John Robins
John Robins

John Robins (I)

  • English
  • Writer and stand-up comedian

John Robins: Our producer talks to me like I'm one of his children misbehaving - interview

John Robins. Copyright: Rachel King

Elis James and John Robins are one of the UK's most popular broadcasting duos, thanks to their shows, first on Radio X and now on BBC Radio 5 Live. As the pair prepare to record the podcast of their 5 Live show at the Assembly Hall in London as part of The Podcast Show 2022 Live, British Comedy Guide caught up with Robins to ask about working with James, their forthcoming book, his Edinburgh Fringe return, other podcasts and embracing Cameo.

How does it feel to be preparing for a live podcast, what's the vibe like compared to doing it in the studio?

Well, our 250th show for Radio X was at The Comedy Store. But we've not done a live podcast before. What's quite nice is it combines Elis and I's two jobs: of being on radio and making each other laugh, with our job of being stand-ups and making audiences laugh. There's nothing I'd rather be doing than a live show with Elis.

Why do you think live podcasts have exploded in popularity?

It's because our relationship with audio is so personal. You consume it when it's most convenient for you. It's not like just watching something on telly. Because it's something to do. You're saying 'right, this is my time. I'm cooking dinner so I'm going to put on my favourite podcast. Or on my commute to cheer me up before work. Or make me laugh when I've had a difficult day.'

It's like a one-on-one relationship. So to then see it in the flesh, it's a real buzz for audiences. They want to be in the same room as someone who's been in their speakers for maybe, well, eight years in our case. There's novelty in that. You also realise you're part of a big community who all have the same private hobby. After the last two years when we've been so separated, it's a nice, positive experience, confirming that you're not just on your own. You're one of tens of thousands.

Image shows from L to R: Elis James, John Robins

And the intimacy and openness it encourages. Have you found it influencing your stand-up?

A big influence is talking to Elis each week, exploring parts of me that, perhaps in the past, I'd avoided talking about in stand-up. Stand-up has become a process of getting more and more honest as the years go by, until I haven't really got anything left to hide away. And that's quite freeing. That rigour of talking to Elis for three hours a week for nearly a decade has firmed up who I think I am. It's very difficult to pretend around someone you've known so well for so long.

He seems the contented family man doing a lot of television at the moment. Whereas you're the single, tortured but award-winning live comic. Are you playing up to the idea that your lives are going in different directions personally and professionally?

Well, I mean, he authentically has children. He's not making that up.

But are you consciously emphasising that contrast in the radio show?

I think we both feel incredibly lucky with the careers we've got. We did a streamed show together the other night that we really enjoyed. And afterwards, we were talking about how amazing it is that we have this connection with our audience without any gatekeepers in the way. No commissioners to impress, not having to squeeze yourself into a box to fit a certain format. People can just log on and hear us talking. We have guests but it's on our terms. That's such a privilege.

It's also funnier if Elis is more successful than me. Because if the needy egotist who hates themselves is very, very, very successful, that's unbearable. So it's very funny when Elis does a voice-over for The Secret Life Of Sheep and I can't get voice-overs, me being annoyed at him. We're both in such incredibly lucky positions though. It would be quite churlish to suggest I was genuinely livid at any projects he does.

Image shows from L to R: John Robins, Elis James. Copyright: BBC

Listeners also get a sense that you really enjoy chatting to Simon Mayo, Mark Kermode and Adrian Chiles. That comes across as authentic - that you were listeners and now you're presenters.

Oh, yeah, I mean, I still genuinely have to pinch myself that we're on before Mark and Simon. I was listening to their podcasts when I didn't even know what a podcast was, in like, 2000. I think I first heard the term in 2006? And I listened to their monumental podcasts, three hours some of them, for years and years. So to actually even be on the same station, let alone talking to them feels like a kind of dream. And Adrian Chiles is just one of the nicest men I've ever met in my entire life.

Still, you're not slow to point out when people have been angrily texting in about you. Have Five Live's management ever asked you to reign that aspect in a bit?

