The Capping Show: Really Old

The University of Otagoís oldest tradition has nothing to do with riots, togas, or using furniture as kindling. There is one tradition that predates the Leith run by over 40 years, and the Clocktower race by nearly a century. And itís not only our oldest tradition, itís also our funniest.

The Capping Show began in 1894, and it’s not only older than almost everything else at Otago – it’s older than pretty much everything. The folks who run the Capping Show are seriously proud of this, and will tell anyone who listens about how it’s the second-longest-running student revue … ever. Legend also has it that it only missed out on being the oldest by a year or two, and that other show should be disqualified anyway for stopping during World War Two. Pussies.
But who is this mysterious competitor, this other student revue that is the only thing in the way of the Capping Show being able to claim the ultimate title of the longest running student comedy show ever? Finding out was harder than we expected.
The Capping Show’s amateur historians will tell you it’s a show put on at a somewhat well-known university in the UK called Cambridge, by a club called Footlights. They’re famous for being old, having been around since 1883. In keeping with the legend, they were out of action during both the first and second World Wars, but it all began in 1892 when they put on a “comedy-burlesque,” which would be a lot like today’s comedy revues. However, they had no tradition of an annual show of this kind until much later in their history. So maybe the Capping Show should drop that ‘second’ from their title, and claim their place at the top.
Or maybe they just have their story wrong. There is another student revue out there which claims to have a history going all the way back to 1874, beating out both Footlights and the Capping Show – and Critic found no evidence of it having paused for any World War. For some reason it goes by the odd name of “the Bob,” and it’s the annual revue of Victoria College at the University of Toronto. They call themselves the “longest-running comedy revue in Canada,” having started out as a variety show 136 years ago and making the Capping Show look like a young’n at 116. 
Impressively, both of these revues manage to predate the existence of … well, revues. The word started to be used in the USA in around 1907, although there were plenty of productions that had a similar mix of short sketches and musical numbers before that time. These early revues had plenty of laughs, but according to Wikipedia, the “primary attraction was found in the frank display of the female body.” Now, all we get is the Selwyn Ballet.
Clearly, the Capping Show wasn’t much like the revues of the time in its early days. Women at Otago around the turn of the century were still being kicked out of reproductive anatomy lectures to protect their delicate sensibilities, and a “frank display” of their flesh would have been considered appalling. It did however have some things in common with today, such as satirising public figures and singing parodies of popular songs.
The Capping Show has changed a lot over the years, but the really traditional parts have been around for a long time. The Sextet began as a group called ‘the Coons’ in 1903. Coon is a racist word associated with the blackface tradition, where white people would put on black makeup and make fun of black stereotypes, though this group made fun of professors and university life instead. The name changed to the more appropriate ‘Sextet’ in 1912.
The Selwyn Ballet is another integral part of the Capping Show, and is another ancient tradition. It began in 1928, which makes it the second-oldest amateur ballet troupe in the world (there we go with the silver medals again), and the oldest all-male company. It’s older than the Royal New Zealand Ballet by a good 25 years.
The Capping Show’s current incarnation is very influenced by the creations of Roger Hall and Lisa Warrington in the early ‘80s. Hall, a playwright, and Warrington, a director, were brought in by OUSA to ‘save’ the show, which suggests that in the period leading up to this point the show had lost its comedy mojo. They introduced a central theme to tie the sketches together, and the structure hasn’t changed much since then. However, they also made a Capping Show that families could go to together, whereas today I wouldn’t recommend bringing Mummy and Daddy along. Thus our student revue grew to maturity. Or at least, as close to maturity as it was ever going to get. Which isn’t very close at all.
