Robin Ince – The Science of Silly
– This is the problem with humour is it’s always a fear that it undermines something so much it destroys it. But very often it undermines it just enough to make it bearable to keep doing.
– Welcome to the Humourology podcast with me, Paul Boross and my glittering lineup of guests from the worlds of business, sport and entertainment, who are going to share their wisdom and their use of humour. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business success and your life. Humourology puts the fun into business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock, and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. My guest on this edition of the Humourology Podcast is a multi award-winning comedian, author and broadcaster. As co-presenter of Radio Four’s The Infinite Monkey Cage with Professor Brian Cox, some people say that he has helped to make science sexy. He’s been described by The Guardian as a “becardiganed polymath” who has been expanding the universe of standup. As a comedian, he has a legion of fans at the top tables of the comedy world, including being the support act of choice for both Ricky Gervais’ Politics and Fame tours. He is quite possibly the UK’s best read comedian, and has written one of the preeminent books about the sometimes bewildering and baffling battle of being human. Robin Ince, welcome to the Humourology podcast.
– Hello there.
– Lovely to have you here. I mentioned the book and I’m a huge fan of “I’m A Joke And So Are You.” The subheading of the book is “A Comedian’s Take “On What Makes Us Human.” What part does humour play in making us human?
– I think it’s such a vital part, isn’t it? We see it observed in so few other animals. Now that doesn’t mean it’s not there, but I mean we do see kind of, we see it in certain other mammals we see it. Tickling of rats, of course, is a fascinating thing to see about their ability at least to laugh. But I think it shows, one of the reasons I think humour exists basically is because we have this strange battle between our inner life and our outer life. We have this person that we present to the world, and we have all of these voices inside our head. And I think a lot of what humour is, sometimes negatively and sometimes positively, is the release of the voices in our head.
– I actually love the quote in the book which is, “If jokes are so unimportant, “why do people get so exercised by them? “And why does certain dictatorships ban them “and imprison the tellers?”
– See, that was a lovely one because the day that I was, the day the book came out I think it was, was the day, ’cause I made it, I think somewhere in that passage there’s a little joke about, you know, if a dictator ever walks out onto the balcony and he has a piece of toilet paper stuck on his shoe, then you know, everyone is basically immediately killed. And there’s a kind of a long piece about that. And that was the same day that Donald Trump walked up the aeroplane steps with what appeared to be a piece of toilet paper. So there was a wonderful piece of synchronicity in terms of those moments. But it is, that’s what I find, that anger, and I think it must be partly a tribal anger, and it’s partly an anger of rejection. As you will know, underneath articles about comedians there will always be people who say, this person is not funny. Not, I don’t find them funny, because as we know, it is a subjective thing, but the fury. Whether it’s about Mrs Brown’s Boys or whether it’s about Stewart Lee, people have, you know, you can see people wanting to go round an auditorium when three and a half thousand people are laughing, and go stop laughing! Don’t you understand? It’s not funny! And so I think it’s a very interesting thing about that level of how we feel rejection, if we don’t see the joke. And of course equally how the problem we seem to have, which is, we are very good at making jokes at other people, and when someone makes a joke at us, then it’s not fair. You know, I think in the bit where I spoke to Ricky Gervais, there’s a, where we talk about the fact, it might not have made the edit, ’cause like every book I write, it was about a hundred thousand words more than were required. And I had to just hack away. But there was an interesting thing where he does lots of stuff in his standup, which people find a bit offensive and that’s part of his kind of shtick. And of course, everyone loves it until it gets to their group. And they go, I loved all those jokes that you did about you know, fat people or whatever it might be. But then you made a joke about me and I am not happy. And the fact that we’re not able to understand that it’s not that that jokes in worse taste, it’s because that jokes about us, is again part of the fascinating psychology of that I think.
– It’s also fascinating to me that dictators don’t seem to like, that seems to be the one Achilles’ heel. Do you think that things like the Lincoln Project actually had an effect on Trump?
– I think he does… he doesn’t have a sense, it’s interesting when you see people with a sense of humour, like, you know Barack Obama clearly had a sense of humour. He could deliver a joke. You know, one of the interesting conversations I had with a Jungian therapist was he said the most interesting people are not people who tell jokes. It’s people who actually can’t tell a joke. And you will see that quite often, politicians we see it a lot. You see those awful, you know, where someone’s script written their gags for the big occasion. And you can see that they don’t really understand the words. They don’t really understand that it’s a punchline. And then that is the bit which in me, you know, when you see that, and especially when you then see the sycophantic laughing that goes with a failed joke, it’s a horrendous thing to see. But it’s, I’ve always been, you know, the number, we’ve seen it across the world. I’m trying to remember the name of the comedian in Burma, back in about 20 years ago, spent a long time in prison. There’s a wonderful book called Hammer and Tickle which is about jokes in communist Russia. And again, and that’s part of, sometimes when we’re joking about, I suppose dictators, part of it is it does also give us that excitement that you’re doing something that’s very naughty as well. And it’s your one way of surviving. Slavoj Zizek talks about that a lot in his books, he loves putting jokes into his books of philosophy and political philosophy. And I think, yeah, they are they’re interesting, both the coping mechanism and as a weapon.
– Yeah, I think that’s right. And I mean, I remember under apartheid that there was no theatre and no comedy allowed. And a friend of mine ran a club, which was theatre and with a bit of comedy and he had to escape because the regime were coming down on him like a tonne of bricks. They really didn’t like being sent up. I suppose people feel out of control. And if you haven’t got a sense of humour, you can’t play back. And I think, I was talking to John Sweeney on this podcast, the ex Panorama guy and he said something that Trump never surrounded himself with anybody else who was funny. So they didn’t know how to play back against the Lincoln Project. And if you surround yourself with people who aren’t funny, that’s going to make you more insular and more insecure about it, don’t you think?