No, because I think one of the reasons they wanted us to come to Five Live is because of the dynamic we have and that honesty and willingness to highlight our own flaws. And also to have a radio presence which doesn't sound like a lot of other radio shows. We don't put on a radio voice and tell our "radio anecdotes". We're just as we are with friends. That chemistry is quite a hard thing to engineer. The fact that ours' is natural comes across well.

Your producer Dave Masterman deserves some credit too, because it's very much the three of you and not just a double act isn't it?

Yeah. And it was the same when we were being produced by Vin [Joshi] when Dave left Radio X. Dave would be very modest about this but he is definitely one third of the show. He's not just a producer who chats, he's one of the voices. So much of the mythology and the history of it is based around him. He's like our dad, even though he's younger than us. Since he's had kids, I'm very often aware that he's talking to me as he would to his children if they were misbehaving.

What are your favourite regular features on the show?

I really like the Shame Wells when we have a good shame. I'm very excited to read it to Elis and to hear his reaction to it. And I love playing the games in Made Up Games. That's always so fun. Our listeners are endlessly inventive with that sort of thing.

Image shows from L to R: John Robins, Elis James. Copyright: BBC

Coming back to honesty, do you ever feel you've revealed too much of your personal life?

I put a lot of thought into it. It's impossible not to talk about big things in your private life when it forms a part of your conversation, as it does with us. But I don't necessarily talk about it immediately because it's not just my news to tell. And I get annoyed when people say: "Robins announced..."

It's not like I put out a press release. It's just that there comes a point where you can't not talk about it. I don't talk about it in any detail because some things are too personal. It's important to have a private life away from what you do for a living. It would be impossible to sit in a studio with Elis for 10 years and not mention it. That doesn't mean it's not difficult. I'd rather not have to at certain junctures. But what can you do?

You recently wrote an essay for mental health charity Mind on your Instagram Stories about coping with tough times growing up. What kind of feedback have you had?

It really took me by surprise. I got this message from Mind kindly asking if I'd share a message to my younger self on social media as part of their Time To Talk Day campaign [February 3rd]. Quite nice being given a little writing project, even if it's not necessarily long-form writing, because I find it hard to motivate myself to write. And I enjoy talking about that sort of thing.

The response was extraordinary. So many hundreds and hundreds of messages from people saying they either liked what I wrote, it helped them or they shared it with their children, which meant a great deal.

You're taking a work-in-progress show up to the Edinburgh Fringe. Do you have an idea what that's going to be about?

Anxiety maybe? Golf. Those two hot potatoes.

How is your golf YouTube channel with Alex Horne?

Really great. It's just very hard to get days when we're both free with our respective schedules. But we love filming it. It's such a fun hobby to have and Alex is such great company, I always look forward to seeing him. Like the best thing about the radio is that I get to chat to Elis every week. What I like about The Moon Under Water [podcast] is that I get to talk to my friend Robin [Allender] every week. Just filling your life with these wonderful people who count as some of my best friends is amazing.

Image shows from L to R: John Robins, Alex Horne

Hosting The Moon Under Water about finding the perfect pub, has that changed your appreciation of what makes a good boozer?

It's more like a conundrum that Robin and I will never really solve. Because what we like about a pub is something that you can never quite find. You're looking for the pub in your mind that ticks every single box and sometimes it's very, very close. But both alcohol and pubs suggest a reality that's never quite achievable, which is why you keep going back to them.

Amy Liptrot wrote a book called The Outrun about her journey to sobriety by moving to a remote island in Scotland. And she says the reason that alcohol is so addictive is that it doesn't quite work. And I think that's such an incredible thing to say. And such an accurate description. But it also describes why I love pubs so much, it's because they're never quite perfect but they're always so close to being perfect. Essentially, they're like an elsewhere, a parallel universe. They are promise and magic.

There will always be someone talking too loudly sat next to you, the wrong sort of music, they're playing Coronation Street on a big screen TV or the Guinness is too cold. These tiny, tiny imperfections make it clearer what it would need to be perfect. And they're why you keep going back.

