Described by its presenter, Steve Punt, as a “celebration of arcane knowledge”, the 3rd Degree is a quiz show with a strong comic element to it, because without it, it would feel a very unfair mismatch pitting students against the teachers. The comedy element is used to slightly offset that to make it feel like more of an upmarket pub quiz. The questions posed in the quiz itself are quite challenging, set to a degree standard, however this doesn’t normally feel the case as it is done in quite a light way.
The only time you’d notice the questions begin to rival the high-brow academic obscurity of its competitors’ questions, those on University Challenge, is when the maths comes up, often baffling presenter Punt, who sits back and just watches when the language becomes more algebra than English. An English student himself, he mused: “My brain is full of Shakespeare quotes and the social background of the Victorian novel, so to get a glimpse into the world of the weird and wonderful things mathematicians get up to when I record this show is very enjoyable.”
He also said the show is important for teenagers to learn about subjects you can’t do at school, although he does joke that the majority of young people listening to Radio 4 are probably being forced to by their parents. In the show he asks students how they came to choose their degree subject – a question he says is important to show off the sudden widening of what you can do to youngsters.
Steve Punt is probably most well-known for having presented news programme The Now Show alongside Hugh Dennis, the father from the BBC’s family sitcom Outnumbered, who he met while studying at the University of Cambridge. A story he had clearly told before, he recalled the first time they met at the legendary comedy Footlights society, where Punt went to watch a show called ‘Rebel Without Applause’ with his own group of budding comedians, in which they’d heard there was “someone who was really good at doing voices”. Apparently the group liked him, which led to the decades-spanning Punt and Dennis comedy double act. Punt says that Dennis never really used to write, just doing voices, while admitting that he himself mainly wrote, not being that confident as a performer, whereas now he says they balance responsibilities.
Seeing as he met his lifelong professional partner at a university society, it wasn’t surprising when he said: “The great secret that schools don’t like to talk about is that university is about more than doing subjects. It’s a chance to meet the people who are interested in the same stuff as you.
“It kind of sounds trivial to say to someone in school you can join the film club, you can act in plays, you can do fencing – anything you could be interested in will be going on somewhere at university. But when you start looking for jobs, people want to hire well-rounded people. You don’t quite grasp at your age that for the rest of your life, those sorts of opportunities will be much harder to come by once you’re working. Once you’re at an office from 9 to 5, it’s much harder to take up hobbies like fencing.”
As a child Punt says he wanted to be an author, but he says he knew he would never be able to make a living out of it. So, instead, he chose to pursue comedy. He says he’s not joking and that he simply went to where the market was. Clarifying, he says: “The thing about comedy is, is that it’s very open-access. The key is experience. To get to the more high profile levels, you do gigs and if they go alright you do more gigs, and then you get asked to support someone who’s a bigger name on tour, or you end up on a bill. What would frequently happen is that you’d be on a bill and on stage first and the headline act’s agent would be there and would point you the right way if they liked you.”
Finding out what works comically for you is really important too, according to Punt who has been in the industry since the 80’s. He cites Jack Dee as someone did just this. For years, Jack Dee used to have a fairly run-of-the-mill jolly stand-up routine, but never had much success with it. One night, he was on the verge of giving up and very pissed off, so went through his entire set grumpy and deadpan because he was sick of it, and found that suddenly that the audience were howling with laughter, and now he has never gone back.
His most important tip for aspiring comedians? “It’s a weird mixture of confidence but not over-confidence. Any comedy set is effectively a focus group and you have to listen to the audience and build on what’s working. And be prepared to rewrite. A lot. There’s a tendency when you first write, that as soon as someone says: ‘no, that should be a bit shorter’ that you go on the defensive and that really isn’t a good idea, because in practical terms you won’t last in an industry which is rewriting stuff all the time.”
One of Steve Punt’s passions is in raising awareness of global warming, evidenced by the talk he gave to the Royal Society of Arts last year, where he used humour to try and highlight the absurdity of some of the arguments raised by climate-change deniers. Talking about the role comedy has to play in a wider societal debate, he said that comedy was one of the many tools available to debate-makers to get people thinking. “I’m not saying I think it can preach, or necessarily change minds, but it can raise awareness,” he added. “Weirdly, I think people are more inclines to believe comedians than they are politicians.”
He recalled an occasion at a previous recording of the 3rd Degree, just before the General Election last year, where a student in the audience came up to him and said he wasn’t going to vote for the Green Party anymore, putting it down to an edition of the Now Show the previous week which had highlighted some of their lesser-known policies. “I did feel slightly guilty, but we didn’t make any of that up — all we did was pointed out some things that they’d said. But it did make me realise that comedy really can have a massive effect.”