As festive an institution as Father Christmas - if Father Christmas had taken several Christmases off a few years ago - 9 Lessons and Carols for Curious People is back upon us, thank the secular spirits. But hark, what's all this about The North?
Yes, Robin Ince's science-and-stuff spectacular is doing a couple of nights in Manchester this year - this weekend in fact, at The Lowry - before heading back down to London's King's Place in December. There are big names and new faces among the hefty casts for every show, and hopefully a hefty pile of cans each night too. Robin's Cosmic Shambles crew will be collecting for The Trussell Trust, because lots of folks in swinging modern Britain now rely on foodbanks. Which is suitably Dickensian, if nothing else.
To talk turkey, we met up for tea near some totem poles at the British Museum, where it turns out Robin spent a bewildering evening years ago (well, if you're going to lose your marbles somewhere...) That's recounted in his fine book I'm a Joke and So Are You, and he's writing another one now too, more of which below.
As if organising that lot wasn't enough - plus a nearly-completed tour with singer-songwriter She Makes War - Ince is also putting together another epic event at the Royal Albert Hall next year. After 2018's space spectacular, they're doing a Sea Shambles, with Dr Helen Czerski, Steve Backshall, Josie Long, Lemn Sissay, British Sea Power, and loads of other interesting aquatic people (early punts: Prince Namor, Steve Zisou, Marina from Stingray and the bloke out of Ocean Colour Scene).
But that's next year. Now: onto the lessons.
So we're in a grand London institution, but let's start with Manchester: you're doing 9 Lessons there?
Yeah, that's great, it's the first time we've managed it. I've never wanted it to be just London - on tour I've always tried to get to as many towns as possible. But of course with a big show, often we've got 18 people on stage, so London is the easiest place to do it.
Manchester's quite easy to do it as well though, there's a brilliant university there, comics up there. I want to do it in Edinburgh, in Glasgow - I know a lot of musicians in Glasgow. But it's just that, because we make nothing from it, and it takes an enormous amount of time: 'ah, I'd better remember to make a living as well.' But I'd like it to go all over the place.
Can't you do a reduced traveling version: 4.5 lessons?
Ha, yeah. But [Cosmic Shambles co-founder] Trent is a huge help, he puts in a lot. We know what we want...
Where did Trent come from?
I made him in a jar, he was one of my homunculus experiments, inspired by The Bride of Frankenstein.
No, he used to come to my Book Club gigs, then he was doing a documentary, and asked me to do the voiceover. So then we started doing more and more together.
Most relationships I have like that are by chance. Like [singer-songwriter] Laura from She Makes War, who I'm currently on tour with, I saw her video for Stargazing on Twitter, she noticed I retweeted it, we started a conversation. Josie [Long] I met when she was 17, doing a gig, then with Book Club I said 'do you want to come and do this,' then Book Shambles.
I have a desperate desire to promote those things. I look around and think 'why is that crap getting all of this exposure, and why are these people not?' So that drives me on.
The reason Book Club began, I was doing some weird gigs in Edinburgh during part of a nervous breakdown, and kept seeing these acts, who couldn't really be on the comedy club circuit - people like Gawk-a-Go-Go, who did wonderful characters like Dali Parton: half Salvador Dali, half Dolly Parton.
I'd got slightly tired, working in the television shows I'd worked on, this presumption of an audience's stupidity. 'This is what they want'- so some of the more interesting things weren't thriving.
I put on a little Edinburgh preview festival in the suburbs this year, and felt obliged to flag up what was happening beforehand. But people got really get into it, helping these comics hone their shows.
Oh god, I had a flashback the other day to a show preview I did in Whitstable, how terrible it was, and it turned into a really awful show as well, this was about 14 years ago. But the people who DID understand and like the show, I suddenly started getting these jobs - I'd get a pilot about psychology. 'Why did you ask me?' 'Oh we saw that show where you ended up punching a melon with Vernon Kay's face on it.'
It's very much light and shade. If I get a sense of failure, it really hits me hard very quickly. I have a tremendous sense of self-loathing.
The tour I've been on now, I think generally has been very successful, even if every night I'd go 'have I got anything to say?' and two and a half hours later it turned out I did. And people are laughing, but the moment they stop I think 'failure-failure-failure.' It's fine! They can't be at that level all the time! I should finish off, when it's worked well, and think 'that was good.'
You mention in the book that you used to storm straight off after gigs?
It was almost 'I've nothing more to say...' But it's rude. People want to say thank you.
We're in the British Museum, then - any thoughts?
Yeah, I don't know how I feel about it... I do feel to a certain extent, like zoos are no longer places where you go and stare at a tiger in a tiny cage, I hope that over time where certain nations or groups who wish to reclaim things, we realise that there may well be a right to that. It's like the Hottentot Venus...
It's like George Carlin said, comedy is a low art but it's a very potent art.
But yes, the Hottentot Venus, when she died, they cut bits of her off, and put her in jars. And it was only in the 90s when Nelson Mandela requested that those remains be returned to South Africa.
