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Interview with Robin Ince — I'm a Joke and So Are You

Jordan Harrison-Twist

11.01.19

When he crouched behind the driver’s seat to pick up a dropped toy gun, the career in comedy was kickstarted with a collision. At two-years-old, little Robin Ince was preoccupied with finding his favourite toy, so he could have done nothing — he was only two — but the man driving on the wrong side of the road crashed into them, leaving his mother in a coma.

The event would be traumatic for any child to bear, but in Ince’s book I’m a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take On What Makes Us Human, he describes the crash within the wider context of neuroscience, and the phenomenon that rises like a sickly sun in all writing about comedians: Sad Clown Syndrome. ‘If I want to thank or blame one incident for why I am what I am, I choose that one’, he writes, ‘[b]ut I don’t know how much importance it really has in the tale of an idiot’s progress’. That idiot’s progress has seen a career in comedy that has sucked the juices from nearly three decades, winning multiple Chortle awards and Time Out’s Outstanding Contribution to Comedy Award in 2006, whilst engaging in writing, performing, and latterly podcasting with the likes of Josie Long, Michael Legge, and in the BBC’s popular Infinite Monkey Cage with Professor Brian Cox.

In November 2018, I went to Ince’s book launch at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, and in his customarily frenetic style (in supernova expelling a lifetime’s energy and light), he discussed the crash and his mother eventually waking from her coma. How he was deeply affected by her condition. How he thought it was his fault for selfishly fetching his gun, for not being there to save her. I remember feeling a similar sense of dislocated guilt after the divorce of my parents, (another ostensible prerequisite of the creative), and indeed the book does touch upon how a child channels this sense of helplessness into something generative. More than this, though, I’m A Joke and So Are You complicates the clean trajectory from trauma to comedy, and pivots on what seems like the choice to give trauma a formative significance in a choice of career. ‘We are all unreliable narrators of our past’, he writes, a crowning instant in which he brilliantly realigns humans’ complicated grasp of what memory is and does, with a duty fundamental to the onstage stand-up comedian.

The book doesn’t just investigate the confirmation bias involved in theories of what makes comedians comedians, but also on what happens to the brain when you spend every night thinking of the next line, the next punchline, the next considered silence — all without a fluff or stutter. What is the nature of the double-voice of the comedian, and where does the out-of-body sensation of performance come from? Crucially it addresses what can happen when the double-voice splits into performer and self-critic, and the comedian himself becomes subject to his own lacerating material. In 2015, Ince announced his hiatus from stand-up, owing to professional paranoia, insomnia, and suffering “Imposter Syndrome” — a feeling shared by others in the industry who look upon the skills of others with awestruck, defeated eyes. In so many tragic cases, the profession greedily takes so much for the pith and fizz it returns — as Ince himself wrote, ‘cutting down is not an option. Total abstinence is required’.

Fortunately, for comedy fans, Ince is back, pugnaciously rocking on his stool and bubbling out brilliant podcasts on literature (Book Shambles with Josie Long), on music (Vitriola with Michael Legge), and science (The Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox). His stand-up is as diffuse, as articulate, as eccentrically textured, as infuriating, and as inspiring as ever (and with Ince those words do seem to make sense together). As I was sat researching for a stupid script I was writing, spending hours to find a fish that sounded funny for a character to throw at the Blackpool illuminations, a nondescript section of his book delivered a moment of icy resonance. ’A good deal of my working could be confused with just staring out of the window’, he writes, pre-empting difficult questions from his wife. ‘Coming up with ideas for shows and stories can look deceptively like doing absolutely nothing’. After these lines were digested, the book slammed shut, the mug holding my page in place ejected across the desk. For a moment, the message Ince wrote on the title page at his book signing came into view: ‘To Jordan, enjoy playing with the universe’.

There is nothing debasing in analysing the science of stand-up, of pulling something sublime into legible threads, and when executed with the sensitivity of Ince’s book, he avoids the famous epithet often attributed to E. B. White: ‘Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind’. Rather, Ince’s stand-up, and his cautious writing about it, is performed with the wet gloves of the herpetologist, and looks with warmth and curiosity at the glands, gulps, and hops of the animal, alive.

