Monday, August 19, 2019

I'm a Joke and So Are You, by Robin Ince

Subtitled "A comedians' take on what makes us human", this is an intelligent ramble through the psychology of stand-up, and by extension creativity in general. Robin undergoes brain scans, talks to scientists and fellow comedians, and opens up about his own life and experience.

There's plenty of science-of... stuff I found interesting: the notion of Wittgenstein's lion - "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him" - or how being good at Just a Minute appears in your brain. In one chapter, Robin explores an old canard I had heard before, that many successful comedians experienced some kind of trauma as children, such as the death of a parent. He speaks to those of whom that is true, and to other comedians who were adopted or suffered different kinds of trauma. With that in mind, he also explores the impact of traumatic moments in his own life - a car crash he was involved in as a small child that almost killed his mum, or the effect of changing school. Then, just as he seems to be on to something with all of this, he completely undercuts the hypothesis with examples of comedians whose work comes from a childhood of happiness and encouragement. If the conclusion, then, is that there's no simple answer, it prompted this listener to think about how and why I do what I do.

Chapters address the cliche of the "sad clown", the issue of causing offence, the anxieties of both performer and audience. The final chapter addresses death, specifically that of Robin's mother and how it impacted his work. It's agonisingly honest and upsetting, and with a start I realised I'd been a witness to some of what's described, as a panelist on the 2015 Christmas special of The Infinite Monkey Cage. At the time, I didn't know what was going on - Robin was clearly unwell at the recording and had to rush off immediately afterwards. With typical courtesy, and the same freelancer fear of letting other people down he describes here, he emailed me later to apologise. 

Having experienced my own share of trauma, I really get his need to keep busy through this period, to use work both to escape the awful reality and then to make some kind of sense of it. I admire the way he tells us so much so honestly and then won't go any further - only sharing so much. He talks about how his job, his mining real life for comedy, can strain relationships when something like this happens - his own acknowledgement and the fear from people round him that this is all raw material. This is difficult and profound, and Robin concludes - with an example of another comedian's response to his own terminally ill father - that means we end on a note of optimism. But it's not so neat or simple as that, and I remain thinking...

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