Robin Ince is a stand-up comedian, actor and writer. In between his live shows (there are a lot of these), planning new shows (which he does with the aid of postcards and coloured stickers) and his writing (he has a daily blog) he inhabits the Twitterverse (which is where we managed to find him to do this interview). Somehow he also hosts The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 with Brian Cox.
What kind of pupil were you like at school?
Reasonably hard-working, slight outsider, abysmal at sport, good at creating the illusion of knowing things in exams.
If you went back there now, do you think you’d be the same (assuming you were also somehow returned to being a teenager)?
Maybe less sheepish and, of course, I do go back, in those weird panic dreams when you have to sit your exams again. I was lucky, by 16 I knew what I wanted to do and I went ahead and did it.
Was that comedy? How did you get into it? I always assumed that it was more complicated than just getting on with it.
I knew I wanted to write and/or perform. I started watching live shows from about 15 years old and took tentative steps at about 21 to go on stages. There will be luck involved: my 16 year old self would be happy about where I am now; my 23 year old self less so. My 44 year old self is reasonably content and champing at the bit to create more. The most important thing, I believe, is tenacity. How much do you want to do something?
What’s the best school lesson you remember being in – and why was it so good?
Ghastly to say, but I have no memory of a lesson that left an impression. I enjoyed learning of Larkin.
Did you go to University after leaving school?
Yes, I studied English and Drama, but my ability to “get away with it” meant I really didn’t concentrate enough.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently in your time at school (apart from being in more memorable classes)?
I wish I had embraced computers as more than things you played games on (in the mid 80s) and I wish I had not been so discouraged from Science: one bad physics exam for the simple reason that in changing schools it turned out I was lacking knowledge. I might have suggested not going to university, but each experience turns us more and more into who we are and as time has gone on I have increasingly learned how much you get out of failure. I also wish I had been generally less fearful, but that happened towards the end anyway (to hell with the bullies!); and I wish I had found more alibis to avoid sports. I think the idea that sport is “character building” is a grand illusion.
Out of all of that: if you could give one single piece of advice to your sixteen-year-old self, what would it be?
I would have said “Take risks and do what you believe you should do, not what you imagine others thing you should do.”
Oh, and “Don’t join the cadet force.”
What made you do something like the Infinite Monkey Cage? It’s a bit different (great, but different…)
The producer asked me to join the pilot of a very different show, then it all changed and became Monkey Cage. Actually, I had already been putting on shows introducing people to scientific ideas for some time before then: I was doing solo shows about Science and also gang shows mixing scientists, musicians, comedians; so, in many ways, Monkey Cage was not that different to the ideas I was already fiddling with. I have always been interested in using stand-up as a vehicle for presenting ideas. One of my new projects is about Art.
If you weren’t a comedian/ performer would you still want to present ideas? What alternative career would you like to have?
There is no alternative career, just as we can’t imagine what it is to be a bat, I cannot imagine this other me.
Wikipedia claims that you used to be the lead singer in an alternative rock combo. Is this true?
Briefly. I was not very good and then the rest of our edgy, metal band went and worked in finance. The main reason I stopped was that I started doing stand up and had no time to rehearse in smelly cellars.
Which topic have you most enjoyed discussing on air?
Infinity was a good argument and anything on the human mind and its shortcomings: that always winds Brian up. We rarely get beyond the first idea we want to tackle before the show is over. We would like a seven hour version.
If you could have a seven hour show with any guests (dead or alive) who would you go for?
Feynmann, Curie, Schrödinger, Thomas Huxley and Dave Allen… And Alan Moore and Katy Brand to stir things up.
What project would you most like to be involved in? Is there an ambition you have left to fulfil?
I have no GRAND ambition, just lots of projects – I’m not aiming for the O2 or bigtime TV. Every new show is a new ambition. Currently developing a solo show on the mind, a gang show on art, a new book.
That sounds very busy. Just time for one more question: what should I ask that I haven’t already?
“Is free will an illusion?”- but who isn’t asking that? Glad you didn’t bother.