– Yeah, well, I think you can’t surround yourself with people who are funny because you actually would not understand what was going on. You would constantly feel nervous because you wouldn’t be able to translate the words that were coming out of their mouth. So you have to surround yourself with these strange… I mean, it’s fascinating watching the people now in Biden’s cabinet and watching now the presentation of the press conferences, because already there is a sense of wit, there’s, and it’s the speed of the mind as well because I think that’s one of the threats of comedy quite often, is that it requires a fast reaction. It requires, you know, our favourite comedians are people were you go, oh my, how did they manage to do that? And many of these pompous people are slow witted. And they are deliberately as well targeting people who similarly can be easily manipulated, because you can give them things that make no sense whatsoever, but they’re attached to some form of nationalism or some kind of racism or whatever it might be. I do think that people who are good at telling jokes and good and reacting, that there is an intelligence there, which is threatening as well. And I think that’s part of the threat as well, when someone cannot understand why someone else is funny, part of what they think they’re being told is, you’re an idiot. How do you not understand this? You’re an idiot. And that might not be being said, but that’s what… it’s a bit like, I would compare it to when someone says that they’re a vegetarian when they’re turning down some kind of, you know, veal treat that’s offered to them, people see that as like, they go, oh, so you’re calling me a murderer because I eat beef or whatever? And you go, no, no, no, I’m not. I’m just just saying, I don’t- It becomes a question of who you are, whether that question is actually there or not.
– So do you think that people are born funny? Is there, from your neuroscience investigations, do you think there is some kind of DNA in there that makes people have a wit?
– No, I think as everything with the nature and nurture debate, it’s a right old mess and it gets messier. Yeah, that’s the beautiful thing about biology. You know, biology has managed to come up with this incredible unified answer in terms of evolution by natural selection. But in finding that answer, it’s made everything within it really messy. I think more often than not a lot of art, and from my study comedy, there is something, it is a nurture situation. That there is a lot of creative people, I think something happens quite early on, which means that the world goes skew-whiff. That the world appears not to have the solidity that you might hope. So sometimes it might be the loss of a parent. Sometimes it might be something involving things like adoption. Sometimes it might be, you know, a smaller incident but nevertheless, an incident which can have, as we know, you know, the child, a two year old brain, a three year old brain, sometimes what we might as an adult consider to be quite a small effect, could be something and have a major effect on them. So I think very often our… and comedy as a whole as well, one of the things the comedian’s doing is rewriting the world and controlling it for the period of time that they are on stage or they are writing.
– Oh, so it’s control.
– That probably sounds very highfalutin, but-
– No, no. It’s a control mechanism, I love the idea. I mean, I think there are some simple things, I was talking to Dr. Richard Bandler, and he’s always had a thing about when he was young, a teacher said to him you’re not musical. And so that went in at a very deep level. And his theory is that when you’re told that you’re not something, you never actually aspire to it, or you presume that it’s not possible. So do you think that’s the same with comedy? You’re not funny, you’ll never be funny. Those things are embedded. And then you start to live your life within those parameters.
– I don’t think so, actually. I don’t, I think with comedy because it’s an act of, it’s not something that’s in the curriculum. It is an act of a strange rebellion. Very often, it’s the rebellion by the quieter child who’s not going to end up setting fire to the woodwork class, but is instead going to have a punchline about the woodwork teacher, you know, in the playground. And so I think that it’s less than… I think very often, it is the lifebelt of a child or even an adult who doesn’t think they really have any other skills. They’ve got nothing else apart from yap, yap, yap. And that’s certainly true, I think, of quite a few of the people that I know. Whereas I do agree in terms of things like music, in terms of science in particular, obviously I’ve spent, I spent a lot of time talking to people who very often weren’t into science and have come back to science through some of the things in the last few years. That’s very much one. There’s a great author who wrote a book called The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf. And when she, she won the Royal Society Prize and she said, I can’t wait to tell my chemistry teacher. And the person was like, oh great. ‘Cause the chemistry teacher really encouraged you? She said, “no”. She said, you can’t do science. You don’t have a brain that can do this. So now I’m going to get in contact with her and say, oh, by the way, I’ve just won the Royal Society Prize for my science book. So that’s of course the other side to it, is there is sometimes the desire for revenge becomes so great that you go and do it. But I also think the hardest side in anything is the sense that you have permission to do it, especially if it’s outside what we consider the normal world. So a lot of creative endeavours, I think we need to work harder and harder to tell people from different backgrounds, you have permission, you are allowed to be a poet. You are allowed to be a comedian. You are allowed to be a writer. You have a story to tell.
– I’m just interested from the fact of what it sounded like, and I’m not putting words in your mouth, is that comedians couldn’t do anything else. So they had to get smart with their words. And I know hundreds of comedians, you know hundreds of comedians and some of them have other talents as well, Robin, to be honest.
– Oh, they’ve got other talents, but I think there is a thing where it just, one, it has an ease to it. I mean, not of course it’s horrible and it’s ridiculous. And you feel… but you have to do it. Unlike a lot of other worlds, once you’re a comedian, you can’t walk on stage and say give me a minute, I’m not really ready yet. You have to go, and so you have this, it’s I think very often it’s for people with quite flibbertigibbet minds where that focus, I mean, I know all novelists talk about the difficulty of writing, stuff like that, but comics, you don’t have a get out clause. You have to create now. And I think that plays its part in it. And of course, you’re right. There’s a lot of highly intelligent people who have many other skills as well. But comedy has, there is something about the dopamine hit, and there is something about, there is no other art form where success or failure can be so speedily monitored, and that you can walk off and go, I mean, more often than not of course, you walk off and you remember that one punchline that you feel you fluffed and they didn’t even know you fluffed, but that’s all that gig’s become about. You know, there’s all of those sides. But I think it does go back again a lot to the idea of control.