How Do You Cope?

You and Elis are also back with a third series of your spin-off, Radio Five Live podcast How Do You Cope?. Can you tell me about some of the guests you've got this time?

The first episode is the Reverend Richard Coles and that was just a phenomenal conversation. His book, The Madness Of Grief, is just one of the best books I've ever read, about losing his partner and living with his partner's alcoholism. Wonderful, I could have just spoken to him forever. I wish he was my local vicar.

You're writing a How Do You Cope? book. Will that feature insights from your previous guests or is it purely from your own perspectives?

I don't know yet, it's too early to say exactly what it's going to be. We're still in the process of working out how to tackle it. But it will feature reflections on the conversations we've had.

And you're executive producing The Island, a dream desert island panel show fronted by Tom Allen, launching on Dave on 23rd March.

That was filmed quite a while ago now. But with Covid, TV schedules were either empty or rammed. So lots of things got shuffled around. It was one of the first things to film post-Covid, when the restrictions allowed.

John Robins

Did winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2017 with The Darkness of Robins open a lot of doors for you?

No, I don't think so. I had a bit of telly off the back of it. But no, I just sort of carried on. It was a strange year. It was a wonderful experience and a huge honour. It felt like something I'd been working towards for an awfully long time and getting a little bit closer to every year. But I wouldn't say it had a drastic impact on my career.

But does it take the pressure off when you return to the Fringe?

Christ yeah! Like 100%. When I went up with Hot Shame [in 2019], it was the first time I'd done Edinburgh without any of that. It's just taking one big stress out of a month where there are lots of big stresses. So that's really nice. It frees you up. And when you may be lacking a bit of confidence, it's nice to remind yourself that you got the highest honour in stand-up. It was incredibly lucky because there were so many good shows. And it's insane, out of 800 to say these are the 10 best. What does that even mean? The stars had to align.

John Robins

But you know, it's the best show I've ever done. So I'm glad it's the one people talk about or will remember, I love that show to bits. It felt like I achieved exactly what I wanted to achieve. With exactly the right words, in the right order and leaving nothing in the locker. So I'll always be very fond of it.

You're one of the few UK comedians on the video-sharing website Cameo. Why?

I started doing it in January last year. I was just completely lost in the second lockdown. I wasn't going to do Edinburgh in 2020 and we were still able to do the radio show. So awful as it initially was for a lot of people, it didn't have as drastic an impact on me.

But by 2021, I was really struggling, I didn't know what I was meant to do. What I was going to do to earn a living. Cameo was sort of an accident. They'd approached me and I'd not done it. Then I saw Alistair Green's Cameos and Instagram videos. And they're so funny. I realised it doesn't just have to be someone saying: "Hi, it's John Robins, happy birthday, bye!" They can be two or three minutes of audience interaction. It was a bit like compering a gig two or three times a day with an individual person. I got a real kick out of doing them, made myself laugh and people say they really enjoy them. It was really nice to have those moments of contact at a time when we couldn't have an audience in front of us.

Live From The BBC. John Robins. Copyright: Phil McIntyre Entertainment

Finally, what's next for you?

The next stand-up show. If I do this Edinburgh as a work-in-progress, the year after should be the final show. The How Do You Cope? book and more golf stuff. The Moon Under Water, more live shows of that because we really enjoyed the ones we did with Self Esteem and Tim Key.

I'm very excited about the Philip Larkin podcast I'm going on tonight. And I'm currently going through the torture of setting up a MacBook and enjoying the way Apple take great pride in making things different all the time. And more complicated and frustrating. Some people would probably just spend a couple of hours doing that. But it'll probably stress me out for some months.


The Elis James and John Robins podcast will be recording live as part of The Podcast Show 2022 LIVE, which is running from May 23rd to 29th in venues across London. Tickets are available at thepodcastshowlondon.com

The third series of How Do You Cope?... with Elis and John begins today. BBC Sounds

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