Our Splendid Defeat – Happiness Through Failure

As usual I put this up under cover of darkness, a loosely linked collection of thoughts on stand up, failure, and becoming product. I’ll either delete or rewrite this tomorrow, but here it is now. As usual, it is a fairground ride of bad grammar and motley spelling, fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night. 

“On this glorious occassion…of our splendid defeat” Anthony Newley in Cockleshell Heroes 

A stand up recently told me of a journey he shared with an agent. To fill the time on the ‘A’ road, he mentioned a fast rising young buck comedian. Sadly, all was not as wonderful as it might have seemed to those who saw the young man’s rapid success from afar, apparently he was in a grey fug of despair as he just couldn’t get “his next 12 minutes”. 

It seems he had had his spot on some bigtime telly stand up show, but now he couldn’t find “the next 12 minutes” for the hoped for follow up appearance a series or so down the line. 

I am now old-fashioned. I wasn’t in the olden days, I was the height of modernity once, but now the very things that made me new-fangled are old-fashioned, like sandwich toaster that seals as it toasts or a Betty Blue poster. I found it strange to think of artistic depression  caused by failure to create a product suitable for a Comedy Roadshow. 

And that’s what troubled me, the increasing sense that stand up might be no more than a product; “what can I write that will get me on telly”. 

 My troubling was both naive and, to some extent, hypocritical.

 Of course a thrusting funny youth wants to get on TV and garner the rewards, but echoing what Stewart Lee said in his misreported writing lecture, I like to believe that a stand up means it, that each sentence is not forged predominantly by and for a committee, to be stamped and passed for general consumption. This doesn’t mean it has to be political or confessional, it might be silly or slapstick, juvenile or hifalutin, but it somehow represents something from within the human being showing off before us. 

 George Carlin, recently name-checked by the Arctic Monkeys, so by default making me hip by mentioning him, though less hip by using the word hip, talked of the difference between comics and comedians. Bob Hope had an audience in stitches, but when he left the stage, no one knew anymore about him than when he went on. After watching Carlin for an hour, you got a real sense of the human within. This does not mean all comedians must bare their souls, there is plenty of room for beloved entertainers and furious, itchy, screaming beatniks to live side by side, but in the rush to create as much stand up as possible to fill as many hours of TV as possible, I worry that passion is being replaced by product. This is not just in comedy, this is across the arts, a sort of utilitarian approach to entertainment. A low hum of joy for the maximum number of people, much as so many blockbusters offer a requisite number of explosions, laced with cleavage and perfunctory romance – the Mills and Boon approach to novel writing – “here is the graph that shows you where the kisses must happen and readers research requires an accident by the threshing machine should occur at chapter seven”. 

 Entertainment is pastuerised. 

 Your programmed distractions will give you a brief sense of well-being, but do not worry, they will not change you, or haunt your dreams and memories. 

 In a culture of instant internet purchase, ensure your songs may not alienate on first listening, think Captain & Tenille not Captain Beefheart

 I don’t think enjoying the sense of passion in creation is a contentious idea, you can see it in the work of Lenny Bruce and Stan Laurel, Nina Simone and Nick Cave, but it seems that   bringing up such notions is now seen as snotty or elitist. Yet I think there is a strange ugly elitism in the idea that “the humdrum human” loves their X Factor and boxed cash games, they wish for no more than that. Who is really looking down on who? 

 One afternoon, idling under the pretense I was thinking, I typed this facebook status.

 “I like the idea that comedians mean what they say and what they say really means something to them, that it’s not just an act of commerce.”

No great depth, just a thought typed. 

 A few minutes later, a club promoter and comic replied,

 “Great stuff Robin, as long as Mummy & Daddy are there to pay the bills.”

 The depersonalised font of facebook could reveal nothing, but I sensed a spattering of venom. So, anyone who has ever taken a risk on stage, canvas (artist’s or wrestling) or poetry slam has only done so safe in the knowledge that they have a fallback position of privilege and bail out. Is this saying that the majority of working comedians on the circuit don’t speak their mind at all on stage, that they are like aging courtesans, dignity long since departed, attempting any move to stay in the king’s favour. I know this isn’t true, there are many wonderful comedians making a living on the circuit and speaking their mind, I won’t name them as I know how performers hate a compliment.

The comic/promoter got increasingly personal, made up stuff, said that by saying I liked to believe people on stage really meant it, that I was somehow attacking club comedians, “smug twat” this, “superior education” that.

