Circuit Training 58: The Ever-Empirical Robin Ince
"Most of my life is spent with mind envy," says Robin Ince, and you can see his point, what with all the brainiacs he knocks around with these days, from regular cohort Brian Cox to various controversial Richards.
Many of us will have first come across Robin due to his Ricky Gervais connections, but since then the cerebral-but-shouty comic has carved a truly unique career, and an important one. His club night, The Book Club, brought variety back to the circuit, his radio show with Cox, The Infinite Monkey Cage, has made brain-taxing stuff accessible, and the hugely popular 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People has given lots of atheists a lovely Christmas night out. And quite a few religious people, too. He doesn't think you're all crackers, really.
I caught up with Robin a few weeks back to preview his new tour, The Importance of Being Interested, which has just begun its jaunt from conurbations to countryside. Indeed, I was interested to see that he's coming to my local venue, the rather nice (and really quite large) Hertford Theatre, which usually hosts comics with more of a TV profile. How big a nationwide audience is there for science-based comedy, I wonder?
So, The Importance of Being Interested - give us a brief synopsis...
Well, I don't want to get into that thing of [pompous voice] 'it's my trilogy, my quadrology' because its not really, but it is the next step from Happiness Through Science, which was a general overview of woolly thinking and also how thinking about the world in certain ways can make the world more exciting.
This is kind of the next step, looking at Darwin, looking at Richard Feynman, looking at early thinkers. Also, I've got this huge stack of Tell Me Why books and Look and Learn, so its about how we go from being an excited child who reads those books with questions like 'how big is the biggest bear?' and 'what is a Mormon?' - which is one of my favourite questions in my Tell Me Why book - and how we lose that.
Why do you think we lose it?
We're kind of drowned by content. It's partly based on... I was in a pub in Camden and there was too much going on, the music and the neon and the posters and the fact that they had an Akira Kurosawa film in the corner, one of the classics of 1950s cinema and its competing with the Vaccines and people shouting. There's so much background noise that you can hear nothing.
This is a question I asked Mark Thomas too: when you started out, did you have any inkling you'd end up doing material like this?
I think the intentions I have now are probably the intentions I thought I had when I was 22, but I failed to live up them dismally. I was too stupid and too naive and too drunk a lot of the time. I often count the whole of my twenties as a waste of time, but they weren't of course, because my repeated failure was a constant lesson.
You did TV comedy writing for a few years.
All of those things were kind of experiments and ways of living at the time, but most of them, I got bored very quickly. TV writing was in the late 90s, that was the factory rather than the creative mind, but I found it very interesting. I had about three years where I was writing for all manner of shows, and actually children's telly often seemed to have the level of imagination that was often lacking in the late 90s. Cynical comedy was king then, it was very much about finding different ways of being rude to geographical areas, celebrities and girths.
As a stand-up, there was a point where you completely changed tack?
My biggest failure was at the end of the 90s, I was pretty close to giving up stand-up, partly because I'd forgotten why I did stand-up in the first place, which was that I loved the idea of being able to stand on stage and talk about ideas. So I'm doing TV warm-ups, writing on loads of TV shows, popping up on all manner of strange celebrity-based talking head things - then I thought 'what am I doing?'.
I did this show in Edinburgh in 2004 which was a disaster really in a lot of ways, it was called The Award Winning Robin Ince, Star of The Office, Episode Five, First Bit. That was meant to be a kind of spoof on the idea that I thought I was the most important person in TV and radio entertainment, that I'd inspired Ricky Gervais to write The Office. It failed abysmally in a lot of ways: certain people loved it and came back, but most of the audience didn't understand what was going on because I never winked at them, I did it quite straight, so a lot of people thought I was having a nervous breakdown.
But doing that kind of was the point, the slash and burn policy of destroying everything that had gone before, and out of that came everything else that I started to do. The Book Club and the science thing all came out around the same time, I started mucking around with those ideas.
The Gervais link did help though?
It was never too huge but certainly the early solo tours, there was a knock on effect. But after I'd done that all the flyers for the next show I did, I didn't want anything that said 'as seen on Ricky Gervais' tour blah blah blah.' He was so famous that the moment you go into his shadow you are now the property of Ricky Gervais in the public's imagination. So that's why I never toured with him again or did anything else - not because we fell out. The last five or six years, I've tried to make sure that people have come not because 'oh it's that bloke that supported Ricky Gervais,' then see me shouting about quantum mechanics, they might be extremely cross.
I remember The Book Club having a huge impact back in 2005.
That specifically was for the audience that I was when I was 15 years old. It was killed off quite quickly actually, the club night, because right from the start we got picked up by loads of people and there was this sudden enormous pressure. The third night we ever did it, supposedly Frank Skinner and Dylan Moran came and stood at the back just to check what this thing was. Someone wrote a piece that they were worried about the effect it might have on things like the Jongleurs circuit: its one night, once a month! With 80 or 90 people in the room. We did it for about a year and a half, but hopefully for a lot of the people involved, including myself, it was a realisation that there was an audience out there to experiment with more.
