Stand-up, creator of The Book Club comedy night, organiser of atheist Christmas shows, and host of BBC Radio's Infinite Monkey Cage and comedy central podcast Utter Shambles.
~ 12,600 words ~
Originally published in Mustard #07
Part I: Comedy career and Stand-Up
Part II: Retiring from Stand-Up*
Part III: Ricky Gervais & The Office
Part IV: Music
Part V: Books and The Book Club*
Part VI: Science and Scepticism*
Part VII: Questions from Stewart Lee,
Richard Herring, Alan Moore and John Lloyd
Part VIII: Religion and Atheism
Part IX: TV and Panel Shows
Part X: Podcasts
Part XI: Rik Mayall and Alan Moore*
* added or updated in 2015
You've got early credits on The 11 O'Clock Show. Was that your first TV gig?
The first TV thing I ever did was writing for Channel 4's Dotcomedy, presented by Gail Porter and Chris Addison, which was not a good show. Then I was asked to do The 11 O'Clock Show. The first thing I did was an impersonation of John Peel, reminiscing about DJ-ing a disco for Pol Pot – that was with Daisy Donovan, who had a natural ability to interrupt right before the punchline.
Then I was asked to write for them. It was fascinating to discover that the writer isn't necessarily to blame for bad shows. Until then, I'd been naïve enough to watch terrible shows and think, 'I can't believe my friend has written this rubbish'. But then you see the process, which ensures only the most banal and banally offensive stuff is sifted out from any good ideas.
Were you more comfortable as a stand-up or a presenter?
I don't think I'm ever comfortable (laughs). The science shows are officially stand-up comedy, but certainly not in the mainstream sense. I'm never going to be skipping around the O2 talking about quantum mechanics.
I'm quite comfortable doing the radio things with Brian Cox, but I'm not really a presenter. I'm lucky enough to be asked to go on the radio and talk about Bertrand Russell or human genome sequencing. But I don't see them as different professions; either way, it's just me talking, but in radio they can edit out the waffly bits.
In 2005 Time Out gave you the Outstanding Achievement in Comedy award, and you've also won a Sony for your radio show. Do these help bring in a bigger audience?
I'm not really sure. I think I've mainly built up my audience by just gigging, and hopefully finding the right people. Doing Book Club changed things a lot for me. That came out of a disastrous Edinburgh show which ended with me punching a melon, representing the head of Vernon Kay, until it exploded, and then singing Mustang Sally. No one really understood it. Maybe I was way ahead of the curve (laughs). In that show I would read from Sid Little's autobiography, which led to The Book Club, and that reminded me why I did stand-up and why I liked ideas.
The Sony award probably made a difference with Radio 4. We've been very lucky with our producer, Sash, who lets us do anything, but is also a very good editor and steers us in the right direction. Having a Sony Gold is handy to go, 'Look, this is working.' But I think we annoyed lots of people at Radio 4 by beating the 100 Objects show, which was meant to win. Neither Brian nor I were at the Sonys, but from what I can gather, when we were announced there was a general hubbub and confusion in the room. So we probably put a lot of people's backs up.
So, what mainly brings people in is word of mouth, unless you've done a lot of television. For instance, if I play Scunthorpe, which I did last week, I know there will be very few people there, because it's a place that requires a big TV name. Generally, I don't think it matters what list of awards is on the poster, it's down to the disenfranchised goths, elderly outsiders and librarians that I rely on to turn up, whatever town I'm in.
You've supported new comedians through The Book Club, podcasts and on the radio. Are you a comedy mentor?
I just enjoy being on bills with people whose work I like; I think that's one of the absolute joys. Whether it's the Christmas shows or The Book Club, we're all friends, no one was backstage bitching, they were all focused on the actual work. And there was a real freedom where you could suddenly walk on in the middle of someone else's sketch and do something, because of a certain level of trust.
Some established comedians would resent the up-and-comers.
I have no belief that I'll ever be hugely well known, so I don't feel under threat when young people come along. They're not going to get in the way of the marginal career that I'm quite happy with.
What did you set out to achieve in comedy, and are you doing it?
When I started in the early '90s I was in love with stand-up. I'd seen all the alternative stuff as a teenager, going to clubs in London. I don't think I thought further than, 'Wow, wouldn't it be amazing to actually get paid to be a stand-up!'
But of course every time you reach a target, you want more. Towards the end of the '90s I went off stand-up; everything had changed, the circuit had become far more mainstream. I think the comedy bubble burst... leaving an enormous amount of observational detritus around (laughs).
I liked the idea of being a political comic and was quite driven by it. Then I lost that, and didn't really know what I was doing. I was probably just drinking most of the night, not concentrating, and having that comedian's lifestyle.
It seemed to be a very different world. I used to hang around with posh boy comedian Will Smith; we'd be happy making £18 for a gig in Kentish Town, but there seemed to be more and more people who knew exactly how many gigs they'd done, saying, 'This is my 312th gig and I'm on at Jongleurs.' I became alienated by how it was an overt career path for people, and I nearly gave it up.
Now I hope I'm achieving my new agenda, which is to popularise new ideas. I see myself as a reading list comedian, I want to encourage people to read certain books, get into certain ideas, be excited by science and philosophy and get cross about certain areas of the media.
Do you think there's less political comedy now, especially compared to the 1980s?
On the one hand, if you went back to the clubs in the '80s you might be surprised how much non-political stuff there was. But certainly, when I look back at copies of 1980s Time Out or Spare Rib, I see how political it was, with this fantastic kind of anger. And you were able to see so many different foreign language films, and political documentaries. Between the '60s and '80s there were very vibrant political and underground scenes.
These days the mainstream doesn't really care about it. But there are still people doing political comedy, it just isn't quite so overt. There's Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. The old guys are still there – Mark Steel, Mark Thomas and Jeremy Hardy are all doing their things. Then there was John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman, and Josie Long is doing some wonderfully passionate political shows. It appears in many other people's work, but you wouldn't necessarily call them 'political comedians' because the divisions are far more blurred now.
Some comedians have an agenda, but some just want to get the laughs, make sure they get booked again and get home in time for last orders with their friends.
I'm a reading list comedian. I want to encourage people to get into certain ideas, be excited by science and philosophy and get cross at particular areas of the media.
Can some comedy be a bit of a middle class liberal ghetto?
I do sometimes have that lobbed at me as a criticism. I can accept that I'm very niche. Someone said that to me when I was playing Blackheath Halls – 'Yeah you've got that really niche audience: a bunch of 12-year-olds in the front row and 90-year-olds at the back.'
With the bills I'm on, there's a reasonably eclectic background, and it's broadening out. But, unfortunately, comedy is only reflecting the nature of our society. When we talk about women in comedy, the “in comedy” bit is not the major issue. Women in science is an issue, women not getting paid as much as men is an issue. It's just part of a really big picture.
I think the main thing is to avoid a sense of superiority. In terms of the atheist side of things, it's very important to understand why people are religious. I get called a militant atheist, but if I was, why would I be doing charity gigs at Christian festivals like Greenbelt? I enjoy getting drunk with Baptist ministers in the Greenbelt drinking tent The Jesus Arms – it really is called that.
