If you are feeling chippy — and I hope you are not — you might find Totally Tom annoying.
If you are feeling chippy — and I hope you are not — you might find Totally Tom annoying. Here are two Old Etonians, Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton, who want to be comedians. They have been catapulted towards success at an early age thanks to the internet, and their act is all the rage at this month’s Edinburgh Fringe. Girls like them, obviously. ‘Oh, my God, Tom!’ shouts a nubile blonde as they walk into the room. ‘I was just about to text you!’
Chippiness, however, would be quite the wrong reaction. Totally Tom are totally brilliant. They are talented, funny, and admirably self-effacing. ‘We’re just bitter dorks,’ says Stourton (who is, incidentally, son of Ed, the writer and broadcaster). ‘A lot of our jokes and characters come from that.’
Palmer and Stourton, who are both 23, have spent much of their lives trying to make each other laugh: they have the instinctive understanding of two blokes who have watched a lot of TV together. ‘We’ve always done little voices and sketches between ourselves,’ says Palmer, who is the shorter and more talkative Tom. ‘And when we were 13 or 14 we used to do silly little review shows at school.’ They clearly had a gift for acting and their drama teacher, Simon Dormandy, encouraged them. ‘He was a kind of revolutionary, Robin-Williams-from-Dead-Poets-Society-style teacher,’ says Palmer, ‘not nearly as cheesy but just as inspiring.’ ‘And none of us committed suicide,’ adds Stourton.
After school, Stourton went to Bristol University and Palmer to Oxford, but they still wanted to do comedy together. ‘At some point we decided to put our money where our mouth was,’ says Palmer. ‘So we got a camera and a microphone and stuff and just started trying to film a mockumentary.’
The result was High Renaissance Man, a brilliant spoof about an ex-public school student at Bristol University, which Tom and Tom posted on the internet. The film ‘went viral’. Hundreds of thousands have now watched it. Stourton, who plays the main character, finds he is recognised in public: ‘It’s always other public school people, though, unfortunately. I can’t say I’ve been at a football match and someone has shouted out, “Oi mate! High Renaissance Man!”’
It did not take long for a talent agency to sign them, and Totally Tom were up and running. ‘Things just took off,’ says Palmer. ‘And everything has happened so quickly since.’ After a month at the Fringe, Totally Tom will appear on Channel 4’s Comedy Lab, which, they hope, will lead to a TV series.
Totally Tom are eager not to dwell on High Renaissance Man. ‘We’d much rather focus on our sketches.’ They haven’t watched their greatest success for over a year. ‘It’s weird, I suppose we are fed up with it. One of our friends said to us the other day, “I think you should watch High Renaissance Man. I think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done.” And we were, like, “NO!” I think we don’t want to watch it in case we realise that it’s all been downhill from there.’
They need not worry. The new material is very good, and some of their sketches exhibit real originality and comic skill. My favourite is a Hollyoaks-like teen drama set in Nazi Germany, which ends with one girly character, Zara, coming off the phone and saying, ‘That was Herr Christoph, his results are back…they’re positive…He’s Jewish!…He says I might have it, too!’
Their comedy is heavily informed by the best British acts of recent years: The Day Today, Brass Eye, The Office and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. ‘I feel really bad talking about our influences because the people we name probably wouldn’t want to be our influences,’ says Palmer. ‘But certainly the comedy that we loved and over which we forged our comedic understanding was all those amazing things that came out in the 1990s and early 2000s.’
They are a bit prickly, however, when I suggest that there’s a touch of Fry and Laurie about them. ‘I think a lot of people say that because of the physicality,’ says Stourton. ‘But I don’t see it.’ ‘I’ve heard that Fry and Laurie were funny,’ adds Palmer, politely. ‘But I’ve always thought, probably wrongly, that their stuff was more safe and traditional, and I think we are a bit different. The new posh buffoon is very, very different to the posh buffoon of ten years ago. Our posh buffoon is trying much harder to be cool and as a result is a bit more grotesque. He’s a bit less nice but dim, more nasty but dim.’
Which brings us back, I’m afraid, to class. Many of Totally Tom’s sharpest sketches, though by no means all, are satires of privilege. There’s a pair of Sloaney bitches doing coke in the loo, for instance, and a deliciously painful 21st birthday party speech, in which a camp version of the High Renaissance Man makes an appearance. It feels like Steve Coogan with an upper-middle-class twist. Are they worried about being dismissed as comedians for posh people?
‘I think that’s an obvious angle for a lot of, er, critics to take,’ says Stourton. (He means journalists.) ‘But I think we do try to keep the spectrum of characters quite broad, and we have to keep our fingers crossed that people focus on the comedy and not on our background.’
Yet the best satire comes from experience; and perhaps Totally Tom are at their funniest when sending up the posh. ‘It is important to write what you know, definitely,’ agrees Palmer. ‘But a lot of the stuff that seems to have gone down as well in the live show is stuff from our imaginations, and our developing characters. I hope that when people see the Channel 4 pilot they will see that we are not simply public school satirists.’