(privilege check – I have been lucky enough not to suffer abject poverty and I have had a pretty good education, I know I am lucky and in the minority) 

 I was not trying to suggest there was any shame in making money, I’ve been getting away with it for years, I even have a washing machine and that luxury Calvin & Hobbes  set

 Oddly, when I think of original artists, of people I know who have taken risks, they do not come from highly privileged backgrounds – Alan Moore, Simon Munnery, Josie Long, Darren Hayman, none were born in a punt on the Thames and suckled by wet nurses in ermine. Amongst my friends, people who have taken far greater risks than me and to far greater effect, I am probably the most privileged. For a lot of the time on the comedy circuit, when I was even worse than I am now, I didn’t take enough risks. I was lazy and fearful, everything improved when I dug my heels in and started to realise what I wanted to say. I realised why I had first loved stand up, because more than any other art form, you can unleash whatever you want from your mind without an editor, publisher or producer dabbling with, questioning or mangling your meaning. It’s up to you to sabotage yourself. Of course, the audience might hurl bottles or abuse, but even during the abuse there might be a few in the crowd who think, “I like the cut of this person’s jib, I might go see them again when they aren’t concussed by Peroni bottles so soon.” Oddly, I think I failed less in front of audiences when I started to leave those tattered, yellowing words which I thought were safe. (not that I didn’t and don’t still fail, i may be failing in a town near you soon) 

Every week I try to play Old Rope, a new material night in central London. I wait to go on feeling the foolishness of anyone witless enough to stand in front of a group of strangers and make voluble some thoughts in their head, hoping they do not shame themselves with silence and granite faces. I do not always succeed, and sometimes when I do succeed I know it is only because of my ridiculousness as I holler something about meteors or Ingmar Bergman. It is only through failing that I have become better, there is a greater certainty in my uncertainty than there was in those aged routines I clung to, even as they attempted to drift further and further away from me. 

 There are plenty of tip top comedians who will guarantee laughs and jolly good night, but to keep it all interesting, we still need to have that readiness to fail every now and again. It is rarely a performer’s intention to fail the audience, and sometimes, audiences can experience something far more magnificent in failure with chutzpah than dead-eyed success. 

Perhaps my self-help book will be called Happiness through Failure – how fucking up leads to a better life. 


In science news, Incomplete Map of Cosmic Genome is out including Stewart Lee, Prof Brian Cox, Josie Long, Ben Goldacre and tens more. http://cosmicgenome.com/Home.html

currently putting together my new show for 2014, which may well have moments of failure, not too many I hope. Starting off in Bristol, Norwich, Nottingham and Sheffield, then a town near you (yes, I know where you live). Details here www.robinince.com 

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22 Responses to Our Splendid Defeat – Happiness Through Failure

  1. Paddy Bramwells says:

    A few years ago I did a gig with Ben Norris. Not the only time we ever gigged together but this one was special because it was one of those gigs that people put on in their wine bar, thinking that a magical audience will turn up by magic and spend lots of money, without any planning other than “I think I will have a comedy night”. It was mostly dreadful in that really mediocre way that only these gigs can be. The part that was not dreadful was Ben. He spent 20 minutes telling the audience exactly what was going through his mind whilst referring in the vaguest manner possible to his actual material. It was magnificent. About a third of the audience got what he was saying and loved it and the rest were just transfixed by a man who was not behaving in the way they were they were expecting – that way that comedians on TV behave. The ones who didn’t really get it or laugh a lot (and there were quite a few) would have talked about Ben more than once, even if it was to just say how wierd and odd it was. They may not have laughed but they were not bored. Those who tuned in found him hilarious.

  2. kittymewmew (@ergrieve) says:

    Really good post! Don’t delete it!
    I’m a classical pianist and we musicians face similar pressures. Especially in a field that is on the fringe and already stigmatized for elitism. We’re basically told to follow a cookie cutter career of big schools, prestigious summer festivals and competitions. The younger and more virtuosic the better. There’s so much pressure to be as perfect as a recording.
    There’s little or no importance placed on learning the background music theory and history, and because of exams and competitions, the standard repertoire is banged out over and over.
    It’s hard to be unique because we fear losing vital credentials for our résumés, which leads to unemployment, which leads to starvation.
    People can also be quite nasty to one another because they’re more concerned with getting ahead than making friends.
    One thing I’ve learned the hard way is it’s better to be true to yourself and have to get the dreaded ‘day job,’ than pursue someone else’s dream, which can quickly become a nightmare.
    I love history and it turns out my nerdiness does pay off in teaching and writing.

    I really appreciated your post because it’s helpful to hear a different artist’s perspective. I’ve always envied comedians because it seems to be such a relevant artform. But, you are right, what is most relevant is that which is real and honest, even if it’s not the most popular.