Robin Ince, 'I'm a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian's Take On What Makes Us Human' (Atlantic Books, 2018)

‘The earliest stand-up routine that I remember performing involved fox-in-chicken-shed and ship-in-a-bottle — I can’t even remember what the particular joke was, but just those phrases. I used to have a routine about Woody Allen’s sequel to Rosemary’s Baby — it’s really odd. When I started stand-up, all of those revelations were coming out about Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, so it was probably some very lewd routine about that. I used to have a lot of things about alpha males’ attitudes — backs against the wall and all that kind of stuff — alpha attitudes to anyone who was gay. A very right-on routine’.

¶ And how old were you then?

‘About nineteen, twenty. It was very different starting your career back then. I think nowadays you do see some quite fully formed acts who are very young, and I think one of the things that helps a great deal is not merely that they are genetically superior, but possibly because they have access to almost every single stand-up routine that has ever been done. Now you can go to YouTube and do your own Open University course in stand-up comedy from a very young age; whereas I would be going from record shop to record shop buying stuff from Robin Williams and Richard Pryor — I was about fifteen when I could start sneaking into the clubs. Now I look back on the first ten years of my career and I think that it was probably a big waste of time. I was drinking too heavily. And believing that doing twenty minutes a night was a full-time job — when of course now I realise that that is extremely lazy. That’s why now I work the whole time: making up for an incredibly alcoholic twenty-something laziness’.

¶ Even in the industry you are renowned as a workhorse, performing two or three times a day.

‘I try and squeeze in as many different projects as I can: meeting people, doing events, interviews, daytime work, whatever. I want to do as much as possible. I think Eddie Izzard talks about this as well — that the reason he does so much is because he knew how lazy he was. I think of the people I know who are near-workaholics, they are near-workaholics because they also believe they are incredibly lazy. And it is a binary choice. You either do nothing or you do everything’.

¶ And I suppose with stand-up, so much of what is expected of you in a writing sense is that you need to experience as much as possible in the day in order to consolidate it into worthy material.

‘I want things to change all the time. Every now and then a show would become a kind of solid artefact, which is to say two nights in a row, and if that becomes three nights in a row I have to immediately go back to the material and pull something out, change it. That’s why I try as much as possible when I go on-stage to have something reactive — not necessarily reactive to the room, but reactive to a thought that I’ve just had, or a conversation I’ve had with someone off-stage. Quite often I like continuing a conversation which nobody knows I have just had with the lighting person or whomever’.

¶ So do you remember a pivotal failure on-stage, or a time when you bombed — before these formulas were worked out?

‘I think I had a very long period of failure when I started. The first few gigs I did, I did pretty well; but I always hated picking up the phone to ask for more, so it was a slow start. About thirty years ago, I came second place in So You Think You’re Funny, and a lot of people on the night thought I could have won that competition. I didn’t actually know what I wanted to talk about, so it took me a very long time to truly consider what I was doing.

My act went downhill, and that is always a problem. Some comics start slow, but they build, and their growth is a reasonably exponential one. I started quite strongly and deteriorated, and then people consider your reputation to be untrustworthy. I went from having twenty-minute spots, to ten-minute spots, to open spots in various clubs. And that is quite a difficult thing to deal with. I think I became complacent. I wasn’t creating. Because I got second-place in that competition, I was lazy and perhaps expecting that I would just get something, that my turn must just be around the corner. And then probably towards the end of the 90s, I really started trying to focus, and said “what the fuck do I want to do?”

A couple of times I nearly quit stand-up because it wasn’t working. I mean, I used to improvise a lot. But I did notice that somewhere along the line there was a sense of being jaded and then a sense of immense failure. And from what early on looked like it could have been a success’.

¶ Could you put that down to, as the cliché goes, the second album syndrome? You know, you have twenty years to grow your first material into something serviceable, and then you have to replenish in a matter of weeks, months.