Stewart Lee gets the same criticism, but he always reveals his own feet of clay. You just need to have an understanding of yourself and your own weaknesses, to know when you can appear arrogant or overbearing, and avoid it – that's a good way to live your life, generally.
Like many cult comedians, you release shows via indie publisher Go Faster Stripe. Is this a better system than going via the big companies?
Well, big companies would have no interest in me whatsoever. But I do like the fact that Chris Evans, who runs Go Faster Stripe, really cares about comedy, he's fun to work with. If you've got an indie sensibility, it would be an odd thing to go with a mainstream company. I always liked independent record labels when I was growing up, before they all got swallowed by the major labels.
So if I didn't do it, I'd feel that I was lying to myself. If you've got a political bent, one of the hardest things – in any industry, but in comedy in particular – is turning down large amounts of money. I predominantly don't do corporate. This evening, I'm doing an event for a conference of earthworm experts, but it's not really a corporate. They're giving me as much as a normal Pub gig to chat for half an hour. Oh, and last year I hosted the Charity Shops of the Year awards – how could I turn down hanging around with the people who man the tills of the shops that are the root of so much I do?
If you can get to the point where you've got enough money not to have to worry... I don't need to do corporate big deals or do adverts because I think each one of those would somehow lessen what I appear to be. Go Faster Stripe is a great idea, and every now and again you get a nice little cheque – from the Co-op Bank, of course.
Has parenthood changed you?
You do find yourself getting emotional at silly things, like crying at Holby City. I know this is partly due to lack of sleep, but something seems to have been rewired, neurologically. It helps to focus on positive things. It was a bit before my son was born that I started doing more stuff about science. When you're on a walk, looking at this vibrant selection of life and trying to explain to a four-year-old how we're on the only habitable planet in the solar system – it's a very good dress rehearsal for then standing in the Bloomsbury Theatre and doing the same thing. It helps your communication skills.
Do you feel positive about the future of UK stand-up?
I'm wondering if it's going to die. From what I can gather, the club circuit is in the doldrums. Certainly a lot of the comics my age and above have been shocked to get less and less work. And the pay hasn't gone up since I started in 1991. Someone was telling me that the reason there's so many great middle aged comics on TV in the US currently, is that the live circuit collapsed under the weight of TV - people just stopped going.
Thirty years ago the only people that did stand-up were those mentally diseased enough to have to do it (laughs). Now we're in this bizarre situation where it's a job opportunity. There's so many stand-ups on television now. I mean, there's some brilliant people – James Acaster is superb and still very young. And after a decade of working, Bridget Christie has come through with incredibly powerful work. So there's lots of interesting young and old people.
But there's a different feel to it now. For a lot of people who go to comedy nights, it's just a night out. When I was going, when it was a small alternative circuit, it felt like an act of rebellion, a surreptitious thrill. The mainstream circuit now is a lot harder to experiment on, you have to go from gag to gag. The moment you go for a longer story, the audience loses interest.
You've talked about giving up stand-up on your blog.
Yeah, the blog's had interesting reactions. I think most people realise I'm playing on the absurdity of myself, but some people read it very straight and think I'm having a nervous breakdown (laughs). On the other hand, there was a journalist who wanted to do a magazine piece about me quitting stand-up, and he seemed worried that it wasn't melancholy enough.
So, why are you stopping?
It started back in January last year. I'd been finding it really hard to get out the house and do stand-up. I still loved the bit on stage, but everything around it was really dragging me down. And one night before a gig, I suddenly found myself crying. Obviously there had been a lot of stuff building up: tiredness, fear, whatever. And it happened again a few months later when I came off stage and felt that I'd not given the audience a good enough show. So I was having these moments and I thought, 'this is a bit odd'.
I feel a great responsibility to do the best show possible for every audience, whilst at the same time remaining within the guidelines of what I feel I'm meant to represent. Certainly my last two tours have had the best reaction. In Bristol I had a stack of notes and afterwards loads of people came up to me and thanked me and said it meant something to them. And I maybe that also became an increasing pressure. I really want the shows to be more than just a load of jokes. I want it to mean something. I want people to leave feeling like they want to explore ideas or have a new way of looking at themselves or other people.
I think all those stresses came together. I started to feel the closest I've come yet to feeling a little bit mad. Now that's passed, it seems ridiculous and I feel I could go on and on. But I don't think I should.
On my last tour I got my mate Grace Petrie to support me, because I'd found it really difficult travelling on my own, when all you have is constant self-reflection. I'd read as many books as possible to try and get out of my own narcissism, but there are points where you just get trapped in self-reflection and start to pick yourself apart.
Another thing is, you are expected to have opinions about everything. After the Charlie Hebdo shooting happened, various people asked me to write articles. And I said, 'I have nothing to write apart from the blindingly obvious. Here are some addresses of satirists, comedians, whatever, who might be able to write something.'
It's like on Twitter, if you don't react to something that's trending, people start asking, 'why haven't you said anything?' There's an presumption that if you don't have an immediate reaction, you must be pro-genocide. So I thought it's maybe best to stop being so public, which is why I stopped doing the blog.
Instead I want to sit around with a load of books for a couple of years. To write a few books that will never get published and try and get a deeper understanding of some of the stuff I want to discuss and deal with. How long it will last I don't know – every stand up I know says I won't last longer than two months. And I keep getting asked to do things. I got asked to do a Samuel Beckett festival and a gig in Helsinki, and I can't say no to benefit gigs. So it's going to be interesting: I've spent twenty four years of my life being a full time stand-up and I know no other world, in a way.
What will you miss most about stand-up?
There's a lovely episode of Louie where Louis CK has a night off and he goes to a nightclub but it's a disaster, he embarrasses himself, so he ends up walking the streets. He goes past the Comedy Cellar and he asks the guy on the door if he can go on and do ten. Because he needs to. That's something I'll really miss: the ability, any night, to go on with a new idea in your head.
I remember one time I'd come up with an idea and I thought, 'no, that's too obvious, someone must have already done it'. So I rang up a few people and they said 'no, it's really good, go for it'. But then all the trains went down! The whole infrastructure collapsed and I couldn't get into London. I waited at a station for two and a half hours, even though they said there'd be no trains. Because I have this new bit! And I need to test it now! And it's not good enough for me to tell my wife, who will just say, 'yeah, yeah, you're talking shit again'.
Back when he was Ents Manager at UCL, Ricky Gervais booked you, saying he liked 'angry young man' comedy. Are you still angry, and if so what about?
I think I've probably got more control of my anger in the last few years, after I gave up watching television and reading newspapers. I do a show with my friend Michael Legge, called Pointless Anger, Righteous Ire, which I find harder and harder to do, because he's remained angry and I haven't. To be annoyed about what Melanie Phillips has written is really pointless anger. You can have fun with it, you can laugh in the faces of certain people, but that's it.