With such a long and proud history, “Second-longest-running student revue in the world” doesn’t really seem like it does the Capping Show justice. The Bob doesn’t even claim to be the oldest, instead preferring “longest-running comedy revue in Canada.” Maybe we should follow them, and claim the “longest-running comedy revue in New Zealand.” We could probably even take the title of longest-running in the Southern Hemisphere, as no one seems to have bagsed that.
A brief history of the Capping Show:
1889: Students performed skits and songs to large crowds at the official graduation ceremonies.
1894: The University became “increasingly dissatisfied” with student behaviour, and cancelled public graduation ceremonies. The Students’ Association started holding its own functions for graduating students – these were the first incarnations of the Capping Show.
1903: A group called “the Coons” sings about university life and makes fun of their professors. They change their name to “the Sextet” in 1912.
1911: The programme advises audience members “not to offer drink to the performers – they have plenty.”
1928: The Selwyn Ballet has its debut performance.
1940: The first Knox Farce is performed (at Knox – it was only later that it was forced upon the Capping Show audience).
1983: A production is written and directed by professionals Roger Hall and Lisa Warrington in an bid by OUSA to ‘save’ the Capping Show, which according to Warrington had gone into “a bit of a slump.”
1996: OUSA introduces a policy forbidding drunk performers on stage, after some cast members in ’94 and ’95 were too wasted to say their lines
2000: The Sexytet is introduced to balance out the all-male Sextet.
2010: Alice in Cappingland performed. Running from Wednesday May 12 to Saturday May 22, with tickets available from the OUSA main office.
Curse of the Capping Show
No ancient theatrical tradition would be complete without a ghost story. The Capping Show’s supernatural happenings centre on the supposed prophetic powers of some of the sketches that have appeared in recent shows. These are the stories told to Critic by the cast of the Capping Show. Judge for yourself whether these coincidences really are just that … or something more sinister.
2005: The main sketch joked that the ODT would win Daily Newspaper of the Year at the Qantas Media Awards. The fact that they actually did is possibly the scariest thing about this story. However, considering that the ODT had won this award in 2002 as well, maybe it just wasn’t a very clever joke.
Another sketch (one of many about the Pope) focused on the process of finding a new pope. This proved fatal to poor old John Paul II.
2006: A sketch was intended for this show that included the line “I should have gone to Stewart Island with my family!” but a week before the show started, six members of a family drowned in a boating tragedy near Stewart Island, making this joke a little … awkward.
2007: One of the videos for this Capping Show included the line “you can drive your car through a crowd of people without a care in the world,” a line that became a lot less funny after a drunk driver killed two girls in Christchurch by doing exactly that.
2008: In a somewhat less morbid turn of events, Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz seem to have been inspired by a sketch in 2008’s Capping Show in which someone calls their baby Mowgli. Yes, they actually did name their kid Mowgli.
2009: The Capping Show didn’t learn from the experience with the Pope, and in 2009 the Sextet devoted a large portion of their act to Michael Jackson. In future perhaps they should concentrate on ‘artists’ like Miley Cyrus and Justin Beiber.
Famous people in the Capping Show
The Capping Show sometimes gets compared to Footlights, the Cambridge University theatre group that spawned such big names as John Cleese, Eric Idle, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, and Douglas Adams. So, in its 116 years, what famous faces have passed through the ranks?
• David McPhail – famous for the political satire show McPhail and Gadsby.
• Jon Gadsby – the other half of McPhail and Gadsby.
• Jeremy Elwood – comedian.
• Matt Gibb – hosts after-school kids’ TV.
• Serena Cotton – actor, currently on TV in The Insider’s Guide to Happiness.
• Samantha Jukes – actor, currently on TV in The Insider’s Guide to Happiness.
• Timothy Foley – actor, played Dr. Mark Weston on Shortland Street.
• Julie Noever – theatre director.
• Mark Neilson – actor, in the film Scarfies, in 1999.
• Tom Hazledine – Wikipedia says he’s famous, so Critic guesses he must be.
• Chris Taine – same with this guy.
• Josh Thomson – and him.
So, in 116 years, the Capping Show has produced 12 ‘famous’ past members, an average of about one every ten years – and that’s using an extremely generous definition of ‘famous’. Capping Show cast members – keep studying, you’ll need that degree later on.

Posted 1:59pm Sunday 11th July 2010 by Caitlyn OíFallon.