VHS collections of Blackadder, The Young Ones and Fry and Laurie again and again. We could recite entire episodes of Blackadder word for word — and we did. I think there’s a lot of musicality in comedy, especially when thinking about the funny ways people talk — their accents and the quirks and mannerisms of speech.

I took to reading for pleasure when I was 16. I loved everything and anything by Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell, E M Forster and Evelyn Waugh. In the sixth form, I discovered the journalism of Christopher Hitchens — so erudite, cutting and cool — and read his work with an interest bordering on obsession. He’s another person I wanted to be for quite a while.

Two of my comedy heroes, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, met at Cambridge. Aged 13 I became addicted to their unique brand of humour. They’re all the best things — sweet, loving, wordy and generous. Stewart Lee is great too, though stand-up isn’t a form I’ve tried my hand at very often. A hugely underrated character comedian I admire is Colin Hoult. His character Anna Mann is a massive influence on my own writing. My first solo show, Simone’s Speaking Service owes a lot to him.

I play the narcissistic Simone and four other characters. The idea is that each of them is a motivational speaker. The first character I devised, with the help of my brother, is John Higgins. He’s a local councillor from the Black Country who sees himself as an absolute pinnacle of his community. In his words he’s “a proud member of the Salvation Army as well as its sister project the Salvation People’s Militia”.

The audience’s favourite is Julian Pringle, a Cambridge academic fixated on his research. He’s studying the fluctuating population of hornets across the course of the long 19th century. He smiles a lot but he’s quite lonely and insecure. You want to give him a hug.

When the student press praised the show I was delighted. Reviews mean quite a lot to me, I’m afraid. It’s lovely to see people approve of things I’ve made, and I’m afraid I can’t just create things that amuse me and distance myself from an audience reaction. I’m there to entertain them after all, I’m hardly an artist. My parents came to see it which was lovely.

My dad really gets my sense of humour. But I can’t say my mum does fully, which makes it even more touching that she comes to see me. I have a feeling they both secretly wish I was still spending all my time playing classical music, which is a slightly more reputable thing to be able to tell one’s friends. My younger brother is far funnier than I am to be honest, but he’s doing something more sensible and is on track to study law.

John Tothill

I wrote Simone while walking round Southend at night. I’m a terrible procrastinator and the only way I can get things done is to go for a walk and tell myself I have to get two minutes of dialogue written in my head before I allow myself to go home. I became the person muttering to himself while wandering down a main road at 2am. People cross the road quite briskly when they spot me.

The chance to be in the Footlights was a big factor behind my application to Cambridge. I’m in my second year of a music degree at Clare College. It’s understandable why some people don’t like Cambridge, as it can appear stuffy and intimidating, but I’d be lying if I said I was anything but incredibly happy here. The workload is demanding. My latest assignment was to write a big string quartet movement, which required some unpleasant late nights, but it was fine in the end.

I don’t think of myself as an artist — I’m just a teller of jokes. In my first term at Cambridge I applied for a Footlights smoker and didn’t get in. But soon after that I met a final-year history student called Raphael and from collaborating with him I learnt how to write jokes. Ultimately I think anyone can do it so long as you’re prepared to spend tedious amounts of time thinking about how sentences should end.

We took a show called Walnut Sanchez to the Edinburgh Fringe. The Edinburgh Fringe is the most amazing place in the whole world, and it’s such an education for people interested in the performing arts. You have to give 25 or so shows yourself, day in day out, which will improve your quality of performance at any rate. I also managed to see something like three or four shows per day, most of which were free. The consequence is a complete creative overload which is wonderful.

Perhaps character comedy comes from a slightly cruel place. After all, you’re laughing at a person, albeit an invented one. But I hope my characters are likable. Maybe character comedy is a question of celebrating the flaws all of us have.

But some of my characters are just there to be ridiculed. I was so angry about Britain’s decision to leave Europe that my character John Higgins became the epitome of all that is dull, white, middle-aged, middle-class, uncultured, unthinking and introspective. He talks a lot about his decision to vote leave: “I didn’t vote for Brexit because I’m racist; instead I did vote for Brexit because I’m racist.” To be honest that’s hardly celebrating flaws — it’s just me being annoyed.

This summer I’m in the Footlights for the first time. The show’s called Dream Sequence. We’re performing in Cambridge, going on tour in the UK and US, then returning to Cambridge. It makes me feel very honoured to be part of the Footlights and to think about the people I admire who started with the troupe. Comedy is a selfish industry, horribly indulgent and riddled with failings, but it’s where I want to be for now.

The Cambridge Footlights 2017 plays at the ADC Theatre until 24 June and then goes on tour in the UK and USA.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.