‘Yes: one of the problems, I think, on the comedy circuit, is that it is very easy to remain doing the same twenty minutes. There are people I know who still have a lot of jokes that they had when they started twenty-five years ago. And for some reason there is some drive that tends to disappear. Some urgency for you to find your first twenty, and then once you have it, your brain goes “well, you don’t really need to create any more, because you can get by on this routine”. I remember Jo Brand said to me years and years ago — at least I think she told me, or maybe it was something I read that she said — you know you can’t really be a comedian until you’re thirty years old, because you don’t know who you are. And twenty-two-year-old me, thought, “oh, that is rubbish”. And of course, later, thirty-five-year-old me thought, “fuck me she was right”. Of course she was right. Not necessarily, but generally.

¶ I have listened to a few interviews with comedians who talk about Just for Laughs in Canada changing them, being bundled up with and against American, Canadian, Australian comics — generally in the 80s and 90s. Some British comics say that the learned nature of the material comes across in very different ways depending on where the performer is from. Even down to the stance, the geography of the stage, body language, intonation, extra verbal elements.

‘I mean Just for Laughs had so many brilliant, disastrous appearances by British acts who were doing absurd or nonsensical material. When Vic and Bob went on and sang It’s My Lucky Carpet — of course, that didn’t translate at all and it was absolutely wonderful. I remember the first time I went to American clubs when I was in my late teens, and I went out there for a month. It was really interesting to watch the totally different modes of these performers who had no connection with the audience at all — at least in the venues I visited. It was going on and doing your act, and that was it. Whether the audience were there or not, it would have been the same. People getting aggressive if they didn’t get exactly the same level of laugh they had achieved the night before in South Carolina. I think we do see more slickness in UK stand-up now, but that where every gesture is known is still unusual to see.

There are some young people who are fully formed but they are a rarity. Someone like Kevin Bridges I think is a pretty remarkable comic: to be so young and do what he does, to the scale he does. But I think overall, age is important. Your brain is still physically developing until you are twenty-four/five, and fundamentally, at least for me, you have to believe in what you are doing — it couldn’t just be some jokes. I couldn’t just be playing the part of the comedian. I had to find a thing that I really wanted to talk about in order to make a connection with people’.

¶ And in your experience, is that connection fairly evenly distributed? Do you, for instance, have a bogey-town?

‘There used to be, but nearly all the towns that I’d said that about was because I wasn’t good enough. I used to be quite scared of playing Belfast because I felt I was such an outsider. But to be honest, I felt an outsider everywhere. As long as you are honest, authentic, on-stage, it is a great place to play. I’ve had plenty of terrible nights. But I don’t think the geographical location was the main reason for it. It was probably my own mishandling. Or sometimes you’re playing to a pissed-up audience who have no interest in you. So anyone who reads this will immediately be able to remind me of every single place I’ve died on my arse’.

Robin Ince and Josie Long for 'Book Shambles' a podcast about literature by The Cosmic Shambles

¶ There is a moment in the book where you talk about the flow of performance and not particularly remembering where certain ideas come from, even retroactively. I wondered if you could unpack what a good gig feels like, in line with this idea of flow.

‘I think it is when the other voices in your head are at their quietest. When there is an incredible sense of mental energy. I love sometimes when I have a new show — as you know I don’t really write the material: it is a collection of notes — the first run-through gig is a load of scraps and me trying to turn them into something while being stared at. There will be errant thoughts in my head, that I haven’t said aloud before. Once, stupidly, I had literally finished one tour on the Friday, and I started the next one on the Sunday. At Bristol, I think it was, at the Tobacco Factory there, I had put together some kind of slideshow that would be a reminder for my material. I went on and, man, I was so erratic — incredibly erratic — but when I came off, it turned out that it had been a performance where people just wanted to talk to me about something they had heard, some reaction to the gaps in my material. There was something that was so clearly distanced from the artifice of show business. The panic mode of being observed somehow leads your brain to fire non-stop and for a while you can’t hear the voice of doubt — which may well shout at you afterwards if you’re sat on the bus or something.