What's hard about giving up modern media is when you accidentally see some; after not watching television for six months, adverts seem like they're punching you in the eyes, screaming in your ears – it's hideous. And the same with newspapers. The initial anger is so great, but then you have to remember to discard it; back away from the paper.
You knew Steve Merchant & Ricky before The Office, right?
I knew Ricky for about nine years before The Office, and I knew Steve because he worked with Ricky. This was back when Ricky was looking after two bands: a Queen tribute act and Suede – he dropped Suede.
You had a brief appearance in The Office, was there any talk of you having a part?
No, I can't act. But it was a very interesting experience, doing The Office, seeing their perfectionism; 'We need the shot from there, that's the funniest place to film it from'. Steve has an incredible understanding of that kind of thing. We all knew it was really good, but I don't think anyone thought it was going to be such a huge success.
In terms of acting, I've popped up in things occasionally but only when someone asks. I'd never be putting real actors out of work. I'm very limited. I can do a squealing man, a bit like Christopher Biggins, and I can do someone having Des'ree sung at me. And I've done both of those now, in Lab Rats and The Office.
Did Karl Pilkington kind of replace you as Gervais' torture-monkey?
Karl, Nigel the editor and me were all there at pretty much the same time. The person I initially replaced was a friend of Ricky's that he really used to bully, he used to make his life a misery. It's the guy who now does the drawings for Flanimals. Anyway, he left the country, I think mainly because of the way Ricky treated him. Unfortunately, I met Ricky just after that.
But I have no envy of Karl Pilkington at all. Sometimes people tweet me commiserations, imagining I feel like I've been 'left on the shelf'. As opposed to walking off the shelf; finding a hole in a ventilation shaft and escaping.
When I got asked to do the last tour, the Science tour, it was quite easy to turn down. I didn't want to swap my mental health for money. After the Fame tour I thought I'd never do anything with him again. Because it was monstrous, and it was horrible and bizarre. The way that everyone joined in, it really was very Lord of the Flies and of course I am very Piggy-like.
With the distance of time, I can kind of laugh at it but... today, as a parent, in my 40s, I don't feel I could handle being squealed at constantly, having make-up put on my face while a load of tech crew and Matt, his tour manager, dance around in a tribal manner.
That was one of those moments, when the money kept going up, and I said, no, I'm honestly not going to do it. It's amazing, when you turn down money it's a far better feeling than when you are making it – as long as you've got enough to survive, of course. You go, ';Oh, what a relief'. I have no desire to be going around the Great Wall of China with Warwick Davis or whatever's going on now. And Karl does it so brilliantly, anyway.
You're a big Smiths fan; how has music influenced your comedy?
That's interesting, because the audiences I have will generally like a lot of the same music. People tweet, 'Oh brilliant, he's playing Nick Cave.' Comedians in this kind of cultish world share quite a lot of their music tastes with their audience, and you can swap compilation CDs with them.
As for influence, you're listening to that language when you're writing, the language of Nick Cave or Morrissey – all of those things are part of a mainstream outsider perspective.
I mean, people like Laurel and Hardy have influenced my comedy, and Rik Mayall, but you wouldn't necessarily see it, unless you match up my love of frustrated fury with their superior ability at conveying it. Also, I do like occasionally throwing in the phrase “hard-boiled eggs and nuts!” for no real reason.
I was thinking how comedy, like lyric-heavy music, relies on crafting words to communicate an idea in just the right way.
Yeah, I should get better at that (laughs). I wish I crafted more. It's usually about halfway through a tour that I've got it right. It's very unfair on the first part of a tour. I don't write, I do it all by performing. I do have a little notebook – actually, now I just have postcards – and I write little ideas, maybe 4 or 5 words, and the idea will grow from making myself book an hour-long slot, where it's £3 to get in, and I will just talk and talk, until I've run out of postcards with ideas on.
Sometimes I wish I could be more certain about where the show's going to start, where the middle is, where the end is. But equally I suppose the erratic thing is part of who I am. It's too late to think I can be slick and placed in a nicely made Soho suit.
You were in a band at one point, right?
For about a year I was a very bad frontman for a band called The Reg, originally The Reg Gutteridge Experience, named after the boxing commentator. We used to do covers of Fight For Your Right To Party and Never Trust A Man With Egg On His Face, from Adam Ant's first album Dirk Wears White Socks. And a song about Dennis Nilsen. It didn't last long. I think on Wikipedia it says I was chucked out for my inept musical abilities. But actually I just left, and the rest of them became really rich working in the city.
Douglas Adams said every stand-up wants to be a rock star, and vice versa. Is there an alternate universe Robin Ince who ended up as a musician?
No, I never had the right level of posturing, or indeed lyrical ability. I do love doing Karaoke Circus with Martin White, where I normally pick something by Rolf Harris or Joy Division. All the comedians stand up and do a song, but I think after one song, comedians become self-aware, so if they had to do a whole set it would all fall apart.
When we were first doing the Christmas gigs, I'd invite musicians I really liked, like Robyn Hitchcock and Jim Bob from Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine. Sometimes they'd seem off in a different world, but later you find out they'd been thinking, 'Wow, all these people who've been on Radio 4!' Whereas we were all going, 'It's Jimbob from all those NME covers!'
But no, I've no midlife crisis planned where I set up a band.
Why did you start The Book Club, did it achieve its goal and why did you close it?
I started it partly as a reaction to seeing so many cynical, sneering comics. I wanted to do shows from a place of passion, so if someone came up to you and said, 'I didn't like what you said', you couldn't go 'It's just a joke, mate.' You'd have to say, 'I'm afraid you detest me and everything I represent.' (laughs) Which is fine, I am a very detestable individual.
The main reason I started it was, doing Edinburgh one year, I saw so many interesting acts that I thought couldn't fit on the circuit now because it had become so mainstream. When I first started, you could see an a capella singer like Hope Augustus, a sketch troupe, jugglers, fire-eaters like Steve Rawling. Then it became predominantly men talking, and that's it.
So I thought it would be nice to put on something that had a certain element of variety. To provide a space where people could develop ideas, or a space for people who didn't have a stand-up career, where they could do their thing. Because it's hard for a lot of these people to get an audience and it seemed like a nice, ridiculous thing to do.
On the first night, my opening line was: 'Just so you know, there might be some strange things on tonight. The most important thing to remember is, if you don't like them, you're wrong' (laughs). That may sound very arrogant, but I'd seen the change in the stand-up circuit, where the only thing that seemed to matter was ensuring the customer was satisfied. Any sign of weakness or failure – surely vital to advance – was stamped on.
When I first started, it seemed promoters watched acts and sometimes an act did well but they'd think this wasn't really the sort of stuff they wanted in their club. Equally they'd watch acts fail and think, “They have something interesting, I'll give them another go.” That's very much part of Eddie Izzard's story where his first manager Peter Harris ran clubs so Eddie could go on, try, maybe fail, then fail better.
There's a demand for a fast-food version of comedy. They won't remember the jokes – they don't even really want to – they just want to laugh for an hour and then leave. Like when you go to the movies, and the moment the credits start rolling, people walk out. They don't want to talk about the film, they've experienced the film, now they want to go and experience a meal.
