Robin Ince: “You can explore anything with science. Add puppets, a particle physicist and an idiot and it’s a romp”

The comedian/writer/podcaster/king of the curious on Brian Cox, why he’s quit touring and how failure is nothing to be afraid of.

Brian Cox and Robin Ince with their Quest For Wonder co-stars
The wonder of you Brian Cox, Robin Ince and their Quest For Wonder puppets.

As a comedian, Robin Ince is in a curious position. For one of the most naturally inquisitive people alive, the veteran stand-up is often in a curious position.

But it’s the fact that Robin Ince is now almost as famous for his decision to quit stand-up comedy as he was before he walked away from his day-job last July that must be odd for Ince.

More of that later. For now, Ince has another series with his regular Radio 4 presenting partner Professor Brian Cox.

“I asked Brian Cox about relative theory once. He spent 10 minutes explaining it to me, then bit into a pie that was too hot”

The pair’s ultra-enthusiastic science series Infinite Monkey Cage has become too big to be dismissed as a cult. As Ince tells Loaded over waters at The Wellcome Foundation café in Euston: “People say Monkey Cage is very Radio 4, but the audience is so much broader than just middle-class Archers listeners. When we tour, we have 3,500 people a night. It’s niche in one way, but mainstream in another. Lorry drivers love it, as it’s on late at night. They write in asking ‘I understood parts of the show about constellations, but can you explain more about this bit?’”

Their new show The Quest For Wonder sees Cox, Ince and new puppets of themselves try to find Cox’s sense of wonder after it’s mysteriously lost by BBC1’s science overlord.

“We’re always trying to get children into science,” enthuses Ince, 47. “Children are born natural scientists, but sometimes in the process of the school system there are subjects that children think are dull and nothing to do with their world.”

As he puts it: “Once you can express your excitement and say ‘Science is everything, you can explore anything in the world through science,’ people come with you and say ‘OK, let’s go for it.’ Add two stupid puppets voiced by a particle physicist and an idiot, and you’re in for a romp.”

Ince may have temporarily fallen out of love with touring, but he now lives a fantastically diverse life – podcasts on books and music here, a show about nanotechnology there, writing a short story a day in between. His enthusiasm makes you want to applaud, and it’s a facet that makes him the perfect person to offer up how to have a career in entertainment away from the norm.


“Brian Cox is not dumbing down science”

I worry that culture is getting ghettoised, signposts saying ‘This art is not for you.’

But what Brian does is in the classic BBC1 tradition of making big ideas accessible. He gets flack for dumbing down. Really? That programme about entropy was dumbing down, was it? It was accessible, sure, but it wasn’t dumb in any way.

Brian is always excited to communicate his ideas. I’ll ask him about gravitational waves in the pub and he loves that. He’ll really go off on one. We’re genuinely excited about these things, and excited at how other people can be excited by them too.

“I was writing with Eric Idle by his pool in Hollywood and all I thought was ‘I really should be at home.’ That’s ridiculous”

But I asked Brian about relative theory once. He spent 10 minutes explaining it to me, then bit into a pie that was too hot. I told him ‘It’s wonderful to see a man who understands the heat death of the universe who doesn’t understand the heat death of a pie.’

We take the piss out of each other a lot. He calls me a nobber in The Quest For Wonder – importantly, ‘nobber’ with no K. The Brian Cox Rotherham spelling of nobber.


“Quitting stand-up just means you do more charity shows”

My decision to give up stand-up has been a disaster. It hasn’t worked at all. All that’s happened is I’ve given up touring. Everyone has realised I’m available for benefit shows, so I get constant calls saying ‘Can you do a show for our educational trust or this dog who’s poorly?’ And I’m not going to turn them down, not least because they’re fun. I still love stand-up, but the endless touring made me think I was going mad.

I scrutinise myself anyway, and social media doesn’t help. You dissect everything about yourself, and if you’re in a hotel room after showing off for two-and-a-half-hours on stage, you get into a very negative ‘Me, me, me’ space. I did a solo tour in Australia and one with Brian Cox in America, and I just wasn’t enjoying it. And that’s fucking ridiculous. I was writing with Eric Idle by his pool in the Hollywood Hills and all I could think was ‘I should probably be at home.’ That’s when you go ‘Right, something has gone wrong here.’ Nine months later, I’ve realised I just need to do little bits and pieces of comedy. I still write every day, but I don’t need to be in a different town every day.

The Quest For Wonder puppets of Brian Cox and Robin Ince
Get a haircut Robin Ince's puppet is already too hairy.


“Puppets get dated very quickly”

Mine and Brian’s puppets on The Quest For Wonder are out of date already. The puppeteers were sensible enough to put some grey in Brian’s hair, but my puppet needs some hair shaving off as I’ve lost some since it was made. I may well steal my puppet’s hair and use it as my own toupee.


“If a million people are laughing, it must be funny”

I sometimes get drunk and see other comedians doing comedy I hate. I have to stop myself going on Twitter and saying what I think. Because if a million people are laughing, it’s funny. I don’t find Mrs Brown’s Boys funny, but I can’t say it’s not funny – it’s just not funny to me personally. There are so many different forms of comedy now. You want to say ‘Try all these different forms and you’ll definitely find one that’s right for you.’

