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Comedy Interview: Robin Ince

By Londonist_ben Last edited 122 months ago
Comedy Interview: Robin Ince
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Robin Ince is a stand up comedian and writer. By all accounts he is very good and has had his fingers in many pies. Robin is also the founder of The Book Club, a nomadic club night. The club has proved to be so successful that Robin took it on a full UK tour this year and also won the Time Out Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy. This weekend, on the 17th December, the Bloomsbury Theatre hosts a special Christmas edition of The Book Club. You should go.

We met up with Robin to talk about The Book Club, old postcards and sweets weighed out by bewhiskered men.

All the comedians we've spoken to always mention your Book Club when asked about their favourite clubs, can you explain what it is and how it came about?

It started almost two years ago. I had made various friends at Edinburgh who did things that didn’t necessarily fit in the stand up circuit, ideas a little bit too twisted to fit into a bill of three guys and a compere. So I started, during that Edinburgh, to read out bits from Syd Little’s autobiography with Philip Glass in the background and then I kept finding weird books and albums and matching them up and then I thought that’d be quite a fun way of linking a club. So I just decided to start a club because a few of us were sitting round saying “it’s really hard to find anywhere where you can do something a bit different”. I knew Josie Long by then, Danielle Ward, the Trap who do sketches, Gawk-a-go-go who create these amazing costumes and characters. They start with a pun and then mutate into something repulsively fascinating. Ellyvis, the elephant man elvis; Liberarnie, half Liberace and half the Terminator; Dali Parton. So we put together this ramshackle show. I wrote a press release saying that it’s a club that caters for people who really like comedy. We immediately got loads of press and from that point onwards we sold out.

What is this weekend's Christmas show going to be like?

The Christmas show is hopefully going to be like a Bing Crosby Christmas special mixed with other things. I think we’ve found a fireplace which will be on stage and a big chair and some form of snow and a live band. The idea is that I’ll come on smoking a pipe saying “Oh just me and my books again for Christmas, always me on my own” *doorbell noise* “hang on, who’s that?” and then everyone will come on in the cheesiest manner possible. We’re going to have a tremendous big line of Bowies. I’m doing a duet with Phil Harris of Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth, the David Bowie/Bing Crosby song and the idea is that every couple of lines someone dressed as a different incarnation of Bowie comes on and by the end along the piano we’ll have ten different Bowies – Ziggy Stardust, Lad Insane, Berlin Bowie etc. and lots of haphazard stupid things. Howard Read will do something or other. Simon Munnery will hopefully do something with Ven diagrams which I always find very exciting. He did a very good Ven diagram explaining Ven diagrams and then went on to explain that of course if you don’t understand Ven diagrams then the Ven diagram to explain Ven diagrams won’t explain anything.

How did you come across your accordionist, Mr White?

I found him through some people who came to the very first Book Club, at the end of that night they said “We know this guy we know who plays the accordion, you should get him along”. So he came to next week’s one and then I said just go on and try it out. It became a really good way of setting up the evening as a bit different - me reading from some really bizarre books that I’d found in the local Oxfam and him doing something odd on the accordion.

What was your best gig ever?

There is always something wrong with them, I’m a perfectionist. There are two that are the best ever. I did “So you think you’re funny?” in 1992 and got second place in the final. Beaten by Rhona Cameron. I came off stage feeling, “there must be something in this, I feel that I’ve started to justify my ideas of what I want to do.” The second one sounds really cliché but was a stroke benefit at Hammersmith Apollo. I don’t normally get a buzz from gigs very much but at this gig, the day after I thought “wow that was amazing, I just played to three and a half thousand people and got the set right”.

Any animosity toward Rhona now?

No! I had when I was young. People used to come up to me and say “you should have won that”, I’m sure many more thought that Rhona should have done. I was very slow getting into comedy because I didn’t like phoning people up. Every now and again I’d watch be watching ITV at three in the morning and I’d see Rhona on there and I’ve think “ugh, it should have been me!” but I never really had any animosity.