– The dopamine hit, so, I mean, basically it’s the idea of comics as drug addicts basically. But it is. I mean, there is no bigger drug than getting the laugh coming back at you. And so I think there’s that addiction idea, is actually very relevant to the whole thing.
– Well, obviously I would add to that, actually. I think that is also why you can see quite a lot of addiction sometimes in the comedy world, is because when the gig ends, how do you keep this going? How do you keep that feeling going? And I think it’s a very easy trap, especially because of course more often than not, when you start, you’re playing in a bar, you’re actually in the pub already. You don’t have to leave work and go to the pub. You walk from the stage to the bar. So I think a lot of that sometimes plays its part as well.
– What makes you laugh?
– Oh, there’s so many, I mean, I’m a huge fan of Laurel and Hardy in terms of the great traditional things. I, when I was a kid, the books of Douglas Adams made me laugh out loud and now things like Diary of a Nobody still makes me laugh out loud. Viz, the comic Viz, I love slipping over slapstick. Like really good. I love seeing a pompous person, like one of my favourite things of all time is there’s Rik Mayall in More Bad News, one of The Comic Strip presents. There is a scene in which he steps in dog excrement and it has all, what gets me, and I sometimes find it like, some Fawlty Towers episodes I can’t watch. As someone who’s very anxious and has a lot of frustration, that kind of, oh God, bloody hell, bloody hell, oh no, now it’s all over my fingers, all of that kind of humour I adore. And then I love my friend, Joanna Neary, who’s very, very funny comedian, does great characters. Stewart Lee’s last show was hilarious because all the silliness of it. So I love seeing smart people being very silly as well. So I find frustration, odd noises, I love, you know, the things that I watch with my son, Friday Night Dinner is one of my favourite shows of all time. Modern Family is brilliant. So there’s a huge number of things, but I am a big fan of really well done slapstick. And what I love about Laurel and Hardy as well, is which is what connects a lot of these things, is I’ve got a good idea. And from the moment you’ve heard that, you know, at the end of the 20 minutes, there’s Oliver sat in a water butt, or in the remnants of a house where a tile has just dropped on his head for the final time, and he just looks at the camera and goes, hmm. And that to me is the most perfect, because it’s the beautiful thing about humanity, isn’t it? We have these brilliant plans. And as we know the best laid plans of mice and men and Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton and everyone else. So I love those moments.
– Oh no. Laurel and Hardy, just, I can watch it again and again. You said you’re anxious, and when you read the book, I’m A Joke And So Are You, that sort of, you’re very honest about that anxious coming out. If I asked you to tell me a funny story about something that’s happened to you, would it be something that brought that out or is it something else? Does the anxious part of your life lead to the comedy?
– Yeah, the anxiety doesn’t actually, I mean in terms of overtly, I don’t think it necessarily appears, except it does appear from the moment someone watches me on stage and sees that I have a very frenetic mind and I kind of, but the anxiety is such a, it’s an interesting thing because I didn’t, it’s partly since I wrote the book that I’ve realised the overarching anxiety, which is lots of different things that I thought I had, and lots of, you then realise are all one thing, which is anxiety. And this is why I become fascinated by the disparity between the inner and the outer. Is ’cause lots of people will say, especially to comedians or singers or things like that. Oh, but you’re so confident. And of course that is the mask of it all, isn’t it? Which is, you know in a conversation with you now, I have a perpetual voice in my head, which is saying, was that okay? Was that the wrong thing to say? Does Paul want me to do a story now? Will it, if I don’t do the story now, is that going to be the wrong thing to do? Is that, so that voice, and when I do Monkey Cage, for instance, which is a show we’ve done nearly 150 episodes of, I have not got more relaxed. I am more worried now than I was 150 episodes ago, because, and on stage when I’m performing, I hear the voices all the time. And so you have, I used to say, there’s basically, there’s onstage, there’s five voices in my head. There’s the one that comes out, which is roughly what they hear coming through the microphone, right? So it’s roughly the same. But it’s got little tweaks when it actually finally comes into the microphone. Then there’s a second voice that goes, I’ve come up with an idea, I’ve come up with an idea. Why don’t you do this idea? This would be a really good idea. Then there’s a third voice that goes, don’t do that idea. Glasgow on a Tuesday, you’ll look like an utter idiot. Don’t no, put it away, put it away. And then there’s a fourth voice which is basically my mother saying, why did you do this? You could have just had a job in an office and everything would’ve been fine. Why are you seeking the approbation of strangers? And then the fifth voice is basically just screaming. And I would like to say that that’s pretend, but it’s not. It really, you know, that bit of the number, it was interesting seeing Lee Mack talking the other day about the number of voices and he is such a fast comedian and so utterly brilliant on shows like Would I Lie To You. But again, I think of late, it’s been interesting to see that quite a few comedy friends of mine have been diagnosed with ADHD. And I’m kind of, I’m not really certain about that whole world of diagnosis and stuff, because I sometimes wonder that one of the things that you do as a comedian is you drive yourself into a position that would actually appear to be on a knife edge of mental health, whatever, because the way that you use the voices in your head, the fact that each night you are seeking the approbation of strangers, you’re going into a strange room, you’re putting on a social show. You’re then going straight from that pretty much back to a hotel somewhere where you’re just on your own. So you go from an incredible level of narcissistic gregariousness into solitary, just sat there, watching whatever’s on telly at 1:00 AM, you know, in the Holiday Inn. And so, but I find it interesting, because I think what comedy can do is take a lot of those things, ’cause you know when people talk about the tragedy of comics, I mean, one of the reasons I wrote the book was I was doing a show about mental health on the night we found out that Robin Williams had taken his life. And sometimes when people put that narrative of, oh, comedians are all very, you know, it’s almost comedy that made people sometimes do you know, for instance, take their own life. And yet I think more often than not, comedy is an incredible coping mechanism for people who’ve got, if we weren’t doing comedy, where would we put all these voices in our head?
