Losing My Religion – on why I am giving up stand up

Before reading this post, I should reiterate that I love stand up and reading back over this, it probably looks a bit melodramatic. In the act of writing about it all, everything seems much clearer now. So you could well dismiss this whole thing if you wish. All in all, I may just have spent too long on my own in hotel rooms and gone a little mad.

Also I should stress that some of these thoughts are infrequent and do not represent some constant fog of gloom. This is the biscuit box selection of regular and occasional doubts.

I have been a stand up comedian for over half my life, and now it is time to stop talking.
It was January 2014 when I started to think, this showing off has got to stop.
I have no idea what the effect of closing my professional bile and jumping about valve will be, perhaps I will be murdered by my wife not long afterwards.
Or maybe I’ll fall silent and like it.
It is not that I have gone off the idea of stand up, or that I have come up with some grand or minor project to usurp it. It is an experiment. What happens to me without it?

The reasons why I have decided to stop change regularly.
When I am in a good mood, or post a successful gig, I wonder why I am going to attempt this silence, but in the shadows near the back of my skull, I know I should.

Most friends reckon it will last about a month. I want to give it at least two years, and then review the situation.

My notebooks have scribbled sentences that explain to me why I am doing this. Some of them I agree with as I am typing them out, others I am not sure of in my current frame of mind.

1. The main reason is my son. He is seven and I am not around enough. I am in a position that I can take a sizable chunk of time off and play Doctor Who Top Trumps and go to dinosaur museums, so I should do just that. I try to ration tour dates. My agent is responsive when I say I only want to do three shows in a week, but then others ask for talks or appearances at peculiar and fascinating events and that’s 7 days of the week gone. Cutting down is not an option. Total abstinence is required.

2. My impostor syndrome is more vibrant now than it was in 1992. I still don’t think I am a proper comedian. I find myself on benefit bills and look around a green room of professional comedians, people who really know how to do it, and wonder how I have snuck in with my mind shambles.

3. Paranoia is rife. However well a gig is going, I have drawn faces of fury on the front row. If everyone seems to be laughing, I am imagining the lone man in the audience is furious with it all. Later, he explains to other members of the audience that it was actually awful, and they realise they have been conned. Towards the end of the gig, I look down at the person whose face I have scribbled on to make it furious, and it turns out they are jolly. I must stop graffiting the audience’s faces with felt tipped fury emotions.

4. I am stuck in my niche. I like the world I am in. I like the audience I get, but there still seem to be too many towns where I can’t get more than a few stalls seats sold. I can go from 600 people to 43 in 24 hours. The ego deflates like a spitty whoopee cushion..

5. All this science has brought on doubt. Why am I saying what I am saying? Do I know what I am talking about? Is there anything original being exhaled? This is much the same reason I stopped writing a regular blog – my “shut up shut up shut up” inner voice began to screech. Once I am off stand up, I will also depart social media for a while too, for more effective shutting up. So if I disappear for a while, I can do some reading and looking through microscopes & telescopes and working out what I might think.

6. Aren’t there enough middle class white males talking already?

7. Sometimes I look at stand up and see all the commercialisation, the demographic researching, the secret writers making up observations for the big name, the disco ball illuminations, and I remember the less funny, but more passionate stand up 15 year old me saw in some gum and burn hole carpeted pub room, and I go off it. I know there are many wonderful, curious, exciting acts really, but for a moment, that knowledge slips away as I see the same panel on every panel show. The seating position and the desk colour may change, but look, there’s Jimmy Carr.

8. I see the work of Daniel Kitson or Bridget Christie or John Kearns and face my limitations. Do I delude myself that I may be capable?

9. I think I was starting to go mad. I didn’t have some Hancockian black dog hovering above me, more a facetious little grey dog yapping. In Hull and Alnwick, I started to lose hold of the leash I keep my English emotions on (as poor Grace Petrie knows).

10. Insomnia decided to deposit itself in my gut and brains sometime ago. As I want each show to be better than the last, this hoped for perfectionism was stymied by that self-loathing homunculus who sneered at 3am – “how can you do the show justice when you won’t have slept for 49 hours. Hee hee hee”. I must buy some homunculus deterrent spray.