So I wanted to create a space that allowed for failure. Acts would ask, 'Is it alright if I do this tonight?' And I'd say, you don't have to tell me, it doesn't matter if it goes wrong. I don't care how ridiculous an idea is. They might not have had time to rehearse, so it might be slapdash. Just as long as it comes from a place of 'I really want to try this', not 'this'll do'. That would annoy me. I can be quite annoying like that, quite demanding.
In its first few months, it really was a bizarre and different night. There was no game plan to be particularly ingenious or innovative, it was just a mix of ridiculous things. Then very quickly we hit the level where we'd had so many good reviews, it made me feel under enormous pressure to keep up the standard. And I think that began to affect it.
I ended it because there were suddenly lots more clubs like that and it stopped feeling like a special thing. And some of the performers, probably including myself, we'd become slightly lazy. I think an element of 'this'll do' had crept in towards the end.
But in the Christmas show this year, I hope we're going to have a lot more bongo playing, tap dancing and hula hooping. I want to get back to more of that, where you don't know what's going to happen.
I rely on the disenfranchised goths, elderly outsiders and librarians.
Why do you take such delight in terrible romance books? Are you surprised this struck such a chord?
I just love books, all books. Being around books is an exciting thing, an addiction. When I found Stormy Vigil, the first Mills & Boon, it had this wonderful, delightful ridiculousness. They're factory-produced novels; characters must be a certain way, achieve a particular thing by a certain chapter. As long as you hit the target, it doesn't seem to matter too much what's in between.
That's why I love the killer crab genre, too. My favourite one is where crab specialist Cliff Davenport is pulling down the jeans of the woman he's about to make love to; he looks at her triangle of fluffy hair and he imagines the men who have been there before, and what secrets it holds. So the author had introduced this concept of the memory of a vagina – this kind of homeopathic vagina, I suppose. Then on the next page a deaf man gets eaten by a crab. Brilliant!
You're very enthusiastic when you read out the badly written passages. Are you secretly a Mills & Boon writer?
I don't think I could ever write a Mills & Boon. A friend of mine tried, but couldn't, because a level of self-awareness and irony creeps in. You'd have to approach it as a purely technical exercise, not art.
I do have plans to write a horror novel in the next year. I'd like to try out as many things as possible. To write another of the great crab novels – well, I can't touch crabs, that's Guy N Smith's territory. But maybe something else can crawl out from the sea or be spewed up out of a volcano.
Tell us about the horror short stories you've written.
My first one was for a horror collection called The Screaming Book of Horror, which also featured stories by Charlie Higson and Mark Gatiss. I was approached by Noose and Gibbet, who publish lots of interesting books.
It's quite a lurid, bloody piece. I wanted to write something which was akin to what I read as a 13-year-old, fascinated by this seedy and disgusting work.
It's very much in the style of the Pan Book of Horror books. There's a guy called Johnny Mains who comes to my gigs and brings me all manner of bizarre horror collections. He wrote a biography of Herbert Van Thal, who compiled the Pan Book of Horror stories.
Some of the stories are written by a woman called Dulcie Gray, who was married to Michael Dennison and used to appear in Howard's Way. She always played dowagers, duchesses and nice old ladies, and then she would write these stories involving dismemberment. She also wrote one of the volumes of Roger Moore and the Crimefighters as well, which was a Book Club favourite.
Hold on, the who?
The Crimefighters! They were a gang of kids who would solve crimes, then at the end Roger Moore would say 'Well done'. Even though it's just a book – so surely he could appear in it as much as you'd want – he would just have a cameo role at the end: 'You kids have done very well!'
And after that you did the Dead Funny anthology?
Having learned a lot from doing The Screaming Book of Horror, I edited Dead Funny, and wrote one of the stories, alongside loads of other comedians like Stewart Lee, Rufus Hound, Sarah Pascoe and Phil Jupitus. We're doing another one this year, with Stew again, Bridget Christie, Josie Long and several others.
Because they're written by comedians, some people expected the stories to be funny. But a lot of them are gory and bleak and filled with melancholy – which I really like. Al Murray's ghost story, which was partly based on his own family from a few generations ago, is about mental illness and the treatment of it in the late-19th century. It's beautiful and really sad. And Neil Edmond's is the most viscerally gory.
I think the story I did for Dead Funny is better than my first one. People found it really unpleasant, although I didn't think it was when I was writing it. It was the same when I wrote an audio play for a Hammer series; the actors were really disconcerted with how horrible it was. With that and Dead Funny, I wanted the story to be creepy, very much in the mind. You hope that if someone's reading it, at some point in their restless nights they'll suddenly be woken by a little trigger of disgust with themselves or the world they're in.
So I'm really looking forward to editing the second one and then I plan to attempt to write a horror novel a few years on from stand-up. I find horror and science fiction increasingly interesting, those are the things I enjoyed as a teenager and then left for a very long time before coming back to recently.
Do you watch Black Mirror and Inside No. 9?
Yeah, they're both disconcertingly good! (laughs). The Inside No. 9 episode with Sheridan Smith was fantastic. The reveal at the end, which I won't spoil, particularly resonated with me because of something that happened in my past.
The show is so good because Reece and Steve don't write it for a demographic, they do it because they want to, they have to. I saw Reece say in an interview that, at the time, no one was really that keen on it. But when it came out, every single friend of mine loved it. A friend who works in an office said colleagues who he wouldn't have thought were into this kind of thing absolutely loved it.
What the League guys– Mark, Steve, Jeremy and Reece – have done together and individually is fantastic. They write so beautifully and across all the horror genres.
Some of the No. 9 episodes are very funny, some of them very haunting or melancholy. But that's what I love about underrated world of horror and science fiction. You can be far more revelatory about what it is to be human or self-conscious or terrified of death than some of those ponderous award-winning books about New York families dealing with Alzheimer's.
Didn't Mark Gatiss ask you for some science help with his Sherlock Hound of the Baskervilles script?
Well, yeah, although it was for a very specific bit that wasn't actually used in the final draft. He was trying to see if 'HOUND' could be made up of symbols from the periodic table; some sort of compound that had been created for use in war, involving uranium and other things. So I talked to Andrea Sella who's a wonderful, proper chemist, with hands covered in calluses and a faint air of singeing and dead skin hanging around him. He's based at UCL and he pops up on shows doing things like making Michael Moseley's face wrinkle. Anyway, he tried really hard, but unfortunately you can't get anywhere near the elements needed.
Have you ever been attacked for your atheism?
Yeah, there was a comedian called Andrew Watts who apparently had a routine about me. I bumped into him and he said, 'Oh, how do you know about that?' I said, 'Because people have seen your show.' (laughs) I said, 'That's absolutely fine, but you've got it entirely wrong.' Often when people attack me, they think I'm some kind of dogmatic atheist, but my atheism is just a by-product of my general approach to the world. Just adding up all the other things means that God is a reasonably preposterous idea.
