Robin Ince: interview
Comedy's going universal. Robin Ince talks to Time Out about his science/comedy hybrid show.
Nineteenth-century biologist Thomas Huxley once said: 'Science is simply common sense at its best, that is rigidly accurate in observation and merciless to fallacy in logic.' The same can be said of fact-enthusiast Robin Ince's comedy. From his 'Book Club' shows celebrating the many forms of trash literature, to his scientific lecture-meets-variety Christmas gigs 'Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People', the erudite comic has helped form a new scene of cerebral, thought-provoking stand-up.
His latest venture is to bring science to the masses in the first ever national tour solely about the subject, 'Uncaged Monkeys'. The show features Ince hosting a line-up of twenty-first-century scientific marvels including dreamy-eyed 'Wonders of the Universe' host Professor Brian Cox, the Guardian's bad-science destroyer Ben Goldacre and best-selling 'Fermat's Last Theorem' author/libel case survivor Simon Singh. 'I'm the idiot vessel who's the bridge between the audience and the intelligent people on stage,' Ince tells me as I struggle to come to terms with the astonishing science facts he's throwing my way. The Radio 4 regular is evidently fiercely passionate about the subject, and he makes it clear to Time Out the importance of keeping science alive and well.
The combination of science and the arts isn't a regular occurrence - especially with a comic in tow. Why is it so important to you that science is centre stage in this way?
'Most scientists I know have movies and novels in their houses, whereas there are novelists whose houses I've been to who don't have any science books. When I've brought that up they've gone, “Oh, but that's quite boring.” I think past GCSE, as long as you're in education you should never be allowed to be entirely leave science. Even if it means in an English degree you have to read a book by Thomas Huxley or Charles Darwin and look at the imaginative writing in science at the time, which was incredible. I think science is far too important to completely leave behind.'
Have the risks of putting on this tour worried you? Were you confident a science tour would be popular enough to sell these large venues?
'I definitely believed that it was going to work. Science is very cross-generational; you're not just aiming it at twentysomethings, or eightysomethings. Every town's got a really broad selection of people and age groups interested in science. I always say the show's aimed at anyone who's interested. And I don't mean interested in science, I mean literally interested. Are you interested in the world? Do you want to know just a bit more? If you're interested, then the show should work.'
Do you think people are afraid of the overwhelming amount of information science brings?
'Yes, people are scared. Some scientific ideas are incredibly complex and very difficult to understand. There isn't an end of science. Every time you get one answer, it leads to a load more questions. That's the exciting thing!'
What has given science its recent boost in popularity?
'I think there's a level of banality which has become all-encompassing. If you look at the media there's so much celebrity that eventually people want something with content again. Brian Cox and the “Wonders…” series have brought a lot of people to science. For example, the first episode of the last series: “Entropy”. That's a word that most people wouldn't have been using possibly their whole life, and suddenly five million people are watching the show. Also things like climate change, alternative medicine, the campaigns about homeopathy… You get the consumer perspective: I should know more so I'm not ripped off financially.'
So what's the format of the 'Uncaged Monkeys' show?
'The format is roughly the beginning of the universe, as much of everything that's happened in between, and then the end of the universe. All in a couple of hours. Quite a lot's going to get left out, to be quite honest.'
Is it difficult to get the scientific level right? Are you worried certain ideas may be too bewilderingly complex for the audience?
'Well, in Glasgow there were some PhD people who got slightly lost in some of Brian Cox's stuff. There was a moment of “Ah. Wha'?” We might be lowering the bar a little there. But I like the idea that the audience then thought, “God, I've got to up my game.” In comedy clubs the compere will often say something like: “Don't forget to have a few drinks in the interval, because the more you drink, the funnier we get.” Which is rubbish, by the way. I've never understood the idea that the drunker they get the funnier they'll find the comic. Unless it's one of those idiot comedians who just honks horns or something, then it becomes funnier. But if you're coming to “Uncaged Monkeys”, don't drink too much in the interval. A level of drunkenness will not aid your understanding of the nature of the neutrino.'