I was also hugely disappointed that the new nights I attempted last year, such as Your Culture is Ailing, Your Art Is Dead, failed to ignite enough passion to get a regular audience.

I have two months left. Let’s see if I can give up stand up for longer than I gave up whisky, or if the addiction is such that I’ll start busking jokes outside the Hayward Gallery by August. This whole thing may just be a nonsense, and in a matter of weeks I will be pugnacious, facetious and armed to play low turnout border towns all over again.

I have two more gigs in Australia, then a couple of months of UK gigs, from St Austell to Salford, Leeds to Bristol,  ending up at The Bloomsbury, London. I will occasionally be popping up at festivals, including a one off show at Edinburgh. All dates are here.

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Merely Burble – I Am Just Showing My Working Out, But I Am Not Sure What the Question Is

this is not really a blog post, just some sentences I am using to try and work something out. You may want to leave now. Merely Burble.

When I was young and hair my was lustrous, did I imagine that with age would come greater certainty. Was I more sure of the world at 15 or 45? I was never that sure of anything, apart from the diseases I thought I had and that those people over there in the cafe were laughing at me because of my shoes, hair, walk or face.

Everyone else seems so sure. Are they all discreetly hiding their imposter syndrome, or do they really know what they know?
Maybe this scepticism was a bad idea.

It is the cocksureness (I prefer cockcertainty, but that doesn’t seem to be a word as yet) that I keep knocking my head into that is swelling my uncertainty about nearly everything.

So many arguments where facts are stated and never backed up by evidence.
So many universal truths that can only be traced back to rumour or misheard pub talk.
(Culture Wars: The Media and The British Left is a very good compilation of how those 80s staples like “they have banned black bin liners for being racist” sprung from).

I have been accused of being arrogant and smug for asking people where their opinions came from. Last week, someone accused me of criticising and dismissing the work of an individual who I had never heard of (nor did I know of their work). When I asked the accuser why they believed that I believed what they thought I believed, they flew off the handle, they started swearing and taking great umbrage.

When I was told some alarming foreign aid statistics that seemed improbable, I was told that I was an idiot for not knowing about them, and if I couldn’t find these statistics, I should look harder. I searched and came up with nothing. I was then told that everyone knew they were true and the fact they didn’t exist anywhere and could be backed up by nothing did not change their veracity.

Today, I read of there is a launch of an Anti-Feminist party, as we all know, men are the real victims now and “Feminism is a hatred, and it should be a badge of shame”. Misogyny is apparently very rare and… oh, I have to stop typing now, I must force myself to believe this is all a grand parody that will have a delightful absurdist reveal. I have to presume this man really believes what he believes. His reality is granite solid, he is certain of his truth.

I was asked to write a reaction piece on the Hebdo murders and free speech, but I could find nothing but banal and obvious observations, so I declined. I could think of nothing that I might say that could contribute, not even in a pay per sentence scenario.

I am only typing this to try and diagnose my illness, to try and locate the the thought blockage and decide whether it should be flushed out or if a sharp burst of a bicycle pump up the nose will shift it, or whether it should stay write where it is – a needed wall that should have been built some time ago.

I feel I should have opinions all the time.
“I haven’t tweeted anything for ages, quickly, think of a view of the world that can fit into 140 characters. Now monitor the reaction – was it an opinion that stirred or has it shriveled up and died on contact with the web?”

“Damn, that person’s opinion on the thing I was opinionated on has been favourited more than mine.”

What purpose this slurry pipe of my perpetual opinions? Is it just to air my brain before it festers and rots in fluid of aging, septic thought. Is the internet predominantly a trepanning tool?

How deluded am I? When people have created such impervious bundles of barbed wire around what they must and will believe, what is the point of butting in?

I think it is time to read Neil Postman on Media ecology, which he described as looking into “the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival” – but will trying to understand really help, or should I just read less and drink more?

