Robin Ince: The Science of ComedyPosted: May 6, 2011
You don’t have to leave your brain at the door when going to a gig. I met up with the comedian who is taking Brian Cox and other scientists on tour.
The “free visitor destination for the incurably curious”, otherwise known as the Wellcome Collection, opposite London’s Euston station, seemed an apt place to meet Robin Ince, comedian and co-presenter of Radio 4’s science-meets-humour chat show The Infinite Monkey Cage.
“There are a lot of intelligent, well-read comedians out there who are interested in science and who want to share their passions,” says Ince, who has done more than anyone to help them do just that. He is the brains behind Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, a variety show that celebrates science while giving the audience a healthy dose of humour and music.
Each Christmas since 2008 the shows have played to packed houses of non-religious people grabbing the opportunity to laugh out loud at the likes of comedian and trained physicist Dara O’Brien and being entertained by bite-sized lectures from scientists like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. “If the Royal Variety Show was put in a matter transportation machine with the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures,” says Ince, “this is what you’d get.” It’s what he calls “reading-list comedy”, because it’s all about ideas that leave the audience wanting more – and a bibliography.
Ince is about to give them more with his new tour, Uncaged Monkeys: A Night of Science and Wonder, opening in Oxford tomorrow and ending with two nights at London’s Hammersmith Apollo on May 16 and 17.
Ince’s fellow “monkeys” will be Brian Cox, recently on our screens presenting Wonders of the Universe; Ben Goldacre, psychiatrist and slayer of bad science; and Simon Singh, the best-selling science writer and celebrated debunker of the claims of alternative medicine. With their guests the quartet will be tackling everything from the Big Bang to bonobo apes and anything else they can cram into two hours.
Once again the driving force, Ince describes himself as “the idiot who will guide the audience”. Though he loved science as a child, he explains that he lost interest in it around the age of 13, “when science seemed to become facts and dull experiments with apparently no link to the world”.There was, he regrets, “no sense that the periodic table is really the ingredients list of the universe so far”.
It was only in his mid twenties that the popular books of Nobel Prize-winning, bongo-drum-playing physicist Richard Feynman rekindled his curiosity for all things scientific.
“Taking a tour about science to theatres that seat up to 3,000 people is a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” admits Ince. The fact that he can do so may in part be down to an English-born, Canadian journalist and writer living in New York, one Malcolm Gladwell.
In November 2008, Gladwell’s two performances at the Lyceum, one of the largest theatres in London’s West End, were quickly sold out. A staffer at the New Yorker magazine, Gladwell is often described as one of the most brilliant and influential writers of his generation. His bestselling books, such The Tipping Point and Blink, identify and explore social trends and behaviour in novel ways. After his gigs in London he returned to Britain the following year to play four dates at venues that you’d normally associate with hip indie bands. Gladwell, with his afro and charisma, made ideas sexy, very much as Brian Cox is doing today.
Ince and Cox’s fellow uncaged monkey Simon Singh identifies three distinct types of event that are taking place: listening to scientists (lectures), discussing with scientists and celebrating science. “People have always gone to science lectures,” he says, “but the discussion and celebration of science in pubs and theatres is new.” He recently introduced a lecture by American physicist Brian Green to an audience of 900 at the Southbank.He admits that big events at big venues, like the Uncaged Monkeys or a lecture by a world-famous scientist, might not be “everybody’s cup of tea”.
For those who prefer things on a smaller scale, there is an ever-growing number of events like The Bright Club, a monthly variety night founded in 2009 by comedy promoter Miriam Miller and Steve Cross, University College London’s head of public engagement, as an arena for the staff and students from UCL to break free from the desks and labs and perform routines based on their research.
“Physically going out to these events involves a different level of engagement, than, say, watching Horizon at home, because you form part of the evening as an audience member,” says Miller. “You can go with friends and discuss the issues raised in the break or on the bus home, and at some of these events you can even interact with the people presenting information to you.”
She believes that we have all the information in the world at our fingertips but that we don’t necessarily spend time discussing it with other people. She also believes that this social aspect is an important one: people who are interested in intelligent things usually don’t get to enjoy them together.
“Traditionally they’d watch TV or read books, both of which are pretty solitary,” argues Cross. “Other than that there are public lectures, which can be great, but most people just aren’t used to being lectured at for an hour.”
It seems more of us are prepared to let loose our inner geek, even if it’s just for the odd night. And it’s something that excites Ince because, “when you go to a well-run science gig, you don’t just come out saying ‘That was fun’, you leave with your mind reeling with ideas that haunt and intrigue you”. We are not yet a nation of science-loving geeks, but as Ince says: “People now aren’t afraid to admit they like science. How can someone wilting under a stack of celebrity swimsuit mags belittle someone looking up at the stars?”