But I'm more likely to get someone writing in or being abusive about climate change than religion. With Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People, we never had a single person outside with a placard. Partly that's because, right from the start, I said this is a celebration of science, not an attack on religion. You'll never convince someone of your view by abusing them and saying their ideas are ridiculous. You can only do it by giving them evidence and talking about the nature of the Universe, the Big Bang and all these incredible things.
I've met many people who have a very benevolent faith. When I do the Greenbelt Christian festival I meet a lot of interesting Christians and I've been at all sort of events where I've met interesting Jews and Muslims, though Quakers are generally my favourite. I also had a lovely time at the Unitarian conference I attended earlier this year.
I don't have a problem with religion unless it becomes an alibi for your bigotry; if it's used to demand a special position in society or to play the offense card – offensive to a dogmatic text that was produced so many centuries ago.
You often hear that atheists are on the march or there's an attack from science or rationalism. But more often than not it's a reactive thing; a reaction to Simon Singh being sued, or Ben Goldacre being dragged through the courts by Matthias Rath. Or the Bed and Breakfast thing: it wasn't an atheist just deciding to attack some religious people, it started because they wouldn't let two gay men sleep together, and the reaction was saying you're not allowed to do this.
Baroness Warsi and her like draw a very bizarre image, which is entirely wrong. I know many atheists who say it would be nicer if people would see the incredible beauty and bizarre nature of how matter met anti-matter and one thing led to another. But I don't know anyone who wants to close the churches or deny the sacrament or whatever it might be.
Science is a system of thinking that arrives at the least wrong version of events.
Who would you rather be stuck on a desert island with: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rabbi Lionel Blue or Richard Dawkins?
Well, I can't swim and would have drowned, so if there'd been an afterlife, Lionel Blue would probably be there (laughs). I think I'd find them fascinating. Rowan Williams is a very interesting man – I often feel that he's almost persuading himself: 'I don't really believe this, I can't really believe that bit...' Richard Dawkins is an interesting guy, but he's an alpha male, so before long it would end up like my relationship with Gervais. Richard is hilarious in social situations and can often put his foot in it, so I think I'd be annoyed that there wasn't a third person to watch that occur.
Actually, I think it would be Richard Dawkins, because if you're on a desert island, what are you going to do apart from map it out, like the Galapagos? So you'd want to be with someone who understands evolution and biology.
You and 50 others signed a letter protesting Pope Benedict's visit in 2010 – how were you approached about that?
I do various things for the British Humanist Association and it was led by them. I've been asked to join people's boards, but I can't be part of any actual organization. I'll happily do events, or occasionally be mouthy for them, so yeah, I did sign that letter.
Sometimes I have doubt and I think, 'Was I right to sign that letter?' Then I look at things like the incredibly dramatic child abuse cases and how the Vatican dealt with that, and you realise that's how a business would deal with it. A priest in Ireland recently suggested that it might be time to talk about whether priests should marry, and the Vatican were furious. They seemed to be more furious about that than the cases of abuse.
I think now, with what we've seen, there's a reason Hitler saw the Catholic Church as a great business and propaganda model – which he did, so there's nothing contentious about mentioning that.
I do find that people think, 'Oh, you hate Catholics,' – no, it's not Catholics, it's the institution. Things seem to be unraveling for them. They are a big enough, rich enough organisation to ensure things will be spun round, but I think respect for that institution and for the head of that institution are minimal.
It's almost the opposite of how I feel about republicanism; I'm pro-republic, but the Queen seems to be alright, doesn't she? That's my general position.
What do you think of the new guy, Pope Francis?
I think he's fine as popes go! If you get a progressive as the leader of any dogmatic body, that's useful, although they will be up against a lot of opposition. The wonderful Catholic priest Hélder Câmara said, 'When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.' The new guy brings a bit of hope, at least compared to the last one. But at the same time I haven't been wooed towards a transubstantial Sunday. The red wine hasn't started to do magic in my mouth just yet. (laughs)
Obviously, there are still big problems for him, but that's true for any world leader. There's a capitalist dogma across the world, including with this government we have now. There's a great line by Slavoj Zizek where he says, 'It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.'
Did the appearance of Thor and Loki in The Avengers shake your atheism? Similarly, did what happened to Dr Banner shake your trust in science?
Did the appearance of Thor and Loki in The Avengers shake your atheism? Similarly, did what happened to Dr Banner shake your trust in science?
(laughs) I think Marvel using Thor, shows a lack of respect for modern religions that they don't also put Jesus in there. I think that would be very interesting. And as for The Hulk, I think more than anything else, he entirely misled me about the effects of gamma radiation.
As a child, I was more of a Daredevil fan; I was there wishing I too was blind. But then I grew up and realised that was a terrible situation to be in.
Actually, I made a joke on Twitter a while back, saying: 'I was going to go to the Turner exhibition, but I decided to save money by just walking down the Thames without my glasses on.' Then a few months later I thought, 'My glasses are rubbish now, they've got loads of scratches on them'. So I bought some new glasses but the scratches were still there, because they're actually on my eyes. So the ghost of Turner had obviously decided to loosen my vitreous jelly in revenge. Unfortunately I'm not adept with a paintbrush, so although I can see a blurred world, I can't create anything from it.
Actually, I got loads of hassle from artists for the Turner joke. That's Twitter for you. I made a joke about Spiderman once and someone said, 'Obviously, you're a Marvel hater', like it was some new way of oppressing people.
Have you seen Netflix's Daredevil TV series?
No, I can't do it anymore, I can't watch superhero things. I did watch Guardians of the Galaxy on a plane and people have said, 'you've got to see Avengers', but something in my brain has detached from that world now.
But you've got a seven-year-old, surely you're just entering years of watching superhero films?
Yeah, but that's fine. I didn't watch Doctor Who until my son watched it, and I find it very enjoyable to watch with a child. But of all the things that I haven't seen yet, it's not going to be a bunch of muscled actors leaping around with special powers. I've got all my Uncanny X-Men books for that.
As is Mustard tradition, here's a few questions from some other interviewees:
Ah, no, because the very fact that so many people are irrational means that bombarding them with rationalism subverts their irrationality! Did that make sense? (laughs)
That is something that Stewart has been pushing on me for a long time. He bought an abattoir and he's very, very keen on me being the face of some of his abattoir-based products. So as far as I can see, as usual with Stewart Lee and his entire career, it's all about his utter narcissism. So that's why I'm not changing my name to Robin Mince, because I don't want to sell his, frankly, low-quality mince products.
Well if they do, the religious people really aren't talking about it enough! (laughs) As I said before, the discussion comes from a reaction. When I'm with a group of atheists, we don't really talk about religion; Tim Minchin and I don't meet up to rant about deities. There are many other things that we'll be talking about.
So I think it's actually an illusion created by the media, who draw atheism as an outsider group; where the majority of the culture has the apparition of religion over it, so every time someone mentions the lack of God it's a shocking attack.
But atheists don't stand outside churches, telling people not to go in and handing out leaflets. If someone does religion in a theatre, tell me how many people are protesting outside those theatres? Compare that to the protests outside Jerry Springer the Opera.