If you are not in London, information on my forthcoming gigs in Didcot, Bedford, Swindon, Glasgow, Salford, Swindon and on, is HERE

And info of USA gigs HERE

And Australian tour HERE

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Fade To Doubt – on the final few months of touring

I am relieved that the touring is almost done. Just under 6 months to go, then I will be an annoying obstruction in my house. The first few gigs of January were sold out, then came another rejection from the borderlands, with Berwick Upon Tweed expressing its disinterest. I take these rejections personally. The failure to muster an audience paints pictures in my head of each member of the community making a very specific decision to reject me, when most will have just turned the page or walked by the flyers on the bar without noticing. Having neither TV exposure or genius on my side, some dates are harder to sell than others. The Radio 4 listeners do not like the idea of hearing me without having their hands covered by marigolds and soapy water (a rather archaic image, but still one that people imagine is a true picture of the listener). I might experiment with a tour where I provide both rubber gloves and soapy water, or an auditorium filled with backed up traffic, to try and replicate the radio listening sensations and environment.

I have toured for too long. Few people would see my name in a brochure and think, “why, he may never come here again, we must grasp this opportunity hastily”. I am tenacious and resilient, I keep coming back to force more upon you. My last few months of touring are exciting, and much of it is new for me. A four city tour of the USA with Brian Cox, and then a city by city leapfrog across Australia with a science show jumbling up Feynman, Darwin and Neuroscience. Then, the last few towns I haven’t tainted for a while in the UK, then…STOP.

I am relieved to stop, because I think I may have run out of words. Going through my notebooks of inked ideas and half sentences, I am not sure I know what I want to say anymore. I have ideas, and then I think, “why do I want to say them aloud? Is there any reason to share”. It is not so much a comedic doubt, as a doubt about bothering with any opinions at all. As I continued my most recent tour, with digressions on reality tunnels, and how the mind makes our picture of the world, I enjoyed sharing my experiences. The next stage seems almost like repetition. When I have finished making my current notebook voluble, I might stop making notes for a while. There are so many opinions everywhere, so many statuses and updates and columns, that I reckon I’ll just be adding to crackle of background noise. Each month, I seem more uncertain than the last. I may have to doubt in silence.

I think I better get an allotment, grow cabbages and shut my face, on stage at least. Though until June, I’ll continue to shout until I am hoarse and then, in Kettering on 20th June, I might fade out, or, like Dinosaur Jr’s Just Like Heaven cover, stop abruptly mid sentence.

Where’s my trowel?

Until then though, these below…

If you are not in London, information on my forthcoming gigs in Didcot, Bedford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Salford, Swindon and on, is HERE

And info of USA gigs HERE

And Australian tour HERE

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Serendipity Led to a Rambling Monkey Cage on Luck and Judgment

For the first time in its recording history, we have finished recording the final episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage before the first of the series has even been broadcast. Let’s hope all the paradigms of science don’t change in the fortnight before we begin. It would be embarrassing for Brian if the standard model he talks about is standard no more.

The final recording was a rambling discussion of serendipity in science; how mishaps, chance, and accident have led to scientific innovation and advance.

Some talked of the presumed pigeon excrement interference that turned out to be the cosmic microwave background radiation of our universe, others talked of the seemingly pathetic glue that led to the post it note (actually, that some was the same man, Simon Singh).

There was also a lot of discussion of frogs in magnets. There is a joy in watching the nonchalance of scientists when discussing such things, eventually I had to interrupt to request if they could explain to the audience a little more of this scenario, as they may not be as au fait in matters of amphibians and magnetic fields (it was all part of the playtime of Andre Geim, currently the only human who is the inner of both the Nobel and Ignobel prizes, and he attended both ceremonies).

Further conversations also led to how serendipity led to the discovery of not one, but four artificial sweeteners. You would never be baking with Splenda and rejoicing in your svelte figure were it not for a youthful chemist mishearing “test” and believing his homework was to taste the chemicals on his work surface (fortunately, none violently exploded on contact with tongues and saliva). Later on, we discovered that there have been consumer industry advantages to some chemists poor hygiene regime, but I can’t remember which artificial sweetener came from the sweet, dusty fingers of one wash basin rejecting scientist.

