Talking Time with Rob Auton
As he returns to live performance ahead of the release of his new book, we discuss ideas and art with comedian and writer Rob Auton
Rob Auton cannot wait to get back to performing. “My brain’s been full of stuff that I don’t want it to be full of. Whereas now, the stuff that I’m passionate about is coming back,” he says. After a quiet 18 months, the thrice-rescheduled run of his latest show – The Time Show – coincides with the release of a book, I Strongly Believe in Incredible Things. “There’s quite a distinct feeling I get when I look at something and it excites me like it hasn’t excited me before, or I look at it in a new way. And then that is when to get the notebook out.”
However, capturing these moments isn’t always plain sailing. “Sometimes people go, ‘You’re not expressing that well enough.’ And that’s just the way you put words together. You know, you need to fling them out there and people need to go, ‘Oh my god, right, he’s said those five words absolutely perfectly.’”
Auton has previously spoken about the appeal of stand-up being its ephemeral nature. How does he feel about a book, imbued with permanence, in comparison? “[The book is] the best expression of how I feel about the world [right now]. You know, in 20 years' time, I might feel completely differently.” There’s no point for the comedian to forego an opportunity: “I know for a fact that I’ll be able to look at this and go, ‘I know you worked really hard on this. That was a moment in your life where you tried your best.'”
It’s clear that this plays on his mind. “I’ve got an internal thing in my head saying, ‘You’re lazy, you’re lazy, you’re lazy’," he says, "and I fight against that to try to motivate myself.” On whether he sees himself more as a natural writer or a natural performer, Auton loves the risk of live comedy, but it’s more about having a place to dispense ideas. He says: “If I have an idea that I like then I want to share that idea because I feel like it’s worth something and it made me laugh... I’m almost being forced on stage. I didn’t choose this for myself, I just thought, ‘How can I share?’.
“Writing it down in a book [is one thing] but bringing it to life [is another]. I want to try to bring these to life. I’m quite quiet... but when I am on stage, it does feel like a safe space for me. And I think that’s because it’s rooted in the ideas and it’s not really about me.
“But one thing that I’ve learnt is that, if you don’t sit down and make [ideas] into something, they just go. So it’s also about sitting down and working. I really like Bruce Springsteen and that quote, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’”
While it would be very easy to pathologize this need for productivity – to see it as that aforementioned internal voice tormenting him to no end – it’s evident that for Auton, the creative process is joyful. His previous books consisted of an Edward Lear-ish mix of words and sketches and ...Incredible Things continues that tradition. “I love the freedom that you can go to a canvas or a blank page and just make something up," says Auton, "make something that exists because you’re alive.”
Auton holds a huge deal of admiration for artists who are funny. “David Shrigley could definitely stand up on stage and read out his books [...] and he’d probably be the best comedian in the country.” He admits to feeling an affinity with their “homemade, punk ethos” that he himself developed at art school. There, the penny dropped for him. “William Blake talks about having to create your own reality. I think art and creativity allow you to [do that]. It’s like getting a machete and cutting through a jungle and going, ‘Okay right, here we go, we’re going. This is the path that I want to take.'”
And that path has served him well. The Time Show is his eighth one-hour show and I Strongly Believe in Incredible Things is his fourth book. But with the pandemic-induced blockage only just clearing, he’s still on the road to match-fitness. “The slide from my brain to the tip of my tongue is a bit more clogged up than it used to be," he says. "But I’ve been practicing and now I think I’m pretty much there.”