That voice gives me a kind of hyper-vigilance in every room that I play. I am very aware of a sense of waiting for rejection, or presuming that someone putting their coat on or coughing is a deliberate accusation. The older I have got, the more I have realised how perpetual that voice is. It is perpetual in my whole life. Even last night at a little book shop event — a tiny little place, you know, twenty-five people — and still I was thinking: “are they alright? Have they come deliberately? Are they thinking it’s not really their cup of tea?” It’s the same, too, with The Infinite Monkey Cage and all of those things. Even in a gig where it appears I may be storming the show, it’s very rare that the other voice isn’t going: “you make sure that you don’t fucking lose this now”. And at the same time I’m also chained to the fact that I can’t just recite anything. I have to do what I want to do and what I believe is the right thing to do for the gig. I mention this in the book: I can’t suddenly go: “hang on a minute, this audience seems like they might like this kind of wanking joke”. I can’t do that because I’m not a slot-machine. “Whatever you want, I just wanna please you”. I’m caught between “I wanna please you” but with “exactly and only the words I wanna say”’.

¶ The section in your book when you discuss that inner voice, and warring inner and outer voices, reminds me of the narrator in Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’ (a sort of founding text for this magazine). He splits the inner monologue and conscious body into distinct characters. He also splits narrative time in an interesting way and has it pass at different speeds in different locations, and within different modes of storytelling. Having watched your performances live, there is sometimes a ferocity to your tangents to the extent that you seem to accelerate away from your central point. And then you run out of time. It looks deliberate. And is both entertaining and frustrating to watch. What is your experience of the passing of time on-stage?

‘I never understand how I have done this for so long and still have no sense of time. It is entirely accidental. I always find it weird when I do a benefit gig or something in the middle of a solo tour. They say: “just do fifteen minutes” — and I still never know what that is. I see that as two jokes and then on with the show. Then what I do is fucking twenty-seven minutes long. There is some illusion that takes over that allows me to ignore those boundaries of start and finish. But then if I do have a clock directly opposite me, such as a show I did at Edinburgh this year, it really helps create the chaos. Every time I looked up it was a sense of “fuck! seven minutes have gone!” and it became really fractured.

I was doing an interview with some academic up in Newcastle, and he was saying that “your stand-up is very disruptive. Not only are you disrupting different ideas about the world, but you’re disrupting yourself”. And those are my favourite gigs. The one this writer saw was a gig at Newcastle Stand, and it was one in which I got a sense that there was so much I wanted to say. This is when a comedian hits the right place. And the audience was going with it to the extent that I was given total freedom to fracture the performance as much as I wanted. I could break it up to confuse and put it back together in whatever way I pleased’.

¶ You do it in your own very distinctive way, which has earned you praise from your fellow comedians. Stewart Lee’s character — slightly magnanimously but not incorrectly — refers to his act as engendering the cadences of free jazz. I know you were in a band yourself — I wonder if you pay consideration to the music of your act?

'I think it’s an interesting thing. There is not a conscious consideration, but it is definitely there. I think once you have been doing something like this for as long as I’ve been doing it, or as long as Stewart’s been doing it — though Stew has a very different sense of structure — you don’t even realise how many different unconscious skills you have. I think there is a rhythm, though there is no sense that there is a score-sheet. Underneath it all, there is a constantly changing tune going on, maybe it comes from that voice.

¶ Let’s talk about your book I’m a Joke and So Are You. I found the introduction fascinating, because you begin with a challenge to yourself — a compulsion for you to check your privilege. I was wondering if you’ve experienced a shift in the industry in this regard?