Lee Mack manage to impede the anecdotes of Andrea Sella with a carnival of interruptions, and then broke Simon Singh for a while (and the audience too) with a joke that they just couldn’t decide if it might be racist or not – that laughter, followed by the frontal lobe interruption of “hang on, stop your laughter until we have analysed this effectively”. The seesawing uncertainty continued as Simon corpsed.

Despite the conjecture that serendipity was essential to grand discoveries, after the magnificence of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, we found that chance and error had often led to stationery and fashion innovation. Remember that next time you are velcro-ing up your mauve jumpsuit.

The main summary, beyond my mentioning of the subtleties of Brian’s latest wig (Morecambe and Wise still influence scientific radio), was the importance of playtime. Scientific investigation should not be tied to a single track.
Inquisitiveness can and should err beyond an investigation’s specific intentions.
Sometimes the funder may not get what they want, they may get something much better – “so you didn’t get quinine, but see how the queen now has a mauve ribbon and now, from accidental colour discovery we’ve inspired a pharmaceutical industry?”
And also how experiments in the science curriculum should not be underrated.

This blog post is almost as rambling as our recording, you can hear the editing wizardry of our producer later next month. Unusually, it is now straight into next series production as we get ready for New York, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco. Time to queue outside the US embassy at dawn, last time I did that I was standing behind Martin Amis.

If you are not in London, information on my forthcoming gigs in Didcot, Bedford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Salford, Swindon and on, is HERE

And info of USA gigs HERE

And Australian tour HERE

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Noises in Buckets – Why A Free Fringe is Important for Us All

Writing articles about the Edinburgh fringe gets earlier and earlier every year. This one is even more premature as I won’t be doing a show at this year’s festival (well, I might be up for one day and I’ll try to fit in 17 performances like usual).
The more urgent issue is the Free Fringe benefit in London this week. This benefit goes to funding the PBH’s Free Fringe brochure, so that the performers and audience can still have an entirely free experience when it comes to August.

The rise of the free fringe has changed the landscape of the Edinburgh Fringe, and very much for the better.
The fringe festival had become a financially exhausting ceremony, where the two most important participants, the audience and the performers, were fleeced. The legends of acts coming away from the fringe with debt of over £20,000 are sadly true. The cost of performing their show was sometimes over £800 per day. Meanwhile, the audience were paying more and more for a ticket.
50 minute shows in clammy rooms with sweat dripping, paranoid eyed debtors, for £15.

This situation does not necessarily lead to the best environment for entertainment.

When I last did a show in what would have been considered “a major venue”, I don’t htink the worry about how much the audience had paid led to a better show. If anything, it curbed experimentation and curtailed risk that could have created a better evening. the fear of them getting their £15’s worth possibly led to them not getting it.

After that year, my son was born (there is no link), so the following summer, I decided to only do a few days on the fringe. I decided to play PBH’s Free Fringe, filling in for acts having a night off. I loved it. Each room felt very different from the commercial theatre, “you sit there and be the audience, I will do my contracted time, then please leave” sense that I had felt in my previous venue. There was a sense of event, a sense of us all being in cahoots, not dissimilar to the first fringe shows I had gone to as a teen.

The fact they had come in for free did not in any way reduce my desire to put on the best show I could. Most acts don’t look at an audience and place the weight of their takings against the effort they will put in (I hope).

A year before, I had been chatting to a couple at a gig in Middlesbrough who I had first met at one of my Edinburgh fringe shows. I said I hadn’t seen them there for a while and they replied that they had given up going because they couldn’t afford to see so many shows.

Two years later, I was chatting to them at a free fringe show at the Canon’s Gait. They had returned to the festival as the combination of free and ticketed shows meant they were able to immerse themselves in ten shows a day, an endurance test they clearly enjoyed.

The free fringe has helped incite a new spirit of experimentation in acts and audience.
In 2011, I was able to put on 4 different shows a day, some free, some at The Stand.
Quite a few people came to all four as, even including a reasonable contribution in the bucket, you could see the lot for £25.

To me there is a different relationship between audience and performer in these situations.
They have taken a risk and, if we pull it off, hopefully they reward us with change, even a note in a bucket.