People take comedy incredibly personally. People won’t just say ‘I hate that’, they try to persuade the people who are laughing that they’re wrong. You see more attacks from people online under a story about comedy than you will under one about David Cameron’s dad siphoning off money into his offshore account.


“You don’t need to be an expert”

I’m an expert about nothing, but I’ve got enough curiosity to have a certain amount of range. I’m sure there’ll be a subject I find dull, but it hasn’t happened yet.

My problem is self-awareness. You’re trained to have that as a stand-up, and it’s why some stand-ups don’t make great actors. I’ve done some acting, but whenever I get asked I say ‘I’m not very good. I can do faces, but if you’re looking for range, I won’t meet your requirements.’

“When I met Steve Martin, part of me kept thinking ‘It’s fucking Steve Martin!'”

I’d love to be able to tap-dance – break into one while walking to the bookshop – but I’m too self-aware. I did a musical with Ted Rogers from 3-2-1 and Carmen Silvera from Allo Allo, thinking I’d only be required to sing and do strange voices, but I had to dance too. I had two routines in the show, and every night I could hear Carmen Silvera tutting as my left leg was where my right leg should be.

But, while people have their own limitations, the tools of creation are in everyone’s hands now. If you have a smartphone, you can make a no-budget film. It might have lots of technical limitations, but if it’s interesting someone might be interested.

Brian Cox and Robin Ince in The Quest For Wonder
Has anyone seen an idiot around here? Brian Cox fails to point out the nearest nobber.


“Don’t talk down to your audience”

Someone asked me recently ‘What do I have to do to have a career like yours?’ and the answer is that you just have to create stuff. The trick is not to think what your audience should be. An executive at a sitcom workshop I was helping at said ‘The moment you start writing, you have to think “Who is this for?” I just thought ‘Nooo!’ The moment you start writing, you should think ‘What do I want to create?’

If you respect the audience, they respect you. Grayson Perry’s documentaries about class were great, and his best interviews were in Sunderland where at no point did he look down on anyone. As long as you use the right language and you aren’t convoluted, people will follow you. One of the best moments I’ve had from my comedy was when a fan brought his dad along to a show, and the dad said ‘I didn’t understand a word. But I had a great time.’


“Meet your heroes and tell them they’re your heroes”

I met Steve Martin through Eric Idle, and one of the first things I said to him was ‘Your book on stand-up is one of the greatest books ever written about comedy.’ With age, I’ve stopped worrying about being embarrassing. It’s an English trait, to not say ‘Your work is brilliant.’

I think Steve Martin is a genius. Sitting opposite him at dinner was wonderful. But all the time, part of me thought ‘That’s fucking Steve Martin! You remember the first time you saw The Jerk? How many times you’ve seen The Man With Two Brains? That you saw Roxanne the day it came out?’

Steve said he’d go on Infinite Monkey Cage if Brian and I play in LA again. Whether he really would, I don’t know. But he’d be fantastic.


“Comedy shouldn’t be performed in arenas”

Playing arenas changes comedy as an art-form. Someone like Michael McIntyre has always worked their comedy towards arenas, it’s comedy designed for larger venues. But other comedians seem to have accidentally ended up in arenas and I don’t think they get much fun. They seem very morose. And they can’t whine about it, because it looks like ‘As you whine in your third home, wondering which helicopter to buy, you had choices…’ I just think it’s greedy.

Some comedians who get to arenas, their comedy isn’t as good as it was, because it has to cut through to 18,000 people a night. Which is very different than communicating to 2,000 people. I’m aware I don’t have those choices.

Brian Cox and Robin Ince's puppets go into space
On tour, no-one can hear you scream. Robin Ince's puppet realises he has to play Cheltenham Town Hall on Monday.


“If you’re not enjoying comedy, do something else”

I have no great expenses apart from a family of two to look after, music and second-hand books.

You have periods where you fall out of love with what you do, but then you realise ‘God, I might have to do a job. What if I have to do a job where everything is regular?’ I couldn’t do that for longer than a month.

I’d like to write a full-length horror novel. Nobody might want it, but it doesn’t matter so long as I have enough projects that do work. Once I’ve written 2,000 words on whatever it is that does pay, I can do what I want.


“David Attenborough is everything you’d hope he is”

I do a books podcast, Bookshambles, with Josie Long and our dream guest is the obvious one – David Attenborough. I met him with Brian for a feature for The New Statesman and he was everything you’d hope. The excitement he has for life is incredible. He was a mere 87 when we met him and had just had a couple of ops on his knee. He hasn’t at any point stopped having fun in his life.

We’d also love to have Victoria Wood or Billy Connolly on Bookshambles. Our most popular guests aren’t the obvious big names you’d imagine – AL Kennedy was incredibly popular. We try to have people on who have a real passion for existence, who constantly wonder why things are as they are.

The Quest For Wonder part one can be seen now via Cosmic Genome. A new episode is out every Thursday. For more on Robin Ince, see his website. Ince and Josie Long play together at Latitude Festival in July.


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