– I think as a psychologist, I think that everybody’s wearing masks. We’re just doing it writ large, if you like. And so, so the anxiety or the imposter syndrome or whatever, I think just comes with the territory because you’re brighter and you think more about it, you understand what’s happening, but this is there for everyone, I think.
– Yeah, very much so. I mean, that’s part of the point of the book, I hope, which is, comics are used as these examples because there is this interesting contrast. There is this thing where, oh, how could someone who makes everyone laugh, be sad? So that’s a much better story than how can someone who has a job that’s reasonably miserable, be miserable? So, but I think the truth of it is that these, and that’s why, you know, if it wasn’t true, we wouldn’t be able to communicate to audiences. We wouldn’t, you know, there’s a really fascinating thing when sometimes you talk of ideas and mental health and you talk from a personal perspective in a very upbeat kind of, hey you know, who else has this thought? And the realisation in the room, you can genuinely sometimes feel 50% of the room going, oh my God, this is, I really- Because this is the lucky thing. And I think why actually comedians aren’t nearly as bad people as many people might imagine, is we are in the fortunate position where we are able to express the hidden thoughts, the taboo thoughts that others keep in forever. I mean, that was one of the things that I remember having a conversation with someone and starting to worry that there are some people who live their whole life without ever actually saying what’s really in their head, and what a prison that must be. And then you see, when you see the anger that is expressed on social media or by newspaper journalists, when you see all that fury and so much I think of that anger comes from an ultimate fear of, whether it’s shame or guilt that grows and blossoms in the mind and is never expressed.
– It is a gift to be able to actually get those thoughts out of your head. And if you can make them funny, guess what? You get the dopamine hit. So that is a gift. Is everyone funny?
– I do think everyone has a story, but I don’t think everyone’s got a funny story. I genuinely do think there are some people that I’m sure you’ve met them. There are some people who just don’t seem to be able to understand humour at all. There’s a great line. One of my favourite films is a film by Todd Solondz, I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It’s called Happiness. Phillip Seymour Hoffman amongst others. And there’s a beautiful scene, it’s about three sisters. It’s quite a dark film actually, but it looks like a comedy. It’s one of those interesting films that if you go and see it in the cinema, some people are laughing and some people are going, do you really know what’s going on? But there’s a great moment at the end where the sister who’s the kind of the biggest loser says something and her other sister bursts out laughing, and then she looks, she goes, oh, I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing with you. And the sister says, but I’m not laughing. And that to me is one of my favorite lines, because there are some people who are, and again, that almost does feel, you know, when we were talking about nature versus nurture, sometimes that does feel like that’s nature. Sometimes it feels like there is something genetic, something which right from the start just has not been there.
– Yeah, well, that’s why I asked because, you know, nature-nurture, has it been knocked out of them at a very young age? What’s happened? Why do you think people fail to be funny?
– Do you know what, sometimes it’s by appearing to try too hard. I think that’s the thing. There’s two things, you know, people love, I think when jokes go wrong, sometimes it’s you’re just not understood. Sometimes you’re playing to the wrong crowd. And I mean that to everyone, not just on stage, sometimes you’re in the wrong room. So often it’s about context as well. It’s we, again because we’ve made the joke in our head, we’ve forgotten that we haven’t necessarily given them the set up, if you see what I mean, the whole social setup of it. So for me, authenticity is really important. I really, even if it turns out, it’s the old, I can’t remember who first said it, Henny Youngman I think is technically the first person who, you know, who talked about that way of being authentic. You have to be authentic, and once you can fake that, you can do anything you want.
– Well, it’s very interesting. ‘Cause there’s the Micky Flanagan story about when he first started, all of us started at the comedy store and doing all that. He was doing an open spot and he’d worked on the circuit quite a lot and he was doing well and he got his first open spot at the Comedy Store and he went along, and he thought he delivered it exactly as did. And as he came off, Mark Thomas just said to him, and he said, it was so important to his development. He said, “they didn’t trust you.” And that’s where what you’re saying about authenticity comes in. They’ve got to trust that you mean it and you mean well, and you want to connect with them on that level. If you’re just, you know, you’re just a heckler from the stage, it doesn’t work.
– See, that’s interesting because that’s why I think so many comics at some of those late night clubs and stuff where they do pick on that one person, because actually that’s not about trust, I don’t think. That’s about, that’s a different relationship. That has a relationship that is built on threat. And I sometimes, you know, I’ve watched comics where I think you don’t even know the room yet. And you’ve decided this is the front row and you’ve decided this, there’s a beautiful piece, oh man, what’s he called? There’s this really great short film of someone basically pretending being the person in the front row, and what’s going through their mind as they sit in the front row and the terror. And I’ve seen loads of comics, Alistair Green, Alistair Green does it. It’s very, very funny. Look for him on Instagram and various other places. He does these beautiful sometimes one minute, two minute little pieces. And this piece is just a man sat in front. Don’t pick me, don’t pick me, don’t pick on me, don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me. And the way and the whole in two minutes, he creates a tragedy and it’s beautifully done. And I’ve seen quite a few comics going, oh my God, I feel so guilty now. I feel so bad because I’ve realised what is going through their heads.
– So, what would the world be like without humour?
– It’s really, we will be in… it reminds me there’s a book called Nod by Adrian Barnes which is great but all about the, where humans can no longer sleep. And the world is mad within 11 days, of course, ’cause 11 days without sleep, the whole of society collapses. And I would say the same would be with humour because it is such a vital valve. I think humanity, so many different ideas of what we are is explained by the fact that we need to make jokes.
