Robin Ince interview: ‘I don’t get heckles at my shows – I get footnotes’

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Published by Elaine Downs

Robin Ince is currently on tour around the UK with his latest show, The Importance of Being Interested. The thinking person’s comedian spoke to Elaine Downs about why comedy’s not a job, his Edinburgh Fringe plans for next year and why he’s started to write a blog.

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Having broken into the comedy circuit along with his friend Ricky Gervais in the 1990s, Robin Ince is now best known as a presenter of the popular BBC radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage alongside Professor Brian Cox (whom he impersonates brilliantly). As any listeners will know, like his co-host, Ince also possesses a sharp-edged, enquiring mind, and the latest stop on his lengthy tour at Edinburgh’s Stand Comedy Club is a pleasure to behold.

Here, the front row is not a danger zone but a delightful place to sit, as Ince has no need to abuse a hapless fan for a cheap laugh. Instead he engages and inspires with truly original stand-up; his tidal wave of fresh, funny material pouring out at breakneck speed and high volume.

Ince acknowledges that we don’t always have to understand the intricacies of scientific theories. Rather it’s more important to just appreciate the marvels of the world around us.

“Science is delayed gratification, you don’t just read an article and understand the science: it takes a certain amount of time and effort,” he explains. “There are lots of ideas that I find fascinating and I want to share them with everyone in the hope that they will be fascinated with some of them as well. My reading from Charles Darwin’s book about earthworms has led to some people buying that book. If two people per show go out and buy Darwin’s book about earthworms, or a book of Richard Feynman lectures or the life of Marie Curie, or whatever it might be, then that’s great.”

“You really have to mean it”

As for the aforementioned ‘stand-up’ label, Ince has reservations about whether it applies to his own performances. “I very rarely call my show stand-up now, not because I’m trying to back off from it, or make it sound high brow. It’s still kind of stand-up because I think there are enough laughs in it, but this show is more of an explosion of a library that has become sentient.”

I point out that Ince is quite unusual in the stand-up comedy scene, as his material changes completely from year to year.

“In the early part of my career I had material that stuck around for a long time,” he recalls. “I came up with new stuff, but if you are playing the club circuit sometimes you play a really difficult club. You can get so terrified, and suddenly you revert to your old material and it clings on. Because of that experience when I was a young comic, I try to avoid it. Now I destroy things even before I’ve got them completely right. But hopefully most of the people who go and see my shows have got used to the fact they are a bit ramshackle but that I really do mean what I say. You really have to mean it. I also love watching people who are brilliant joke tellers and a lot of my favourite comedians, like Frankie Howerd and Ken Dodd, tell jokes but they really care.”

There’s no doubt that Ince really does care about what he does, although it’s not work in the conventional sense for him. “This is not a job,” he says. “It’s the way I make a living but it’s not a job. It doesn’t feel like work when I think of what the average working day is like for most people.”

Ince is one of the most prolific performers at the Edinburgh Fringe every year, although he now accepts that perhaps it’s time to relent on the punishing schedule.

“I’m planning on doing a run of three shows a day [next year] rather than my usual five or seven shows a day,” he says. “I love doing it but it can be really hard going. I remember one year, before the final show, sitting at the bar about to go on, still damp from the sweat of the last one, and not actually knowing if I’d be able to stand up. So think I’ll space the shows out this year.”

Ince is a high profile supporter of the Free Fringe, and he says that his venues for 2014 will include a mixture of the PBH Free Fringe and The Stand.

“I love those venues. I personally find a different kind of attitude when you play them,” he says. “I think the trouble with some of the big venues is that you have so many comedians, suddenly everyone’s scared. There are a number of fractured egos walking around the same square. That becomes catching and you all become paranoid. The Stand and PBH have a really nice bunch of people and we all go around the corner and eat soup.

“The Edinburgh Fringe can be a machine, and it can crush people,” he continues. “To survive you need a level of camaraderie which is not false and not spiteful. You can have a brilliant time as a performer, if you think, ‘all I want to do is to the best shows possible’. If you’re not thinking about prizes or stars on a review, and just stay within the thoughts of ‘I really enjoyed my show today’, or ‘I wasn’t as good today, must do better’ you can remain sane.”

“Art and science go together tremendously well”

As for 2014, he already has a clear idea of what Edinburgh audiences can expect from his next show.

“I’m planning a human mind show,” he says. “It’s going to be quite a personal take on what our brain is capable of, and what its limitations are. I’ll talk about how we perceive the world, and what might be illusions, and then deal with the actual structure of the brain.

“I also want to muck around with the art thing,” he continues. “I love doing the science stuff and I’m never going to stop doing that, but I want to find other ways of mixing up science and art. I think art and science go together tremendously well. Picasso said ‘art is truth’, but it’s not, a lot of the time. It is that idea of leading you towards new ideas and your own investigations. If you’re just given a fact about erosion or retreat of ice or climate change then, OK, you’ve read that news story, but when you’ve been offered beauty in a painting or poem inspired by that fact then you’re more engaged in the story and what it means.”

The media treatment of science stories is lacking in perspective, according to Ince.

“The media has the illusion of balance, this idea that if someone has an opinion, then someone with the opposite opinion must be included,” he says. “But, if the opinion is about science, if you are having a debate then you have to have someone with an opposing opinion built up on evidence, not just hearsay and fabricated nonsense. Sadly you have to go through an enormous number of articles about Miley Cyrus’s hammer licking to get to the real news. The piece about science or climate change might be the footnote. It’s not the glamorous bit of news, it’s not given the photos, and it’s much easier to be cross about Miley Cyrus or Andrew Mitchell.”

His comedy is fast-paced, intelligent and well-read, and so it seems appropriate that Ince has now taken the plunge into the blogosphere, writing daily dispatches while on the road (or train, as the case may be).

“I love doing the blog posts. I’m trying to do one everyday,” he says.

Is it therapeutic?

“The main reason was as an exercise to make myself write,” he replies. “It helps me with political things. For example, I tweeted a picture of myself with a ‘No More Page Three’ slogan, and people had a go at me. So I had to sit down and think about why I support ‘No More Page Three’ and write about it. In the process of writing I realised beyond gut instinct why I support that campaign.”

And the best thing about his career in comedy?

“I find incredible openness from people telling me about their lives. I find that great to have those conversations and not have a divide between the act and the audience. The audience can feel part of the show.”

When Ince shows amusing pictures of weird and wonderful animals at his show at The Stand, a member of the audience chips in to add some fascinating facts.

“I don’t get heckles at my shows”, laughs Ince. “I get footnotes.”

See Robin Ince: The Importance Of Being Interested at the following dates:

13 Nov: Fruit, Hull
14 Nov: The Firestation, Windsor
15 Nov: Hanger Farm Arts Centre, Southampton
21 Nov: Kings Place, London
22 Nov: Sundial Theatre At Cirencester College, Cirencester
29 Nov: King’s Lynn Arts Centre, King’s Lynn
4 Dec: The Flavel, Dartmouth
6 Dec: The Crumblin Cookie, Leicester
4 Jan: Trinity, Tunbridge Wells

More info and ticket details

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Elaine is a journalist based in Edinburgh