When I first started doing these shows, some acts warned me that it could damage me, after all, what would people think, it’s almost busking in an underpass.

But now, it is quite acceptable for established performers to do free shows, even Phill Jupitus does it, and chart sensation John Otway, Red Dwarf star Norman Lovett, and on and on.

Rather than damage the ticketed fringe, it has enhanced the whole festival.

This Thursday, there is a benefit at The Bloomsbury, with a bill that includes John Otway, Terry Alderton and me. This one you have to pay for, but it is an investment for August and an investment in the arts, in helping to enhance and continue there being a vibrant comedy circuit of risk and energy and experiment.

At the end of my science shows on the free fringe, when I was throwing in a few lines to persuade some contributions into the bucket, I would explain that altruism was an evolved trait, that we were creating something together, and that people didn’t have to put anything in the bucket, but if they didn’t. I would presume they were an intelligent design proponent.
That seemed to help.

(But I would also say, “if you are a bit broke or a bit poor, don’t feel any necessity to put anything in, I will not scowl or mumble curses”).

There are a lot of tickets to sell for this week’s show https://www.thebloomsbury.com/event/run/14163 in the spirit of Mr Smith Goes To Washington, I hope all of us can work out ways of filling the theatre and selling tickets so this brilliant endeavor remains. Tweet, facebook status update, shout in pubs, let’s give Peter Buckley Hill the night he deserves.

If you are not in London, information on my forthcoming gigs in Didcot, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Salford, Swindon and on, is HERE

And info of USA gigs HERE

And Australian tour HERE

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Still Learning To be An Alien – on the stand up as stranger

Have you got to be alienated as a stand up, or merely be an alien?

Not in the David Bowie/Thomas Newton, beautiful, being makes a million, becomes an alcoholic, is investigated by the secret service, and eventually has his illusory skin and genitals removed, before recording an ignored album, though some of those things may happen.

Stand up creates a less glacial, more worried, alien being.

One, you have to scrutinise culture and civilisation as if it is not quite your own. If you are too comfortable in the world you are in, if you walk through it without prodding and questioning it, your shows may under-run.

Secondly, you must regularly arrive in places you do not know – part Klaatu, part Willy Loman. Your skin is a little thinner than a casual visitor, as you know that some of the people in this district will be judging you later on. The vague shadow of fear that your evening performance casts over your sensibilities makes the shapes and buttresses of the town a little less welcoming.

(warning – following passages may contain exaggerated paranoid melodrama)

You overhear conversations in accents that are not from “where you come from”, and the alternative pronunciations and stresses seem to have an element of threat.

Everywhere feels colder.

Local eyes jab the back of your neck, even though in all likelihood, no one is paying you the remotest amount of attention.

You have already made the reasons in your head as to why the people from here won’t like you, the you who is someone from there, not here.
Isn’t your kind of town exactly the kind of town they loathe.
Isn’t your kind of face the kind of face that the visitors had who came to close their factories?
Isn’t your voice the voice they mock when doing pub impersonations of the people they would like to attach weights to the ankles of and drop them in their bike rust heavy canal?

Your accent is too refined, too gutteral.
Your references betray arrogant intellectualism or simplistic pop culturalism.

None of them have thoughts or lives like you and they do not want to hear “what it is like when…” and they will not know when “you when that thing happens…”.

And then you’ll be a long way from home, in a town where the only people who know you, know they don’t like the cut of your jib, and the wallpaper in your B&B is damp and loose, and the breakfast is pale yellow.

What? me paranoid?

I was thinking about this as I was leaving Belfast today.

I died on my arse the first time I played Belfast. The next day, as I looked for a cinema to hide in, it seemed everyone I asked directions of, had seen my shame. I had maintained my dignity by dying on my arse for the full allotted time. Apparently, on other nights, the audience were robbed of the full 30 minutes of booing as the acts left the stage early.

I was less awful on the next visit, but far from memorable…or interesting.
I was still alien.