– You touched upon it a bit. Do you find yourself funny? Because-
– I find myself ridiculous. I think I know myself too well to be able to, you know, I laugh at myself and I find myself preposterous, and I find myself very easy to mock. But I don’t, I wouldn’t, I would find it very hard to define do I find myself, you know, I don’t go to bed chuckling. About you know, can’t believe you got up to that.
– But you’ve just touched on the it’s important to laugh at yourself. Why do you think that is from a neuroscience point of view or a psychology point of view?
– I think because we are absurd. We’re utterly absurd, if you take yourself too, I mean, this is, there’s an interesting thing about taking yourself seriously because it doesn’t mean that you’re flippant. It’s a different thing. I think trying to put this in words is sometimes quite hard that you need to consider yourself to be absurd but you need to take life seriously. You take life seriously enough, that sometimes you have to laugh at it as well. That’s how, you know, how seriously you can take it. But I think, yeah, that balance of going this is all utterly ridiculous, to know you’re alive, to know you’re going to die, to all of those, I mean, that’s the main thing, you know, it almost is the myth of Sisyphus, isn’t it? You know, that whole thing of the biggest problem, the biggest question of philosophy is, you know, whether to live or whether to die.
– Obviously you step into different worlds and you know, you know people who work in offices, work on building sites, work in everything. Do you think people laugh enough in the workplace?
– That’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Because I think again, it’s almost you’re not meant to have fun are you? If you have fun and as we know, actually, if you’ve had a good laugh, you will probably get back to work much better than if you’re still going, oh, the agony, so I think again, I think comedy and laughter, all of these things are extremely underrated. They are things that we need to spend more time focusing on. But at the same time, when we focus on them, we don’t want to make them too much something that is focused on. So this is the problem. You need to work out a way where you’re not being told, and don’t forget every time in this office between five past 11 and 20 past 11, we have fun joke 15 minutes. And everyone says a fun joke, and we have a lot of fun. Because that’s the other thing about fun jokes is, that you can’t say and I hope you’re going to enjoy this, ’cause I’m now going to tell you a joke. If you start saying, I think you’re probably going to laugh in about two minutes, 12 seconds. So keep an eye out for that. It still has to catch you unawares as well. So that’s part of the difficulty.
– So how do you foster an atmosphere that allows for it?
– You know what? Don’t take yourself so, there’s so many companies where you have to take seriously. There’s so many absurd companies, that basically do almost nothing, absolute nonsense, right? And they have to take themselves seriously, a bit like The Dictator. If they don’t take themselves seriously, they’ll realise how ridiculous it is. So many different professions are utterly preposterous in what they are. And if you eventually go, isn’t this absurd what we have to count for a living? Have you finished the count? Yes, I’ve finished counting it today. Accepting its absurdity doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing it. It actually is a tremendous relief to go, oh, you find it, but yeah, it is a bit weird. I was watching an episode of what’s that, WandaVision, this new series, a Marvel thing. Very odd start to it, where the first three episodes are done each one in the style of a sitcom. So it’s the Marvel universe but the first one is done like a 1950s black and white sitcom. And the job of the main character, he tries to find out from everyone else who works in the office what they do. And they go, well, we work out how much is going in and how much goes out. How much what? Well, that’s what we do. And that bit of then going, so do you actually know? We don’t know what we do. And I think all of those different things are people, this is the problem with humour, is it’s always a fear that it undermines something so much, it destroys it. But very often it undermines it just enough to make it bearable to keep doing.
– Oh yeah, that’s perfect. So if you were to give advice to people in business and you had to make a business case, you know how that, for humour, what would you include?
– It’s a really hard one, I think, because again, that thing I was just saying about taking yourself seriously, because we worry about reputation and business, unfortunately is in a lot of work, reputation is all what it’s about, and it’s horrible and it’s pompous and it’s nonsensical, and it’s hugely damaging, because it means that everyone becomes this kind of, you know, the figure, they become the dictator that can’t be mocked. And what I think is within business, take everything less seriously. Still do things. It’s like someone described reality, they said that reality should be taken seriously but not literally, which I thought was a great description of reality and of our problems with it. And I think in some ways that, an interpretation of that is how business should be dealt with which is, part of taking it seriously is where we’re taking it so seriously, you can also make a joke of it as well. That you understand what you’re doing so well, that you can go, and this bit is preposterous. And I know I shouldn’t even be asking you to do this. And I know you’re thinking, why are we doing this? Do you know what? I don’t know why we are doing this, but that person’s told us to do it. So, you know, that kind of reaction, that acceptance, again, it’s the acceptance of the inner thoughts. It’s the acceptance of I have no idea why I’m telling this room of people to do this. If you actually occasionally have the honesty to say I’m not really sure why we’re doing this, but apparently the evidence is this and this, so we might as well, you humanise what you’re doing.
– Oh, well, the humour as a humanizer is I think one of the key tenants of the whole Humourology project. We have to sell this to big business. So how are we going to do that, unless we have for them a return on investment?
– Well, this is the problem with big business. This is the problem with, is, as we know, every company is filled with, I’m probably not meant to say this on your thing who you might want to sell to, but every company is filled with people who do absolutely nothing. Every company is filled with people who, you know, in the arts industry, what you always find out, what are the two most important things in an arts industry, an audience and an act. That’s what you need. And yet it is surrounded by the people who make more money than everyone else in that. And they don’t make anything. So I think that’s one of the problems is, that sometimes when you face up to humour in the workplace, you might have to face up to the fact that you possibly should be redundant. So this does not sell the podcast to who I know you need to sell it to, but I think it is, you know, I have an obsession with meetings people. There are people who just, do you know what? If you want to, all that time, remove one meeting a day, ’cause you don’t need, the five meetings you’ve got, remove that one meeting. You know what, just watch an episode of Man Down. Watch some Laurel and Hardy together, watch something in a room together where you all find what you laugh at, and just, and that sense of bringing people together through laughter, not through the division of where are they, that I think would be an amazing thing. I mean, there’s two, you know, I have a rule which is, I don’t do three meetings if nothing’s happened after the first two meetings. So when we’re working on projects, if someone says, can we have another meeting? I go, well, nothing’s happened after the first two. When something’s happened from the first two, then we need another meeting. But we don’t need another meeting. So that’s what I would say is, remove at least one meeting, and then every week or even every day, different person in the office brings in the thing that they find funniest, that they delight in, or you watch it on Netflix or whatever, and you just laugh in a room.
