Friday, December 9, 2011

British humor 8: Robin Ince

I speak a lot about the thin line that separates high art and low trash in this blog and on the Funhouse TV show (and was glad to see our friend "Bava Tuesdays" pick up on a remark I have made frequently about the factor that unites them both). Robin Ince is a fellow traveler in the art/trash appreciation biz, and his comedy reflects his unbridled fascination with both the highest forms of literary endeavor and the most unimaginably silly schlock. And for that I salute him.

I became aware of Ince through import DVDs of Ricky Gervais’ standup. Robin is a personal friend of Gervais and was his opening act on two tours. Even in the short sets included on the DVDs it was evident that Ince had already refined his stage persona: a delightfully cranky, sarcastic middle-aged man who is very disturbed by stupidity:

Ince has refined his standup since working with Gervais (and he's no longer tormented by his prank-prone super-celeb friend). The next time I came across him was as a confederate of a few of the British comics whose work I’ve profiled here and covered in depth on the Funhouse TV show, including Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. In the last few years, Robin has carved out a niche for himself as a top-notch “compere” (the English — actually French — term for MC) and an excellent radio/podcast host.

To put it simply, Ince is an “egghead comedian,” and I say that not as an insult but as a compliment. He is an outspoken rationalist (the correct term for atheist) and now discusses public perceptions of science (good, bad, and indifferent) in his standup. The only comic in America who has similar concerns is Chris Rush, who comes from a slightly different place but shows an equal enthusiasm for supplying humorous layman’s explanations of scientific phenomena and natural oddities (curiously, his scientist hero, Rupert Sheldrake, is British, and Ince’s are Americans, Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman).

Ince currently cohosts two wonderful and different podcasts with a great degree of energy and quick wit. The free-form interview podcast Utter Shambles he cohosts with the exuberant and delightful comic Josie Long. The ‘cast finds the duo talking to the occasional author (including scientists and comics genius Alan Moore), but mostly the guests are their fellow comedians, including that Lee fellow, Mark Steel, Stephen Merchant, Tim Minchin, and “elder statesmen” Alexei Sayle and Terry Jones.

The other podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage, originates as a Radio 4 show. Ince cohosts with physicist Brian Cox (whose documentaries are on American cable, if ya can find ‘em). Ince and Cox tackle a specific issue in each episode (“Is Philosophy Dead?” “Science and the Supernatural,” “The Origin of Life”) with guests from the scientific community (who get to show their humorous side) and at least one comedian (who gets to show his/her serious side).

Ince’s premiere achievement, however, has to be the annual live show “Nine Lessons and Carols for a Godless Christmas.” This rationalist celebration of the Yuletide season is something that Americans can only see thanks to YouTube postings and releases from the invaluable independent DVD label Go Faster Stripe. In addition to the Nine Lessons… events, GFS has released a full-length standup DVD, Robin Ince Is as Dumb as You, which has some wonderful material on it and a lot of extras (including outtakes and a spirited interview), all with an audio commentary from Ince (who can be quite a loquacious gentleman and is very fond of footnotes).

Dumb as You is a lot of fun, but if you’d like a more succinct intro to Robin and the world of talented and dauntingly brilliant folks he hangs around with, I’d recommend checking out the DVD of the 2009 Nine Lessons show (there is also a CD available of the 2010 show ). As the host, he offers some of his best routines in between the acts — including a gem about getting caught in a “YouTube loop,” which NEEDS to be on YT itself.

The Nine Lessons shows — which take place in two weeks in London and are already sold out for this year — boast an impressive roster of performers that is split between scientist-authors (Cox, Simon Singh, Bad Medicine writer Ben Goldacre, and the man who drives “the faithful” crazy in a wonderful way, Mr. Richard Dawkins) and comedians (Herring, Lee, Long, Peep Show's Issy Suttie, and the indescribably weird and wonderful character comic Waen Shepherd).