Worst gig ever?

The worst gigs are never the ones that are dramatically bad, they are the ones where you get a sense of your own failure and the people hate you but quietly. I've normally quite enjoyed the big deaths. I was once booed on at the Belfast Empire. Patrick Kielty introduced me as "and now from London", said in a very pointed way as if to go "one of those bastards whose been keeping us down for all these years". I stood there for the whole time and afterwards all these people who had been booing for so long still bought me drinks saying "we didn't enjoy it but well done for staying on." The worst ones are when you get that failure to engage, screwing up slightly. I was once chatting to a bloke in the audience and I asked him about being a father and by the nature of his reply I discovered that he had been a father as in that his child had died. It wasn't my fault and the audience didn't turn on me, I didn't then start to go, "What you killed your son? Drowned your son? Fuck him to death did you? Edgy edgy, dark comedy!" I just thought, oh no, this bloke's come out for a comedy night and I've reminded him of something ghastly.

Do you have a career goal? More TV work?

I did 'Mock The Week' a while back and it was a bit of a disaster. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways, I found it a weird show and had a lot of problems with it. I’ve been a bit of a panel show whore this autumn. I got to the point where I was coming back from doing 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks' and on the train I started to feel actually physically sick as if I was about to do the biggest gig of my life. I thought, "Oh God, two million people watch this and they’ll think, 'that bloke’s a fucking idiot'". I like doing TV but I’m quite paranoid sometimes. I love going on things but its not a goal. I’d much rather write a really good radio show because I have no desire for fame. I like touring round arts centres, I love playing to hundred seaters which hopefully have a hundred people in, not always obviously. I like that. My goal really is to be able to spend my life touring around for a few months a year, I’d like to get to those little weird Victorian theatres that hold about 250 people and there’s always a caretaker there who’ll tell you a story that there’s a ghost and sometimes you’ll hear them. That’s where I’d like to get to, that minor minor league level of success which means you’re on the radio enough to get a wide audience of 15 year olds to 78 year olds. I’d like to do more films as well. I wrote a film with a friend of mine about a year ago called 'Razzle Dazzle' and it got made. It comes out in Australia in March and is about childrens' dance competitions which are very big out there. I’ve also written one about wrestling.

Is there anything a comic shouldn't joke about?

I used to really like bad taste comedy, which is still very much en vogue, but I’ve really gone off it now. I was a big fan of John Waters’s movies, you know, 'Pink Flamingos' and 'Hairspray'. I remember the first time seeing 'Pink Flamingos' for the first time and it was quite mind blowing to see this enormous transvestite and this dog shit eating and all manner of strange rectal gymnastics. Then there was a point where there were certain jokes when I thought “Hang on, if someone had this condition or a child that this had happened to it, how would I justify it?” I always like to think that if someone came up to me and said “I don’t like what you said”, which has happened, I always have a good enough argument for why it stands up. I don’t think there is anything that you can’t joke about but the joke has to be good enough and it has to be from an interesting enough angle. I suppose it’s a case of “why would you joke about that?” There are a few bad taste comics who always go “it’s like a valve”. I don’t think it is like a valve. I think you can joke about anything and I wouldn’t want to censor anyone even if it is someone who is talking about having sex with a kid with downs syndrome. When I saw that I thought “I don’t really see the point” but that’s just my morality.

Do you have any pretensions that comedy is anything more than making people laugh? It is art?

Art is a very loose term. Comics have different agendas. There are comics whose agendas are to make an audience laugh by any means necessary and in a way it would be silly to be critical of what they are doing. It’s a different form of comedy. What I particularly admire about some comics are those who stick by there guns and do what they do. I suppose it depends on whether you approach it as a job or as something that you’ve always wanted to do. That’s when I get worried, when I think about giving it up and running a delicatessen because I have a good eye for olives, I get worried that it feels like a job. It doesn’t very often but every now and again I get dragged down by a fear that I’ve failed so dismally at doing what I really wanted to do.