– That’s right. And it’s the ultimate bonding thing, isn’t it? It brings people together. So actually I, especially that I think most companies on some level have to be creative. So surely, in order to be creative, you have to allow the brain to go to different places rather than be siloed.
– Well, as we know, you know, the best ideas never come up when you’re staring at the screen trying to write. They come up when you walk out, when you go for a you know, you go for a coffee, whatever. And I think that point of saying, because I think we’ve become so hooked on believing we’re being productive. And that’s one of the reasons that we have this meetings obsession is because the meeting means you’ve done something today. But you haven’t done anything. You’ve had a meeting. That’s not the same. I mean, I’m obsessed by that. That’s why I run, one of the things that I do with my mate, Trent, we make about four programmes a week and we make documentaries and we just make them, we don’t make them particularly for profit or anything like that. We just make them because we’re addicted to making things. We want to create things. And I think that is a really important part of it as well. That in fact, there is something more creative about having all sat in a room and laughed at something, you know, whether it’s Rude and Strange or Laurel and Hardy, whatever it is, there’s something far more creative that means that when you leave that room, like you know, during homeschooling with my son, you know, at lunchtime we might watch something like an episode of Friday Night Dinner and we’d love it. And we laugh and then he goes back to work and I go back to work. But something has happened, which has shaken the day. Which has just, you know, it’s moved, it feels like we’ve got more neural connections, positive neural connections available to us now, because we’ve just watched something wonderful and absurd.
– Well, there you go. There’s your return on investment. More neural connections. Well, it’s true.
– It does make people more creative. I genuinely think every time, we think far too literally. Or we have these things where we pretend we’re doing some Edward de Bono exercise, but you’re not. You’re still thinking literally about what you think are your business problems at hand. And actually you need to be thinking about something that is, you don’t even realise might be attached to it. You don’t, you’re just in another world and in that other world sometimes while you’re there is when you find the solution to the world over here.
– Well, and you allow the unconscious to do what it should do, because you know, and you will know this, that the conscious mind can only hold between five and nine pieces of information at any one time. The unconscious mind can hold millions. So why not utilise the unconscious mind to get to that creative end? Have you ever taken a joke too far and crossed the line?
– You know, when I was younger, I think too often in a social situation I was, and I’m sure I’ve done it since, and I’m sure I may well do it again should we ever have social situations again. But there are times where I’d leave a room and I’d think I’m not sure they were happy. I don’t think, you know, and that’s, I think more often than not, it’s not so much been on stage. It has been in social situations where you’re all playing the hierarchy game and you don’t realise that that person’s going to go home and they’re going to feel so sad and so undermined.
– But isn’t it part of the comedian’s thing that in order to know where the limit is, you have to push the limit slightly?
– Oh yeah. I think you should. I don’t think you should ever have it… again, one of the joys of doing comedy, I think is, it’s the, even though I talked about the five voices in my head, I have the least control over them. Apart from the voice that’s there, typing away going, here’s an idea, here’s an idea. And sometimes you throw out that idea, in fact more often than not, I’ve found, that idea that you barely even remember saying, and then someone comes up to the bar and went, that thing you did about that Dachshund in a kimono. And you go, Dachshund in a kimono? That wasn’t me. It was you, it was. I think those moments are the most, it’s almost like, that’s almost dream time, you know. The REM sleep, it feels like it’s REM sleep, but onstage. The brain is fully active, but actually the things that are coming out are not in the same way as the control in a social group.
– I think that’s a very good piece of advice for anybody who’s actually speaking to a group as well. And you know, we have a lot of people who are trying to take something away from this. And I think they’ll get a lot of tips. But actually one of the things is that if you put your attention outward, you allow the unconscious brain, the first chapter in my first book was called, It’s All About Them, only because I noticed that actually I was doing my best work, and I think you as a comic doing your best work, is when you are not consciously doing the work and going, I’m going to tell a set up here. I’m going to do it, you’re allowing the flow state as they call it in sport. You’re just allowing it to happen. And that’s when the magic happens. That’s the alchemy of it.
– I would say, actually, that’s interesting in terms of business presentations, or even best man speeches or anything like that, is don’t worry about reading all the words that you’ve typed. You know, because actually you will gain more and if you lose your place and you’ve forgotten what you’re going to say, you’ve got it there and you can go back to that. That moment of just freeing yourself from, because that, then everyone knows you’ve written it all down and yes you’ve said exactly where they’re expecting the growth to happen, and they expected this, but just move away from that and talk to people. I mean, I find it fascinating, the fear, because it’s one of the only fears that I don’t have, obviously, I still have a fear of it, but it’s not like most of my other anxieties, is the one that’s in the top three, you know, which is public speaking. That’s the one thing that I do. I can’t abseil, I wouldn’t go pot holing. You know, I don’t really like leaving the house that much. But you know, I can public, I can do public speaking. And that bit of just going, just talk, just talk. And the worst that can happen is not nearly as bad as you imagine, and you won’t lose, you won’t lose face. You know, I’ve seen lots of people do presentations where I thought, you never looked up. You were never a human. You were, you could have actually just recorded that at home and just sent a cassette or put it on USB or whatever.