'I don’t really feel part of the industry. I’m not on the TV shows or anything like that; I’m off doing my own thing whether I’m working with Josie Long (on Book Shambles), whether with Brian Cox (on The Infinite Monkey Cage), or whatever. I feel detached from it as an industry so I don’t think I would be able to sense any kind of shift. I do know that as usual there is a large number of privileged men who now feel they are being oppressed, when it is merely that the kinks of privilege are beginning to be ironed out — to some extent. I can definitely sense there is bitterness. But for the most part people are welcoming a shift. I used to have a poem that I would open my set with about checking your privilege. The sense of it was that we are all struggling, it’s all difficult, because we are human and self-aware; but at the same time, it doesn’t mean that we are all struggling the same amount. It’s not that I haven’t been beaten up in the street, but it’s just that I had to say something first. Some people from the moment they leave the door — for whatever reasons it might be in terms of gender, culture, class — are already a target just for existing. Whereas I — I have got to open my fat mouth before a fist gets into it.

¶ The most resonant part of the book is your discussion of trauma and its supposed link to the creative industries. I wondered if we could discuss your position here just a little bit. You confess that a car crash had a formative significance to your life…

‘I believe that is the case. The editor kept telling me: “you don’t have to apologise for telling this story. This is a traumatic story. It is traumatic for a child to go through this”. I think that is what a lot of this battle is: the shame over the fact that circumstances like this aren’t traumatic enough to be shared. A lot of people have gone through unbelievably traumatic things, and you don’t want to belittle their experiences by saying you had a bad thing happen, too. It doesn’t mean that the immensity of your experience is any less because of someone else’s. Phillippa Perry told me: “trauma has so many different levels. It doesn’t have to be the highest amount to change you”. A child can experience something that may well have a massively traumatic effect on them, but if retold, an individual could retort: “how can that have any effect on them whatsoever?”

¶ It is a particularly sensitively written part of the book, I think, because you do sense your cognitive dissonance, your reticence to make such solid connections between the event and who you are now. In many ways that is disproving the clean connections often made between the initial trauma and the resulting need, which results in finding employment in the arts.

‘The more I think about it, the more I think that there are people who want to be creative — not necessarily people who already are, but just those who have that urge inside them — and they don’t feel that they have the permission to do it. That’s another important factor. For people from many backgrounds, the art world isn’t an arena that presents itself as something they are allowed to explore. But if you are someone who wants to create, I do think that comes from an impulse of disruption. Something in childhood often presents itself, where the world is not quite how it should be. And I think that can be the start of you creating a different story, a different picture, a different sculpture, something that you create to address that imbalance. That your creation is a manifestation of how you see the world. No matter how weird it may appear to others.

¶ Another thing I have noticed with comedians’ books is that there is a temptation to couch the impulse of comedy in a slightly self-deprecative way. So it is either narcissism or lunacy, isolation or exhibitionism. But is that not just a nicer way of framing the profession as something extraordinary, superhuman?

‘It’s interesting — I think everyone somewhere inside them has access to something that is remarkable which in a sense stops it being remarkable. If we’re all weird, absurd, and curious, then what defines one as different? Every now and then, you get the chance to have such an ability, suddenly you notice it when a certain topic comes up, or a certain frame of mind — it doesn’t mean you’ll have it all the time’.

¶ You discuss this fluency in opposition to one of the more resonant images in the book which is ‘this critical little homunculus’.

‘It’s this horrible, impish creature which with me is reasonably perpetual. Who at the end of every conversation you have, at the end of every time you’ve been on public transport, or during a journey of any description, you can hear that little creature saying: “you know people are looking at you, and they’re thinking ‘what an idiot’; people are thinking ‘yeah… how embarrassing’”. This is the thing that can really hinder people. You know, our greatest fear is that of shame — apart from a fear of, you know, being dropped in acid — but it is shame that stops the words flowing. That’s what that homunculus is doing. And I find it quite remarkable that it’s still as vivid in my head when I sit there doing things such as Infinite Monkey Cage — which we’ve now done 106 episodes of — there’s still a bit of me that is going: “you’re ruining it, you’re ruining it. Brian is being brilliant explaining the universe. And then there’s that idiot who’s done a stupid voice. You’re just preposterous”. But equally of course that voice of self-doubt and self-loathing is the creative impulse — going back to that Richard Feynman quote when he’s talking about scientific knowledge: the keys to Heaven work on the gates to Hell. So you just have to get used to the fact that the vicious little homunculus is part of the same process that does a two-hour show about all manner of nonsensical ideas, quite easily.