This idea of militancy is ridiculous – we're not very strident. Secular society says everyone has equality and everyone has freedom to worship.
I think I sleep, but I'm not sure. I try to ask my various inner dialogues to quieten down for a while and see what happens.
Why do you think there's been a resurgence of science and scepticism recently, and do you worry it might be just a fad?
There's certainly a huge populist science movement happening. I see a lot of 11–12-year-olds in our audiences, so it should last a while. Last year there were record applications to do physics at university. It feels similar to when history became really popular, when Simon Schama was at his height and the history section was doing well in bookshops.
There are several reasons, I think. One is the internet. Whereas conspiracy theorists have always enjoyed meeting up, rationalists, atheists and people like that are often individualists, so not so good at getting together. But the internet enabled people from around the world to set up conferences and conventions.
Then you've got the human genome being sequenced, ideas like dark matter and dark energy being discussed. This all sounds really exciting to kids, even if they might not fully understand it yet. Which is fine because it turns out, no one fully understands it yet.
And some of it's due to the atheist thing, the popularity of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, all of those people.
And perhaps some of it is a reaction, an anger towards the apothecaries and bamboozlers and charlatans out there. They can be quite noisy, and every time they threaten legal action – like the libel case from the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh – a lot of comics will join in the defence.
Lots of people, from many different backgrounds, said hang on, we've grown up enough as a species to know that science might not be the ultimate truth, but it might just be the least wrong thing. We definitely know it's more right than some of the lunacies and cures that are being offered to people.
So, for all those reasons, I do think this is going to last a long time.
Do you feel like you spearheaded this with School for the Gifted, and is it irritating that people are jumping on the bandwagon?
Yeah, you know what, every now and again I think, 'Ah, everyone's doing it,' – and then I realize, 'Brilliant – everyone's doing it!' The more, the better. The ultimate reward is just having the chance to talk about science.
And I don't see that I spearheaded anything. I started doing something and it turned out that, at around the same, time lots of other related things were going on.
Also, surely actual scientists should be angry with me, saying, 'Did you know there's a person who doesn't really know anything about science, talking about it on the radio?' So I don't mind. There are some very canny people out there working out ways of marketing themselves and doing stuff with science, and that's great.
Is happiness through science possible?
Happiness is a fleeting thing, but science at least provides you a life long enough to contemplate it.
The trouble is, science and the human imagination have given us so many luxuries that we've become nonchalant about them. Like cursing the hot tap for taking 15 seconds to warm up. Which is how we end up with people like the anti-vaxers, who declare the evil of vaccination. That level of dogma is lunacy, and can only come from the modern privileged position of not finding yourself, every month, at the funeral of another child.
I was thinking about the BCG scar on our arms, and how it can be worn as sort of a tribal scar of science. When I play to a room full of people, every now and again I will contemplate the fact that many of them would not be there if not for science. The number of people who would have died during childbirth, or before they were teenagers, or in their twenties. Or been motherless from the age of 12. In a mixed audience of 600 people, you can mentally remove a huge percentage of them if you eliminate the advantages of evidence-based science.
Yes, there are many belief systems that have a huge amount to offer, but many people have the privilege of being able to believe in absolute bullshit because they didn't die during infancy. When I hear people say, 'Science is just another religion,' I want to say 'Okay, then give back everything this system of knowledge has given you.' Which, in the modern Western world, is pretty much everything.
As for happiness, is long-term happiness actually even possible? If you were happy all the time, you'd stop being happy because you wouldn't know you were happy. But I do think I feel a great contentment from attempting to look at the world from as real a perspective as possible.
I know so many religious people who don't seem happy: it doesn't seem to bring them joy. Even belief in the afterlife doesn't stop the weeping at the funeral. Life being finite, it's never going to be a comfortable situation. But I hope it's a bit like baldness: when I was young, I was panic-stricken about going bald. Now I'm 43, I'm not that bothered. I'm hoping that, if I get to 86, I'll think 'Well, of course I'm going to die, that's fine.'
How do you get the balance right between education and entertainment?
Well, with the live shows for example, I want them to be entertaining, but there might not always be laughs. I tell the scientists: you don't have to do jokes, because sometimes they'd try telling some awful cock joke or something and you're thinking, 'Argh, no!' I tell them: the comedians will be doing comedy stuff, the musicians will be musical and you just have to be interesting – and of course they are.
I have to rely on the individuals that I have on, and generally it works. Every now and again it doesn't work, but if you're genuinely trying to do something new, there's undoubtedly going to be a failure. When there are 16 people on stage at the Christmas show, not everything will work every night.
One of the reasons we see such mediocrity in television is they're always trying to make a hit show. A hit show formula does not exist. The Office was a hit because two men got together and just wrote the best show they could. At no point did they think, 'We could start selling greetings cards with the characters on, I reckon this will be huge!'
That's the way I try and approach these things: 'What would I like to see, what do I think would be a great show?' Sometimes I book people who others don't really like, but I'm still glad I put them on. Scientists aren't used to playing Hammersmith Apollo but more often than not their game gets lifted and they're fantastic.
Happiness is fleeting, but science at least provides you a life long enough to contemplate it.
How did you end up working with Brian Cox on Infinite Monkey Cage?
We already knew each other from an entirely different radio science show; it was three scientists, and I popped in as a guest – over the phone, in fact. I had to sit for an hour in a hotel in Glasgow with a terrible hangover, talking rubbish in my boxer shorts.
Then later I was pitching an idea about science to BBC Radio and they said, sorry you can't do it because we've got a personnel clash. After a bit of investigation I found out the clash was me; they'd already got me down for a new science show, but no one had bothered to tell me.
So, it became an entirely different show, once it was just the two of us together. It became a magaziney show about science that came out of our relationship.
Our style is similar to the way Brian and I are when we chat over a drink – just less acerbic, for BBC regulations, and because we want to draw as broad an audience as possible. We know we have children listening with their grandparents, and that's what we want.
Some scientists find the way we deal with things too light-hearted. It's not what Jim Al-Khalili does, but we hope that there is a serious side; just couched in things that seem silly or facetious.
We tried so many titles for it. I sat in a room in Hulme, Manchester, with a mate, and wrote about 300 different titles – every single pun involving relativity or Einstein. 'Infinite Monkey Cage' doesn't say exactly what the show is, but it seemed interesting enough that you might tune in to find out.
Does the show get much flak for its pro-science bias?
We get some weird letters. We had a lot of people complaining about the title, they saw that as being pro-vivisection! I replied to those saying, 'Don't worry: the monkey cage is very roomy.' We get complaints if we even mention climate change. We've suggested that ghosts are a fabrication of the human mind, and got complaints for that.
What, from ghosts?
Yeah, sometimes late at night I'll hear a sound and a veiled woman will appear beside me and tell me off (laughs).
We only occasionally get complaints about religion – when Alan Moore said, 'It's either luck or Jesus,' and we talked about a gameshow called Luck or Jesus? – that got a lot of complaints saying that we were attacking creationists.
Science is important enough that we don't want to attack people's beliefs, but equally we can't be so soft-hearted that we don't deal with things in a scientific way.