– I say to people, look forward to stuff going wrong, because psychologically that means, because that’s by the way when you’re having the most fun, if you’re in that state and that’s probably when you’re at your funniest is because you humanise yourself, don’t you? Everybody you know, but if you accept it, the audience, whether that’s an audience of one or 10,000, they love that.
– Nothing an audience like more than seeing someone wear a false moustache where the glue starts to come off, you know? That’s their favourite thing. Their, you know when you, Graham Norton, you know, the number of times on his show, things like that, where you actually think, do you know what, they said, don’t use too much glue. And the delight people have, ’cause this isn’t meant to happen. Like when you see really good quality corpsing, you know, obviously Pete and Dud were well-known for that. You know Rik and Ade, that bit where this is, it’s you know, it’s because you’ve been let in, you’re not meant to see this bit. This isn’t how it’s meant to go.
– Well, yeah. And in sitcoms, they sometimes build that in, don’t they? They build in the mistake, just so the audience feel I’m seeing something that nobody else has seen. It’s wonderful. Have you ever gotten yourself out of trouble by using humour?
– Oh, that’s interesting. No, I’ve mainly got myself in. It’s not normally been that way, I think. Yeah.
– I think, I’m just trying to think if I ever have, I don’t drive, so I’ve never had to make a policeman laugh or anything like that, you know. So not personal, but I have found that thing at funerals and things like that, so that emotional trouble that people can be in, I found that it’s been very useful for that. You know, doing eulogies or just sat at a table and not being scared to make hopefully the right kind of jokes. ‘Cause that’s the, so in that way of trouble, I would say in terms of other people, for emotion, which I know is not really what you asked, but that I’ve found it very, very useful. That bit of not being scared to say something that is not taking things entirely seriously. And that is, you know, always an interesting thing. Philippa Perry, the therapist talks about, I remember once she said, you know, if you’re laughing at something actually, or making a joke about something, it means you haven’t necessarily really accepted it. And then actually we talked more about that, and she said, that’s not entirely true, actually. There are different forms of jokes. There are jokes, which acknowledge the horror of a situation at the same time as also, and that’s the important thing, finding the right kind of joke in those situations, which can seem very, very desperate.
– Well, yeah. And isn’t that the skill, is it’s knowing where it is. Actually, I think that the best comedians, well, the best leaders, best everything really, are the best listeners, because really, and I’m talking about listening off the top, looking at people and going, are they ready for this? And you know, as a comic, you must look at the audience on some conscious, unconscious level, and think, will they play, will they go with this thought? And what you’re describing there is that attention to the other people, rather than being in your own head and going, this’ll be funny. You know, you’re actually looking and listening to other people and going, can I take them on that journey to make them feel better?
– That’s such an interesting thing, isn’t it? Which is that after a certain number of years you don’t even know you’ve learned that. You only knew you hadn’t learnt it, because of the number of times you made that mistake. You haven’t noticed that you’ve learnt it, when sometimes you’re just playing around for two hours with an audience, and then you realise, oh I told that story today. And I don’t normally, and I wonder why that was, and you can’t. So that’s another thing as well, as you said, it’s going into that kind of, that flow state, it’s going into that state where, and again it’s, nowhere else can I do that. I can’t do sport. I can’t do most of the, anything, I can’t play an instrument. I think a lot of that is because I’m quite hypervigilant. So I’m very aware of myself at all times. The only time I can lose that awareness is by talking to people and then yeah. And that is, it’s such a joy to. I’ve talked to quite a few comics about that time ago, when we talk about our early days, and go we wondered why that joke didn’t work. And then we, ’cause sometimes you can return to a joke just as a little game and you think, oh I tried that joke five times, it never worked. And then you just realise you were the wrong age. You were the wrong person. You were the wrong personality on stage. And now you can go back to it. And that’s an interesting thing to again see all of the unconscious things that are going on with an audience, all of their perceptions of who, you know, like I remember doing, I did Hammersmith Apollo, did two charity gigs in a week. And one of them was Douglas Adams’ 60th birthday. They did a celebration of his life. And I remember walking on and thinking I can do anything I want tonight because they kind of have some sense that I’m a guy who does some science shows on Radio 4 and whatever. So I can do my favourite stuff. And I started and it was fine. And it was like, yeah, I had a really nice time. And then a week later, I was doing one, I think it was for Scope and Ben Elton was compering it, and Al Murray was on and stuff. And as I walked on, I went, no one knows, there’s no context to me whatsoever. No one knows who I am. And what I thought I was going to be able to do, I can’t do, because when I’m playing to an audience, a bit like when you’re on tour, sometimes you’re on tour, and then you go straight into just doing a gig, again, like a benefit gig, or something like that, and you realise all context has gone. All those people who come to a room knowing who you are or having some idea of what to expect. And then, and I remember as I got to the mic, going, right, I’m going to talk about this now, because I know this cuts through, all of this is the broadest thing that I have. This is something which will allow me, might buy me the time to do the things I wanted to do. It wasn’t stuff that I didn’t want to do necessarily, but it was just a bit I wasn’t expecting to do. And that’s an interesting thing again of knowing your, of just going, hang on a minute, this crowd, this is the context.
– That’s in psychological terms, that’s unconscious competence, isn’t it, really? Where you, you know, because you start off from conscious incompetence and then you get to the pinnacle, which is unconscious competence, where you just know, you just feel, and you’ve learned to read the audience so well. And that’s why I always say to people, really, it’s all about them. Put your attention on them and allow that to happen. And with experience you become great. We now reached the part of our show, the end part of our show, unfortunately, which is called Quickfire Questions.
– Oh, here we go. ♪ Quick fire questions ♪
– Who’s the funniest business person that you’ve met?