Sometimes you get people saying 'oh, it's tradition,' like the move to change the name of the Colston Hall, in Bristol, which is named after a slave trader - that is what progress is, it's about facing up to our history.
It's like when people get angry, 'oh I see they've made it a very multicultural historical show.' Well, don't complain about that when all of our First and Second World War films, it's all bloody Richard Todd and Kenneth Moore.
It's like this pro-Brexit wartime rhetoric, which completely ignores the RAF's Polish fighters. It makes no sense.
I just find it remarkable. When I was growing up, seeing the Polish War Memorial on [London's] Hanger Lane. Our attitude towards Polish people, a lot of what I see now, it's an aggressive attack on progress, and our understanding of past and present.
I find it very frustrating the way it's used in comedy a lot, 'oh you can't say this and that.' There are times I get confronted by something I said, and the initial reaction is to double down, but sometimes... someone took exception to something I said in a Brian Cox show, and I thought about it for a week. And I still think about it now.
What was the theme of it?
There's a line about how life must end, and someone took exception and felt that we hadn't thought this through. Now I'd already had this conversation with a lot of people in the audience who have lost people, I did take it very seriously, but I realised that that person's reaction was entirely right for them. There's no way I can change that.
If you're trying to be true and genuine in what you say, there will be times where someone will take it in such a way. And then you need to work out, 'do I feel it remains justified?'
Sometimes I'll get someone on Twitter saying 'I was offended by this' and I'll think for two minutes: 'nah, that's nonsense.' Other times, I'll spend days, and sometimes think 'yeah, make a very small change, as that person requested.' Or certainly jokes I've done in the past - there's a comic who's still very angry about something I said in 2004. Looking back, there's various things I wouldn't do now.
One really interesting bit in your book is Tim Minchin dropping certain material, because it sounded wrong coming from him.
There's almost an expectation, whether it's a tweet or whatever, that it was designed to offend. So people immediately react aggressively, then [the writer] doubles down, and I see why that happens. But it's important to realise that sometimes people do things with no intention.
You've started doing little Book of the Day videos on Twitter recently.
I'm trying to make things that are positive. There's so much aggression everywhere, certainly in the post-referendum world. So many of our ultimate goals in life are the same, but if we continue to build this political wall and say 'everyone who voted Brexit is this' and 'everyone who voted Remain is this,' you never have that oxygen of actual communication.
Will the election throw a bit of a spanner into 9 Lessons this year?
We did a show at the Bloomsbury on the night that the 2010 result came out. We'd sold it out weeks before, and 150 people didn't turn up, because they were so heartbroken, they were so worried about what would happen. And they were correct, of course. You've seen the food bank increase.
That's something we do at all of the Christmas gigs, including the one with Brian Cox at Hammersmith: if you're coming along, there's stuff on the Trussell Trust website about things that are needed. What a crazy thing that is. More and more musicians are doing it too.
You're writing a new book now?
Yes, a kind of follow up to I'm a Joke. The next one is how we can psychologically deal with all the things that science has revealed about the universe, about the size and finite nature of the universe, the rarity of life, the likelihood or unlikelihood of other creatures, about self-consciousness, about free will.
There's a thing called cosmological vertigo, which Paul Gauguin apparently suffered from - as well as pederasty, it seems - that all of the ideas in the universe can make people dizzy, and confused.
So - using a mixture of scientists, therapists, psychologists, neuroscience, all of those things - is there a philosophical and psychological way of looking at our finite existence in the universe , and going 'you know what, it's ok'?
The other day I was at a station staring at the trees, which was down to you telling us to do it during one show. I did think 'do I look like a loony?'
Isn't it weird? It's like at breakfast sometimes, and you're with people, if you bring a book they think it's rude, but they don't mind staring at their phone the whole time. I said that to someone when I was touring, who complained about the book: 'but you spent all of yesterday staring at your phone.' Isn't that odd?
Your last book didn't sound much fun to write.
Oh yeah, it's a nightmare. It's funny now, looking back, I've had some incredible reactions to it - I had someone come up to me in a record shop the other day and told me his story of what he'd got from the book. I don't know if it sounds arrogant or pretentious but I really do want everything that I do to have some purpose to it. And if people do come away from a show, having had a bad week, or read the book and feel a bit happier...
There's a lot of people I know who are slightly on the outside, I understand their mental life may have moments of fog and darkness, and that's why I have an issue more and more with so much of the edgy comedy that's punching down on people who are already being punched on. They're being punched before becoming the victim of the joke, they're being punched before they leave the front door. That's why I think, 'man, there's so much of this everywhere, why do we need more of it onstage?'
There's that brilliant video by that Southend comic - Alastair Green - his one about sitting in the front row of the comedy club... Colin who works in IT, it's heart-breaking. In that two minutes you get the full narrative.
They can do what they want. But I'd quite like to do something where people feel included and happy.