Robin Ince on his new book and return to stand-up

Discussing his new book, I'm a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human, Robin Ince finds the human condition as universal as it is unique

Feature by Ben Venables | 29 Oct 2018
  • Robin Ince

When we don’t know who someone is, we ask in the plural: ‘Who are you?’ instead of ‘Who is you?’ And maybe there’s more to us than we think.

"My original draft was 200,000 words long,” says Robin Ince. Human nature, it seems, requires longform discussion. And Ince’s book I’m a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human resists easy answers. Not only the easy answers about who we are as a species, but also as individuals.

As a three-year-old, in the back seat of a car, searching for a toy gun that had fallen under the front seat, Ince was a passenger in a car accident. An incident that was surely significant to the rest of his life? Yes. But, until Robin Ince wrote about it, he’d never really considered it that way.

"What was interesting, especially with the car accident,” he says, “was that I was really embarrassed writing about it. When you've been a child in an accident, and you think that you've caused it, and your mum spends time in a coma, apparently it is alright to consider that to be quite eventful."

It's the chaos, the ambiguities about who we are that Ince seems to relish. It's in the not knowing and the search for answers rather than finding them: "One of the fascinating things about being human is this confusion of things that get us through life and the people that we become."

Ince's embrassment in writing about the collision was matched by his embarrassment that his family would read it. Was he making a meal out of something that happened a long time ago, belatedly feasting on a random incident for the sake of a book? 

"I gave a copy to one of my sisters and a copy to my dad," he says. "I said, 'There's probably things in here that you don't know'. But one of the things they never knew was that I thought it'd been all been my fault. They were quite shocked by that. But, of course, as a three-year-old you have no way of communicating. It's the difference between an adult's mind and a child's mind – and some things can't be translated."

And in examining the memory, Ince has found himself face-to-face with its emotions. "The thing that has most startled me, having written this book, sent it off to the printers, then come back to do live events, was that I found myself at Wigtown Book Festival. After 28 years as a stand-up, I was being asked by [the host] Lee Randall about this thing that had happened. Out of nowhere, as I told this story, I started crying. Generally, I like to control my emotions... so that took me by surprise."

Much of Ince's book is about the feeling of being an impostor, the different voices our heads entertain, if through creativity or our fear, and about how comedians don't have a monopoly on being a bit odd. "We spend our whole lives judging everyone from their exterior and ourselves from our interior," says Ince. "It's this disparity between the two which leads to so many problems." Ince wants to show that comedians are as hard to explain, and as different from each other, as everybody else.

One persistent myth about comics is the 'tears of a clown', that comedians use humour not to make us laugh but for some psychological need to deal with some kind of sadness within them. It makes for a good story but that doesn't mean it's true, and it can bias us towards not understanding someone's situation at all, such as in the case of Robin Williams' suicide in 2014. 

"With Robin Williams, all the newspapers turned his death into a linear thing," says Ince. "It makes a much better story to say: 'Funny Person is Sad'. As far as I remember, suicide rates among vets, ballet dancers and farmers are higher than they are among comedians. Then we find out Williams had a form of dementia... Lewy bodies [were] making his life hell. In his story alone, we can see that people are three-dimensional."

Is there no kernel of truth in a myth though? "I do think most people who create or the desire to create, in any field, comes from a need that does perhaps require, if not inner turmoil, something along those lines – that you won't accept the status quo. And you express it in your weird story, your strange painting or odd haiku."

But this urge isn't unique to comedians, or even to the artist. Ince might appreciate NASA's message to alien civilisations written on space probes, which defines humans as: 'bilaterally symmetrical, sexually-differentiated bipeds located on one of the outer spirals of the Milky Way, capable of recognising prime numbers, and one extraordinary quality that lasts longer than all our other urges – curiosity.'

Perhaps there is one thing curious to comedians though. When pressed to give the kind of simplistic answer Ince doesn't like, he suggests: "There isn't a comedian that hasn't died on their arse, spent a week dying on their arse, at some point in their career. The fact we go on stage again is maybe what marks us out. When you go on for the first time, if people hate you, it'd be wiser not to do it again. It's the equivalent of eating poison berries, or mammoth shit – let's not eat anymore mammoth shit – but, instead comedians keep going back."

Ince himself is back on stage after a two-year hiatus, doing only benefit gigs and writing. He's found a new energy on stage and perhaps, for all his enjoyment in revelling in the complications of human existence, something of a purpose. "In more recent stand-up shows, when I talk about intrusive thoughts and strange voices, I realise that part of the job that I'm doing is to say to the audience, 'Don't worry, there's a lot of weird shit going on'."

He mentions too how much more he connects with the crowd since he's returned. "I feel there's less of a wall between who I am and the audience," he says. 

"Maybe it's the aged sentimental person I've become but I think more about the Kurt Vonnegut quote: 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

I’m a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human, published by Atlantic Books, £16.99, out now Robin Ince reads from I'm A Joke... at James Gillespie’s High School, Edinburgh, 12 Nov, £5, tickets via edinburghbookshop.com http://robinince.com/