If comedy wasn’t paying your bills would you still be a comic?

I’d still go out and do stand up because I’ve tried to give it up loads of times. When I first began, I used to get really excited doing a gig in Kentish Town for £18, I actually lost £10 of that on the bus back which was quite annoying, but that was enough for me, I didn’t have a big game plan. I don’t know why I do it. I think it’s an enormous character flaw. Nearly all of my friends that do stand up spend most of their lives questioning why they do it and feeling a little bit sick before they go on and come off saying “was it alright? was it alright?”. So stand up is overall a character flaw.

Tell us a joke!

I like the childish joke, “Why do women where perfume and makeup? Because they are ugly and they smell.”

Worst place in London?

I find the whole of the shopping streets of the west end to be the worst place in London. The stink of sick on the Bakerloo line at Embankment is absolutely appalling. Most of the shops within the very centre of London makes you hate London when it doesn’t really represent London, although to many people it does. Oxford Street is a place which I will walk down and start actually out loud verbalizing proper mad hobo rantings. I hate that section of London.

Favourite thing in London?

My favourite thing is anywhere where you go into a shop and you find a box of old postcards there. I wanted to do a whole 'Book Club' based on postcards that I’ve bought. I like postcards because I really like the lurid colour process that existed in the 1950s and 1960s, colour technology wasn’t quite right. I like reading the back of them, as all postcards are they are tremendously mundane with occasional enigmatic points. So my favourite part of London is anywhere where postcards may have fallen and I am the first one to find them. It’s like when you open a book and you find an advert in there. I bought a Graham Greene book recently from ebay and the advert on the inside cover is an advert for Mars bar. There are three points – they give you energy because of the glucose, they are nutritiously good for you because of the double milking process of the chocolate and they are only available currently in the southern regions, let’s hope the war ends soon so that Mars bars are available for everyone! It’s like when you strip back wallpaper and find a fantastic wallpaper. One of my favourite things to see in any city is when the side of a building is being knocked down and you’re just left with, if it’s a block of flats, a cut down section of all the different wallpapers. Everyone has something different. I last saw it in Whitechapel, brilliant.

If you had to give a piece of advice to Ken Livingstone what would it be?

I would say the simple advice is, “Can you mend more things? It’s all broken. I don’t know if you’ve checked but everything is broken.” You get this sense all across the country that we’ve been sitting on our laurels ever since the Victorian age. We've just spent the whole of the hundred years saying "We built brilliant stuff, isn’t it ace? What shall we spend all the money on? Let’s buy some ginger wine and big cigars, yay! Uh oh, everything’s broken, let’s get the fuck out!” There should also genuinely be a quota that cinemas have to show a certain amount of British and European films. How many people leave American blockbusters and go “God dammit! I’m glad I went to see the fantastic four!”? Also, put up the congestion charge, I don’t care. Money from the congestion charge should be used to help small shops. When you walk down Oxford street where do you see an original shop? When you watch old films from the 1940s and 1950s, I love those films, I love the way they used to film London. You see the odd little tobacconist and strange little clock benders. That is something Ken should defend. More male shop keepers should have some bizarre whiskering. There should be more sweets actually weighed out by a bewhiskered man.

So you want Ken to restore London to its 1950s heyday?

All the advantages without the TB, that’s what I want. In three years time, I reckon I’m going to walk down Oxford Street and once where there was somewhere selling child labour created trousers will be a bewhiskered man saying “Do you want some lemon sherbet? I’ve got some lovely new pipes there made out of oak!” That’ll happen because of me, I’m certain of that.

Go and see Robin Ince's Christmas Book Club on the 17th December! Really. Do.

Bloomsbury Theatre, 7.30pm, Tickets £15 (£12.50 concessions) although they can be bought for £10 from lastminute.com here.

Last Updated 15 December 2006