You're good friends with Alan Moore. Does his stance as a magician clash with your rationalist worldview?
Alan is a very rational mystic and an incredible person to talk to. His understanding of the cosmos and science is greater than almost anyone else I know. When I used to book him for science gigs, people would go, 'But he's a wizard,' and I'd say, 'Well, not really'.
Alan's ideas of what lies in the mind are not really, to me, mysticism. Consciousness is a fascinating area of study, and the amount of contemplation he's done... some of the great near-mystic ideas of science are very intriguing.
Is there a lot of misinformation about science out there?
Science is a system of thinking that, more often than not, will arrive at the least wrong version of events. It's never 100%. One of my main issues with the media is when they say, 'Even scientists aren't sure.' No, not 'Even scientists'; scientists aren't sure – that's the way science is. It's not sure and that's why it's superior to certainty.
A lot of scientists say there's no such thing as a scientific law, everything is really a theory, but just for the handiness of moving forward, at this point, this is the law as it is.
How did the US tour go?
Brilliant! We sold out all of the venues, and I was delighted to find that nearly everyone there knew Infinite Monkey Cage. Many of them came up to me to say 'Oh my God, you're much older than I thought you were!'. I obviously have a young voice but a rattled outer casing.
Interestingly, many of the American scientists were a lot more guarded. They weren't as playful with ideas, because they are so aware of being judged by their peers or by the anti-science, pseudo-science charlatans. There were times during recordings about particle physics or evolutionary biology where they'd say, 'Oh, I don't want to answer, we don't really know'. Whereas in this country, most of the scientists we'd had on the show were happy to do a bit of conjecture and have fun with it. I think it says a lot about the way the academic world is in the US, and the level of paranoia due to the anti-science bodies.
I found LA difficult, because I don't drive, so I walked everywhere, and in doing so I saw a lot of different examples of mental health issues. Downtown, most of the homeless people I saw were economically homeless, whereas in Beverly Hills, most of them were people who'd had nervous breakdowns. There were a lot of old women still in glamorous summer garb. It was like that fantastic documentary Grey Gardens, about two members of Jackie Kennedy's family who live in a rotten house somewhere out on Long Island – it's an incredible examination of eccentric fallen money. In Beverly Hills I saw those type of women going into coffee shops and getting free stuff. I assume they once had something, or were somebody. Some seemed in a horrendous state and others seemed to be coping, somehow, in whatever world they exist in now. That kind of damage was fascinating.
We did our LA show at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre – their announcements actually have him saying, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please turn off your cell phones' (laughs). We opened with Jeff Lynne and Eric Idle performing their Infinite Monkey Cage theme song, live, which was incredible. Then we had David X Cohen, the guy behind Futurama, who was brilliant.
And the audience were wonderful. It's a bit like when I tour: whatever I imagine people in certain towns might be like, the ones coming to my show must be somewhat left field or eccentric and open to ideas. A lot of people asked why we weren't doing the Deep South, but we were only doing four gigs and we didn't even know if there are enough people who'd want to see us in the major cities. But now, hopefully, in the spring we're going to do an eighteen day tour around the whole of America, starting in Boston, dropping down and going all the way round and ending up in Seattle.
I forget that shows like this are still a novelty. I've got used to shows like the one I do in the Bloomsbury in London, mixing up Alice Roberts, Josie Long, Joanna Neary, a prog dance band, a tap dancer and some bongo players. America was a reminder that audiences get really excited for an eccentric, eclectic evening and respond well to jokes about particle duality.
You've been a panellist on several radio and TV game shows. How do you find them? I'm thinking of how Stewart Lee said he hated doing some of them, he couldn't fit in with their style.
Yeah, Stewart and I did them at the same time – Autumn 2007, I think. I don't like them. Someone said whenever they see me go on panel shows I look pained. I sit there going 'aargh'.
I did one recently – I didn't really want to do it, but they texted me when I'd been drinking, so I said yes. They want loads, they film for 3.5 hours, but they also don't give you the space to go off on ideas. They just want lots of bits. The great gag comics are very good on panel shows: Milton Jones is tremendous, Stewart Francis and Frankie Boyle.
But comics who are ideas people, ramblers, we don't fit as well. I'm not right for television. I did Mock the Week and found it agonizing. The desperation, the amount of preparation that had clearly gone into the 'ad libs' – the attitude of 'this could make me a millionaire'. I think it brings out the worst in comedians, a horrible locker room mentality; the elbows are out, desperate to be the one who gets the laugh.
Radio panel shows are far more benevolent. Well, generally; Paul Merton does not like it if you win a round in Just a Minute, as I discovered. Oh, how pleased he was when, near the end of a minute, I said, 'Allo Allo!' He was over the moon at that.
So, I enjoy things where the attitude is: we're all people who do this for a living, let's have fun and enjoy each other's company. Like Sue Perkins or Jeremy Hardy or whoever. I don't ever feel the desire to 'get one over' on Tim Minchin or Dave Gorman. A supportive atmosphere allows for a great level of imagination and an element of risk. If you're filming something for three hours, take risks!
The one I did really enjoy was Never Mind the Buzzcocks. I was terrified because I'd hated Mock the Week so much, but Bill Bailey and Phill Jupitus are both such generous people. There was a bit, it didn't make the show, when Bill and me had a ten-minute discussion about putting reflectors on the roads to stop deer being killed. And I ended up having a great long rant at John Barrowman about how he's pretended to be gay for his career (laughs). It was mucking about, but there was space to muck around.
He called me a minor comedian. I know it was meant as an insult, but it's true.
You hosted Richard & Judy in 2009 – what was all that about?
I used to do a regular thing, hosting from their bar area. It was Rufus Hound and me first, then Roland Rivron and me. That was my entire television career. I knew it wasn't the right thing for me, but it was fun, it financed a lot of stuff and I got to sit next to people like Robert Vaughn or Roger Moore, who would tell me rude jokes about Batman and Robin. I met Stephanie Powers, Honor Blackman, Joan Collins. It was an interesting other-world to be in. On my first day I met Helen Mirren and had a fascinating conversation about the up-coming US election.
Every now and again I did things which are not what's expected. Like the musical with Su Pollard and Ted Rogers, which just seemed like a thing I should do.
There's a climate change-denying journalist who sometimes writes about me, because I made a joke about him; he called me a minor comedian. I know it's meant as an insult, but I am! On a good day I can sell out the Bloomsbury Theatre, on a bad day I play to 40 people in Scunthorpe. I'm a minor comedian and generally I quite enjoy it.
It's all about becoming comfortable with what you want to do, and what you want to achieve. I have that feeling when I'm working with – well, a lot of the people who've been on the cover of Mustard – like when I did the Douglas Adams benefit with John Lloyd; the sheer joy of playing to an audience of Adams fans at Hammersmith.
Whereas last week, when I played another gig at Hammersmith with Ben Elton and Al Murray, I walked on to what I felt was a mainstream crowd who looked upon my grubby cardigan demeanor with derision. Although, I also forgot to do my flies up. It's these little things that make me think I'm not cut out for show business – not doing your flies up at the Apollo. Luckily, someone tweeted me that information after I walked off.