Presumably the shows you do now take the pressure off a bit. If we're not laughing, we're learning?
I don't know actually. I don't feel any less pressure because I still turn up at venues and think 'why have they booked me, do they know what I'm going to be doing?' I still have the reaction where I'm doing a serious piece, perhaps I'm reading from something quite melancholy, and in the back of my mind I'm thinking 'you're not getting many laughs off this.' A little bit of me is still the foolish 22 year-old jester: 'where are the laughs?'
Your Twitter feed is always refreshingly honest: I remember you sounding quite hurt when Dara O'Briain's TV science show was announced.
It's one of those things: Dara's show I think is great, but there is a little bit of me that goes 'but I've been working with science shows for ages and pitching these ideas for ages and was always told there was no demographic for them.' And of course the truth of the matter is that it would never be me, TV and me is never a great match and it always would be someone like Dara. I'm honest enough to know there are thousands of better comedians than me, doing things on TV. My aged face and scatty delivery is not necessarily made for the nature of TV.
Another honest tweet that sticks in the mind: you being very morose after a bad gig at one of my local theatres, in Broxbourne.
Broxbourne, of course. There are certain venues where you walk in, look at the posters and think 'no-one here will want to see me.'
You're right back on the Herts horse though, hitting the county town this time!
I am! Its always interesting to see how I'll sell in Hertford. When you tour and you're not a TV name it goes up and down, you can go from having three nights where you're playing to 500 people and then you're going 'how many have I got in Scunthorpe?' It's another of the battles of the ego: every single night you're kind of hosting a party - a very narcissist party because no-one else can talk or eat - but it's like [grand voice] 'I was a king, you won't believe how big I was in Salford, and now I'm nothing!' It's a fascinating experience.
So what else do you have lined up this year?
Brian [Cox] and myself are hoping to do some live shows. Also I'm writing a couple of books. I still want to start a new club night called Your Culture is Dead, which will be a violent attack on the banalities of much modern media, plus a celebration of other things. I haven't done a club night for ages.
'The Importance of Being Interested' is now touring - visit www.robinince.com for details.
Si Hawkins has been interviewing comedians since Russell Brand was a little-known MTV presenter. He also edits the front end of a popular music magazine and pontificates about football for anyone who'll put up with him. He's @SiHawkins on Twitter.
Wildseed Studios, a new production company, is investing up to £10,000 into each of 50 new projects. Read
GOLD will air The Two Ronnies Spectacle, a three part documentary series about the famous double act. Read
Michael McIntyre is being lined-up to host a comedy entertainment show featuring a mix of formats. Read
A sitcom called Mummy's Boys, about two brothers looking after their young sibling, is to be piloted. Read
David Baddiel is working on Sit.com, a new Channel 4 sitcom about a technology-addicted family. Read
ITV2 has ordered 10 more episodes of Fake Reaction, the comedy format hosted by Matt Edmondson. Read
ITV is reportedly reviving Birds Of A Feather, the BBC's hit 1990s sitcom. It's ordered 8 new episodes. Read
Stoneybridge! Here's footage of the team behind hit 1990s sketch show Absolutely performing Radio 4. Watch
In the latest edition of his podcast, Richard Herring interviews producer and writer John Lloyd. Details
Rebecca Front talks about being part of Jo Brand's Great Wall Of Comedy, and her other comedy work too. Read
A great podcast interview with Eddie Izzard. The stand-up star talks about his street performing years. Listen
Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo, who play chat show hosts Ronna & Beverly, tell us why they love Britain... Read
The trailer for the brand new Alan Partridge movie is here. Check it out. Time to get excited? Watch
The Smack The Pony sketch show stars are to pitch the idea of it returning 10 years after it last aired. Read
ITV2 has ordered another series of Plebs, the sitcom series about three young men in Ancient Rome. Read
If you're a fan of this website, you might be interested to read what we've got coming up next... Read
More details on Trying Again, the Sky Living series written by Chris Addison and Simon Blackwell. Read
The BBC has ordered a 2nd series of Blandings, the comedy starring Timothy Spall and Jennifer Saunders. Read
Leigh Francis has confirmed he plans to make a sequel to his 2012 movie Keith Lemon: The Film. Read
The full 90 minute Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast interview with Stephen Fry. Read
Dad's Army star Arthur Lowe played on a sleeping condition in a cheeky bid to avoid press and fans. Read
A great comic song from Jonny And The Baptists explaining why gastro pubs aren't like proper pubs. Watch
A detailed report from The Cat Laughs in Kilkenny, Ireland. With stand-up, and a Moone Boy screening. Read
The second episode of the new online video series by Ricky Gervais. Write about what you don't know. Watch
Spy has won at the prestigious international Rose d'Or Awards, despite being axed by Sky1. Read
Jessica Hynes's new sitcom, Up The Women, has reportedly been given a second series already. Read
Richard Herring's entertaining RHLSTP podcast returns for a new run. Chris Addison is the first guest. Listen