Robin Ince: I’m a Joke and So Are You

It’s been a few weeks since I was at Robin Ince’s rather glorious stand-up show in Northallerton, and I’ve not really had chance to have a long run at the book that arrived at around about the same time as the tour. I’ve had to consume it in chunks, which is not, as it happens, an entirely bad thing, for a number of reasons.

The first thing to consider is that this is a funny book, in that it has some jokes in it. But that’s not really the focus. Primarily, this is a quite thoughtful piece of work, written by someone whose mind is unusual, but not necessarily that unusual, becasue in the end he’s a human being. There are things here that many people will find themsleves nodding in agreement or recognition about, other parts less so. In all honesty, I have spent quite a lot of the book feeling a faintly queasy sense of recognition about the parts that talk about shyness, introversion and memory. Unfortunately, I see quite a lot of myself in some of those moments where he wonders just how weirdly his mind is wired. Maybe it should be a comfort that it can’t be too unusual if someone is writing about it, and I see it too. One assumes that I’d not be alone in that, even if there are not huge armies of us lurking in the corners of undesired parties or “mingles” while our more gregarious friends are outwardly doing just fine, thanks.

I also enjoyed the chapter about the sense of self, because it meshed with some of my own recent research interests. While he did talk about the Jugian idea of personas, I’m a little surprised he didn’t divert just a little into the work of people like the sometime famous Monty Python puncline, Henri Bergsson, or Erving Goffman, who also talked about the notion of self and identity as a performative action, and pondered that the idea of a self (or selves) was a construction, and a complex one at that.

A lot of time is spent pondering about just how unusual he is as a person, nd whether that pearticualt combinnation of traits, picked up from the rolling snowball of genetics and experience, has fixed his mind for the thing he does. Perhaps it has. Perhaps it has for all of us, who train out minds to work in fairly specific ways from childhood so that some become comedians, some mechanics, some actors, some technicians. Who can say?

There’s an incredibly thoughtful chapter about the role of offence in comedy, including some of the thoughts of his friend Rick Gervais, whose work I’ve found hit and miss over the years. I’ve never really been one to jump to offence because I’ve considered at fairly useless, and unproductive feeling to have in the main. As it happens, I actually like the slight feeling of discomfort that comes from watching someone like Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, or even Gervais’s own stand-up becasue you’re constantly having to analyse your own prejudices while you’re laughing at the gags, and asking why you find a thing funny. But maybe that’s a luxury I can enjoy because I’m not a member of a minority who might feel such discomfort.

The last chapter deals with death (and it’s chapter title even manages to shoehorn in a cheeky, possibly unintentional, and eliptical Jake Thackray reference, which can never be a bad thing). It’s touching, and deals with the death of the author’s own mother and his reaction to it, as well as the reactions of a number of other performers to death (whether the possibility of their own, or that of someone close to them). But the thing that strikes me is a passage towards the end about the process of growing old, and the the insight that just because someone is outwardly old, inside their heads they may be anything but, so it is important not to make glib assumptions about what “old people” are like. It resonates with me because, as I feel mslef enting middle age, and the physical artefacts of that process like the aches, and pains that go with it reveal themselves to me, inside my head I feel anything but. In my mind I am still largely18 (and subject to all those same insecurities and uncertainties I had then). And to those people who knew me when I was 18, you will know that is a very mixed blessing indeed.

So what does this book tell us? Well, it tells us that Robin Ince is unusual, but then, that he is also very usual in in his unusualness, because each of us is weird in out own little ways. It’s just that that he has taken that distinctiveness and happened to fashion a career out of it. Each of us has this strange, amazing lump of matter resting in our cranium that shapes the way we see the world, and in turn is shaped by the world too, in a complex dance of call and response. And in the end, that bundle of cells is the thing that makes each one of us human, somehow. Maybe it’s best, in the words of the late Bill Hicks, just to enjoy the ride.