Your and Josie Long's podcast Utter Shambles previously existed under another name – how did Comedy Central get involved?
Yeah, Josie and I used to do a podcast called Show and Tell, which was successful enough to be ripped off by a TV company and done very badly. It was even presented by one of the guests from our first series! But then, we weren't the first people to do 'Show and Tell' – someone in a school in the 1920s came up with that idea.
Then Comedy Central approached me and I wanted to do something else with Josie, so that became Utter Shambles. I love doing it; we're quite comfortable with each other. We started with our friends as guests, but after we ran out of friends we got people like Terry Jones – what a joy to have him on and talk about things other than Python! We also had Billy Bragg. It's really just us having a conversation with someone.
Do you edit the show, or is it completely live?
The only editing is done for time, because we talk for so long. We don't do the really tight editing for quality that we do on Monkey Cage. People accept that there will be little dips, because you're getting the full conversation, that's what we attempt to replicate. I have the mikes on when we arrive and we'll just start talking. But we're quite good now; we do it in an hour, primarily for our producer's sanity. But we've usually only got to the third question by then.
What does Comedy Central do to promote it?
It goes on their website. We had half a million downloads in November. The only problem now is that the marketing people have noticed! They haven't had a say yet, we just do what we want to do. The new series might be vaguely themed, just to add variety and a bit of focus.
What's the oddest thing Josie Long's ever given you?
It was lovely when she gave me the knitted iPod cover, although I didn't have an iPod at that point, because she forgets how old I am. She gave me the Mr Show box set and the lovely memoirs of Mary Baker Eddy, from the spiritualist movement. But I think it's quite hard to find things that I'd see as odd, because we both like the various idiosyncratic nonsense found in Age UKs around the country.
Last year, three people died who I used to have posters of on my wall: Bob Hoskins, Rik Mayall and Robin Williams.
When I was a teenager, it was really hard to get Robin Williams stuff in the UK, but I found a copy of Reality... What A Concept, which I still have on vinyl. I think the first gig I ever did was ripping off Robin Williams. I remember seeing him do a Prince's Trust gig and thinking, 'That's how you do stand-up!'
Rick Mayall's influence has grown over the last couple of years; my shows have been a lot more intense, with the number of voices, leaping around, really full on.
The day I found out Rik had died it was, in a strange way, the perfect morning for it. Michael Legge and I had been gigging in Leeds, we woke up in a friend's house and had a cushion fight – two 45-year-old men fighting with cushions in the morning. He smashed my glasses, which broke in half and we tried gluing them back together. He led me down to Specsavers to get me an emergency monocle and then we met up with Jeremy Dyson. I went to the loo and when I came out Michael was standing on the step and he just looked up at me and said, 'Mate... Rik Mayall's dead.'
And then we wandered the streets of Leeds, doing bits from Mr Jolly Lives Next Door and stuff. That night we did one of our angry shows, which I think are the closest to 1980s alternative comedy. They're full-on and predominantly improvised. I would be running in the audience, screaming 'I'm the ghost of Lenny Bruce', twirling chairs around. I think that night was one of our most intense shows. I think when he died it was a reminder that nothing was halves with him.
When you saw Rik live, you saw total commitment. Every single night, I remind myself, no matter how big this audience is, 43 or 700, just remember they've all paid money. It doesn't matter how you feel, you bring your best. They might not like what you do, but it's not going to be through a lack of trying.
After he died I did a Rik Mayall night in my local cinema with Alexei Sayle, who was very good friends with Rik. His death had hit all of Rik’s close friends very hard.
We had some fantastic clips of stuff that's not available on YouTube, very early footage of Rik and Ade on the Oxford Road Show doing a snippet of their Beckett work. From off stage, I introduced it by saying, 'please welcome, Rik Mayall. ' Then we went straight into Rik's appearance on Comic Relief, where he runs on saying, 'Do you love me? Do you think I'm great?', up on the big screen. The audience, three hundred people, there was such joy on their faces.
What was really lovely was that Alexei hadn't seen some of this stuff. He was laughing so hard with delight, watching his friend's brilliance. A lovely thing that Alexei told me was that sometimes you'd go round to Rik's house, and he'd show something he'd done. But he wasn't showing it to say 'look what I've done', he'd be saying, 'look at that bloke!' He was very shy, but when he goes into character he's fine. On the first anniversary of his death, loads of people shared letters they'd received from him, which were all hilarious and brilliant.
Talking of that utter conviction and glee, I saw two really joyful things last week. One was a screening of Laurel and Hardy's County Hospital and Sons of the Desert. County Hospital has one of my favourite lines where Olly's in hospital and Stan comes in with some hard boiled eggs and nuts. And Olly says [doing the voices], 'Why hard boiled eggs and nuts? Why don't you bring me some candy?' and Stan says, 'You haven't paid me for the last lot' [laughs]. In the audience were Martin Freeman, David Jason, Jonny Vegas and Terry Jones. I was sat next to Jonny and we were pissing ourselves, I was wiping tears from behind my glasses. I mean, I like Keaton and Chaplin, but I love Laurel and Hardy, they really get to you.
The other joyful thing was two days later; I went to see Jim Dale's one man show, Just Jim Dale, which is him talking about his fantastic career. People know him from the Carry On films, but he's had this incredible music and theatre career. That's utter commitment: eighty years old, he's got his piano player with him and he sings Georgie Girl and tells very funny stories about Kenneth Williams. The professionalism has not in any way tainted the amateurish glee of, 'I'm still here and I'm still doing it!' It was such a good show. It got a standing ovation, and the people who went backstage afterwards said he was delightful.
What's the project you've been doing with Alan Moore recently?
I've been sitting in the NN café in Northampton with Alan Moore and Grace Petrie, recording a load of podcasts. It's just us sitting in chairs talking, like our own Northampton gentlemen's club. Melinda Gebbie and Leah Moore were there too.
We were recording one on the day that David Cameron said, “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone”. Alan said, 'if I'd put that in V for Vendetta they'd have said, Alan, you're over-egging the pudding'. (laughs)
What's it called and where can we hear it?
I think we're going to call it Blooming Buzzing Confusion, which was the name I gave one of my tours. Each episode we plan to talk about a certain subject – commerce, rebellion, anarchy or whatever – and then by the end of the hour-and-a-half it turns out we've not touched on those things at all. So it's just a real mix.
And there's not a lot of science stuff, which many people assume is all I do. I remember when I did an event about Robert Anton Wilson, who wrote The Illuminatus! Trilogy. People were talking about their experiences with mushrooms and I could tell when I went on they were thinking, 'Oh, it's that bloke from the science show, he'll probably be horribly rational'. Whereas actually I really like Anton Wilson's concept of being agnostic to almost all ideas. So it was nice to be able to surprise them with another side of me, rather than being the guy coming in to spoil all the fun.
Robin Ince interviewed by Alex Musson
in 2012 and 2015.