Here’s a nice slice of Robin talking about "boring science" at Nine Lessons:

Ince’s melding of rational thought, fun scientific anecdotes, and cranky comedy is impressive, but the reason I’m writing this profile is to call attention to a concept I consider his premiere achievement — especially for folks like myself who both love and have copyedited some very bizarre vanity-press books. The concept is the “Bad Book Club,” and Robin provided the back story for it in the interview found on the Dumb as You DVD: how his precious collection of records was literally covered in shit (no joke) by a plumbing problem that found his neighbors’ waste entering his house and destroying his stuff (as a fellow collector, I cringe even recounting the tale). His efforts to recreate his record collection, with the help of Stewart Lee, were detailed on a radio special called “How Robin Got His Groove Back” (that was up online on the essential, which is very sadly not online at the moment I write this).

This traumatic event jarred him into looking in a different direction for entertainment, and this is when the always relaxing and mind-warping pursuit of schlock came in. Ince haunted charity shops, looking for the most insane and outrĂ© titles he could find. He began to read excerpts from these books onstage, and set up entire shows around them, simply called “the Book Club,” in which the audience was encouraged to bring their own terrible tomes. There isn’t much footage of Robin doing his “book club” readings, but a few clips have surfaced. Here is the finest visual sample available, done for New Humanist magazine:

The best way to enjoy this wonderful concept is to read his book Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club, which finds him ruminating on the high weirdness he found on charity shop bookshelves. His rules were simple: he never paid over £3 for a book, and he even found some choice items left on trains and in waiting rooms. The fact that he wasn’t looking for a specific piece of crap-lit meant he discovered things that were so wildly marginal as to make his book-club tome a must for deep-fried kitsch enthusiasts. Among the oddities:

—guides to help women find husbands, and to aid men in “picking up sexy girls”
—UFO encounter screeds
—inappropriately lurid studies of the sex lives of animals
—awful, un-ghost-written, celebrity bios
—specialist poetry collections (including a book of Elvis poems and odes to TV news anchors)
—a two-fisted "men's novel" about a hardboiled cop who has to overcome his hatred of particle physics
—(the finest) a Christian gynecological romance called The Sign of the Speculum

Ince summarized his choicest finds in a best-of short list for The Guardian, but there are items in his book that are just too wonderful for words. Among them is Starlust, a Eighties collection of fans' sex fantasies about pop stars. He cites the book’s main pull quote — “If there was a nuclear war I’d be thinking, is Boy George safe?”— and tells us the heartbreaking story of a woman who cried herself to sleep at night because her husband wasn’t anything like Barry Manilow.

The one fantasy that is going to stay with me for some time is from a woman who confesses that she’s excited by pain, and thus wishes her favorite pop stars were in torment so she could be turned on by it. Her most complicated scenario involves Debbie Harry and Chris Stein suffering from fatal diseases, with the only cure being intercourse. The sex would be excruciatingly painful for both of them, but that would only serve to turn this fangirl on more…. Tales like these offer sufficient proof as to why Ince refers to these insane books as “printed heroin.”

I heartily recommend Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club, and only wish it had sold well enough to encourage him to write a follow-up. In the meantime, I can content myself with the knowledge that there is a kitsch-culture obsessive who is as taken with awful prose as myself and Funhouse viewers.

In Robin’s infrequently updated but very funny Wordpress blog he documents an experiment he attempted in 2010, to shed some of his thrift-shop book and DVD acquisitions by reading the first chapters of different books each night (ditto with watching the first chapters of DVDs) to see what he could easily give away to his standup audiences. The joy comes not only from his wry observations about these odd items, but also from the sheepish confessions he makes about keeping the bulk of the books/discs he looked at. One could expect no less from an obsessive collector.

Two of the best Ince clips available online. First, a fine bit about TV news that is timely when I write this, as he addresses the fictitious "war against Christmas":

Log TV: News Log – Robin Ince Hates News

And perhaps his best routine, about “intelligent design” (I'm not sure who the accordionist is, but the geeky-looking fellow doing an interpretive rendition of Ince's words is Lee and Herring colleague Ben Moor):

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