– I, do you know, I’ll tell you who it was actually. It was my brother-in-law, Alan, who had such a level of, kind of just joie de vivre, unfortunately he died quite a few years ago now. I remember doing the eulogy at his funeral and my sister said, make it as funny as possible. And it was one of those things where I came off, out of the pulpit and I did have a little of my mind was going, stormed that one, stormed that eulogy. None of the material was usable for anything, but I think it was Alan. He had a real sense of, you know, when he walked into a room, people just thought, oh, how delightful, this is going to be fun. So, yeah, it’s my brother-in-law Alan.
– What book makes you laugh?
– Well, I mentioned Diary of a Nobody, I love, Diary of Adrian Mole is another one as well. Sue Townsend, such a great author. There’s, I’m trying to think of ones that I’ve read recently, but that in particular, I think Diary of Adrian Mole and Dairy of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith are books that make me laugh over and over again.
– What film makes you laugh? Now you’ve mentioned a couple already. Is there anything else?
– I mean, ones that have actually made me snort ice cream out of my nose would be Blazing Saddles, for instance, I think, you know, Mel Brooks is another one. You know, when we were talking about authenticity, you see Mel Brooks, he’s full of love. That’s another really important thing for me, he’s full of love. And I think most of my favourite people, the love shows and Mel Brooks definitely has that when you see him interviewed, or when you, when you saw him with Carl Reiner, who of course sadly died last year, but the two of them together, you think these are people and they care about the world and they care about other human beings. They don’t just care about themselves. Wonderful.
– What word makes you laugh, Robin?
– Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been trying to find a way of using bellicose recently. And I haven’t, it hasn’t worked yet. I haven’t found the right way, but bellicose, I particularly like, there is. and nunculfatujuralfatunch.
– Bless you.
– Yeah. It’s from the Young Ones, the, yeah.
– I’d forgotten that, everything. Taking it the other end of the spectrum, what’s not funny?
– I think there’s nothing that doesn’t have the possibility of being funny in some ways, but I do think there are places where you really have to think, why would you be making that joke? So I do think there’s a huge number of areas involving tragedy, involving death, involving things like that. I just think, you know, sometimes when I see some of the edgy comics who go in that direction and I think why? So I think, you know you should never go out there and think, I mustn’t do this and I mustn’t do that. But when you go into certain subjects, you should think, why am I doing this? And why am I saying that? And am I happy if at the bar afterwards, someone comes up to me, we’re not happy, but will I feel that I’m still in the right if someone approaches me in tears? And sometimes you will, sometimes, you won’t feel happy about it. But, and so, sorry, that’s a very long answer. But I think that that’s the way I view it. There’s a lot of things where I just think, why would I want to make a joke on that?
– Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
– Funny, I think. You know, that’s it, I don’t, ’cause I don’t, I don’t consider myself, you know, the point is, if I wanted to consider myself clever, I’d stopped doing shows with particle physicists. Because that shows you up immediately. You know, I mean, and I think I’ve found a nice place to be where you know, I describe myself as a professional idiot. That’s kind of what I do. I’m normally the stupidest person in the room because I’m in these rooms with these people with incredible minds. And it’s nice to know that, yeah, I can’t, you know, I’m not going to be, they’re not going to go, hang on a minute, say that again. I think you finally found a law of the universe that unites quantum mechanics with you know, gravity, at last! That’s not going to happen but I can do a joke about something like that. And that’s what I’ve got on my side. So I’d rather be yeah.
– Yeah, but they are probably looking at you going, I wish I could do that.
– See that’s the funny thing, isn’t it? We briefly mentioned imposter syndrome and that’s something everyone should know, especially in business, because I know this happens a lot. Which is most an enormous number of people, and very often people who are very high flyers do not, you know, I’ve met, I think I mentioned in the book, I’ve met Nobel Prize winners who I’ve, they’ve said, I couldn’t do what you do. And I go, but you won the Nobel Prize. You’ve changed the potential of humanity. Yes, yes, I can do that. Because, if your brain is able to do something more often than not you consider it a very marginal thing because you can do it. That’s why watching a great piece of music being performed to me is always a shamanic spell, because that’s so beyond my reach. So what that person is doing is a magic spell. So that imposter thing, I think once you start, that again is the importance of honesty as well. That once we start telling each other, do you know what, I was so nervous about doing this, and I don’t really feel that I’m necessarily the right person for the job but I’m going to try as hard as I can. If only we could have more language than that as opposed to, well, I suppose the one problem with me is that I’m a perfectionist, right? If we could get rid of that and have a greater honesty of sometimes our anxieties, we would be much happier.
– I think that’s absolutely true. And I think genius is always something that we can’t do ourselves. The final question in the show, which is not really a question, it’s desert island gags. You can only take one gag with you to a desert island. What is it?
– Oh, that’s really hard. Do you know what? It might be, I’m trying to think. Harry Hill and John Hegley are two of the people that have made me laugh the most. Actually the thing that’s made me laugh most recently in terms of when I was able to go and watch live comedy, I mentioned Stewart Lee at the beginning. Stewart Lee doing about 12 minutes of just making noises when he shows you what would actually be happening if Ricky Gervias was saying the unsayable, is one of the most brilliantly preposterous routines that I’ve seen. And I’ve sat with my wife and both have those, you know when you’re looking at each other going, this needs to stop now, it hurts. And I think, you know that, and John Hegley doing a dance with some string, so I’ll take Stewart making those noises.
– Well, that’s wonderful. And unfortunately, this needs to stop now. We could talk forever. Robin, thank you for sharing your wisdom, your wit, and absolutely being a wonderful guest. Robin Ince, thank you for being on the Humourology Podcast.
– Thank you.
– [Paul] The Humourology Podcast was hosted by Paul Boross and produced by Simon Banks. Music by Steve Haworth, creative direction by Les Hughes and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky production.