¶ I don’t know if you’ve checked your Wikipedia page, by the way, and I don’t mean to bring it up if it is a conscious avoidance: but that critical little homunculus is a much more poetic description than what I read about the reason you quit stand-up in 2015.

‘Yeah, it didn’t go very well. The doubt had really hit me. I think it was that I had been touring a lot, and it really did feel as though it was building up over two years. The worthlessness of what I was doing. It just felt utterly pointless. But I never actually properly quit. Everybody knew I’d be available to do benefit gigs, because I wasn’t doing anything else, so I’d get a phone call saying: “someone has pulled out, can you do this gig?” I would be doing about a gig a week in retirement. But it felt like they were pragmatic gigs as they were for a purpose; they weren’t for my own narcissism. And then when I started touring with Brian, by the end of that I had loads of ideas in my head that I wanted to get out. I think I probably am healthier now than I was at that point in terms of gigs.

More often than not, I have a reasonable sense of satisfaction after gigs now. I might still have worries about certain things that have affected certain people, but overall, I think for the time being, it’s good. Certainly as I’m talking to you now. That’s the fascinating thing about those voices: when they’re not there, you don’t think they’ve ever existed. When I quit stand-up, the thought came: “well you weren’t particularly that miserable about it, were you?” But our brains, as a coping mechanism, often erase those kinds of sensations. So losing those feelings of misery or paranoia, public anxiety or whatever, you feel: “oh no, it can’t have been that bad”. And then it comes back and you feel how vivid it really can be’.

¶ Those are the internalised double-voices; I wonder how that works with partnerships. You have been very vocal about your deep love of Laurel and Hardy, and now of course you’re working with Brian Cox and Josie Long, and you’re all over YouTube for your work with Ricky Gervais — you play a different iteration of your own personality in each of those relationships. Could you talk a little about working in a double-act, or even if indeed you consider these to be double-acts in their essence?

‘I don’t really with Ricky. I think with Ricky it is specifically about a power structure. It’s a different kind of thing. Two people who know each other playing it in such a way. I don’t have the same level of comfort that I have when I’m sitting with Josie or working with Michael Legge or with Brian. I don’t think there’s the same level of competition, which is a lot better. A lot healthier. With Ricky, we do things where we would chat to each other and he takes the piss out of me. With Josie, Michael, and Brian, we are friends, and we don’t worry about one of us getting a bigger laugh. With Michael, I definitely am the most absurd out of the two of us. When I do shows with him, that is my full id mode. With Josie it changes. That is quite a conversational thing. And with Brian, he isn’t the straight scientist to my comedy, because quite often he has a good line back, as well. All of those working relationships come from a level of joy, and actually being happy working together, and being around each other, and having a lovely time.

¶ And that science/comedy line is explored in your book — where the magisteria contaminate each other — science as material in comedy and comedy as the subject of science. I have noticed that recently Sara Pascoe has written a book on gender studies and biology; Simon Munnery’s recent show touches upon inventions, technology, and industry; Stewart Lee’s book How I Escaped My Certain Fate atomises his own show and places it under a microscope… There does seem to be this great but slightly uneasy relationship between comedy and science.

‘I think it’s just because if comedy really is what you love, then very often people are drawn to it because you’re curious about lots of things. You’re sat in a café, you’re sat on a train, observing things all the time, you’re making notes but in a less fastidious way than an anthropologist or an evolutionary biologist. You’re looking for the punchline as opposed to the doctorate. I think you’re bound to end up with some of those links. Most of the comics I hang around with are the kind of people who are always reading, always going to museums, always studying. Initially with the idea of turning it into material. It is my alibi to say my fascination is my work. “I’m not being lazy here, sat with a book, this may well turn into a five-minute routine”.

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