Now, it is one of my favourite destinations.
I have found the right audience and the right bookshops.
Or maybe I have found the right way to perform to the audience.
There is a passion and an honesty, and a desire to talk after the gigs about all manner of ideas, both scientific and personal. I have had some of the most enlightening and intriguing conversations. Today, even at a sober lunchtime gig, I chatted to someone about what is death and consciousness, and received a short Lutheran funded film starring Jack Hawkins that I was told I would find weird and fascinating (and I bet I do).
I also like Belfast as they talk fast and so do I.

I used to fear Newcastle and Liverpool too.

What has changed, age and experience I suppose, and I now have more of an audience who may have an inkling of the nonsense I’ll declaim.
But I also think it comes from being more honest. When I was a worse and younger comedian, I walked on and second guessed what the audience might want from the alien.
Was it that patronising that they could see through as they hurled the first bottle?

Thank you, Belfast. My fascination with you grows.

That is what stand up touring, as relentless has given me, I’ve learnt to stop worrying and love being an alien (well, not always, but it is developing).

And so to Australia

And the USA

And Didcot, Swindon, Salford, Edinburgh, Bath and on http://www.robinince.com

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I Emptied My Mind in Greenwich, but Still Couldn’t Find the Thoughts I Wanted, They Must Be Kept In Someone Else’s Head

I unpacked my head in a Greenwich pub, but still couldn’t find the thoughts I wanted, they must be kept in someone else’s head

Nothing makes me believe free will is an illusion more than doing talks at Skeptics in the Pubs events.

Some months before the talk, I am asked for a title. For this evenings, it was going to be Eggs, Milk, Holiday, Death. The title normally comes from an idea I was in the midst of when the organiser called me. On this occasion, I think I was the advantages of human ability to plan ahead versus its negative implications, we can foresee our own death. Then I forget about that until I see the title in a publicising tweets a week away from the talk.

A few days beforehand, I make some notes.

Pertinent facts. A little reading from a book. Some angry posturing.

On the day of the talk, I lose the notes somewhere in the room that is a lagoon of past notes, most unused.

On the day of the event, I start making notes on the backs of postcards, some non-sequiturs that are meant to act as prompts.

An hour before leaving the house, I see the news of the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices.

The initial reaction is a confused brow – “murdered for doodles? death for satire?” – I guess the same as many other people. On the train in, I think that I couldn’t do a talk for sceptics on this day and not bring this up.

But the idea of deaths because of jokes is so absurd, that everything that comes from my pen is banal.

The battle against dogma and fight for curiosity and positive doubt – yes, yes, of course we know that

How our self conscious awareness of our own death led to creating myth to combat our fear of personal annihilation, but have tragically led to some deciding these myths justify the annihilation of others. Yes, yes.

Why faith schools are a dismal, retrograde step that can lead to each believer group huddling in their own ghettoes of certainty. Of course, that’s what all the humanists say.

Other thoughts bubbled and popped into extinction before I could grasp their gist.

At the event, as usual, I just started talking.
Tumbling words.

Every now and then, my aware mind stops and says, “why aren’t you talking talk about this idea in your head”, and so I find an idea I want to discuss, and hopefully illuminate it rather than darken it. At other times, I stop half sentence and realise I have quite forgotten why I began saying whatever I am saying, I seek a punchline forthwith as an emergency exit.

Then looked at a clock, and thought I better stop. The audience’s bladders were relieved. I had started to notice knees moving like pistons.

Sometimes, I surprise myself. Ideas come out fully formed, the arguments are cogent. I watch from within, satisfied. Last night, I didn’t find what I was after. Through endless, improvised monologue, I hoped to have that illuminated moment when I thought, “now I understand”.

It was a day when people died for jokes.
Jokes about something, jokes that held an idea and a point of view.
But still jokes.

There is a reason despots don’t like to be joked about. For such a low art, it is shocking how potent it can be.

It is human to be sullen and annoyed about jokes about you or your favourite peccadillos, but to commit murder over jokes, to feel so offended for the reputation of a long dead prophet, or being that offers you no proof of its existence, because they were felt-tipped…?

I am still stuck.

http://www.robinince.com is where me things and tour things are (USA, UK, Australia where I am visiting thanks to their Atheist foundation).

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