  3. lordtooth says:

    Maybe comedians/comics/entertainers could be graded BBFC style? Or have tasting notes, like wine?
    ‘Dry, with a sense of nagging ennui’
    ‘Sweet and fresh. Slightly racist.’
    ‘Screamingly cheesy’

    This could work.

  4. Marc Sweeney says:

    I was lucky enough to play my first gig alongside Josie Long and Chris Coltrane in front of a large crowd of supportive (sober) students. Having put together an untried set that was little over three days old, it was great to be able to try it out in front of a crowd that weren’t going to lynch me for failing to deliver the ‘laffs’. As it happened, it went down mostly well. I only wish there were more opportunities along those lines for new comics (like me) to try out whatever they like without the fear of getting a bad name with local promoters. OR more comedy nights where those tired, jaded promoters aren’t primarily concerned about drawing the punters in or making a profit. I suppose I can always stand on a box in the park.

  5. andorffson says:

    I agree, a great piece, don’t consign it to the electronic waste basket. There’s an awkward niche that comedians, and musicians and their (our) ilk fall into where snobbery seems to be applied from both directions. If you’re accessible then you’ve sold out but if you speak your mind or stay committed to a sincere expression of belief then you’re a snob and you’re not earning your keep.
    I think there’s cause to look forwards with some hope, though. Back in the days of the club comics pandering to casual racism, who would have thought that big venues would be giving a rock star reception to a nerdy doctor talking about evidence based medicine, a couple of mathematicians and a physicist? Social chance is slow but the signs are there, we have venues and crowds paying for entertainment which is a genuine exchange of ideas and not the performance equivalent of junk food.
    Kudos to you, Mr Ince (I’m sorry, I know how performers hate praise) for being a part of it.

  6. atsperson says:

    Your description of the reaction to your fb post which in the context of this piece seems to be about the tension between being interesting (and interested) and doing it for the money sparks a train of thought – sorry if this meanders somewhat.

    So making a pile of dosh vs doing stuff that really lights your particular fire: are they really that mutually exclusive? I think it depends on the relative value you place on the concept of making it big time. If your definition is of Michael McIntyre proportions then one is setting oneself up to fail. Making an honest crust – you appear to be doing, and ‘ keeping real’ as you (more obviously) are doing shows clearly are both achievable. Of course the promoter (and the agent, and the sound engineer, and the lighting guy…)is always going to say “but i want more crust” (even Mr McIntyre’s I would venture).

    At the same time, until we get you filling up the O2 or RAH with thousands of people interested in your love of Richard Feynman perhaps have to agree that a choice has to be made

    Whilst we all know which side of the argument we’d take, the question then becomes is what position we would take in the debate. ” Not selling out” comes with the charge of elitism. Your brand of comedy (if I may caricature for a moment as stand up for the thinking person) in particular lends itself to this charge. Not you per se you understand but its hard not to argue that it is intrinsically Radio4. I am sure you would be the first to rail against this, as you seek (I assume, hope, even) to democratise (to use an over used and rather ugly academic term) by widening public understanding of ideas, thinking, science and society etc.

    Perhaps the journey is an end in itself?

    • robinince says:

      I think the most important thing about my fb statement were the words “not just”, accepting that making a living has to come into it too. As for the intrinsically Radio 4, that is an interesting statement as age-wise my audience in any given gig can go from 13 to 87 and the background is not quite a cliched as you might imagine. As for doing what you want to do and making money being mutually exclusive, well when did I say that? I obviously didn’t make my point clear enough in the blog post. You have thrown in some arguments that are nothing to do with the post. The point is simpler than you imagined, does good art and a happy artist come from thinking only commercially? George Carlin is a good point. As he said in the interview I linked to, he went through stages of career, the final one involving him giving up all the financial certainties he had, and it made him a far happier performer. Terry Alderton took the risk of venturing further and further from a comfortable mainstream into something experimental, he is happier too. I think Michael Mcintyre really does what he wants (I might be wrong) and it happens that his style of comedy coincides with an enormous mainstream. then there’s Louis CK, Chris Rock etc etc, being passionate, seeking the genuine, and that is not easy, being yourself on stage is surprisingly difficult, does not mean you have to live in an artist’s ghetto and cook your quorn sausage over a candle.

      • atsperson says:

        I entirely take you point about the R4 comment, although I would say I don’t think its about age or even background but “curiosity”. Also, I didn’t mean to imply that you said they were mutually exclusive, but was I rehearsing my train of thought without reference to my influences and context – a schoolboy error.

      • Ian Crawford says:

        I can’t help feeling that you may be stereotyping Quorn sausage eaters – I once met a successful meat-eating banker who ate Quorn sausages, as a healthy low-fat alternative to the traditional sausage. Although in fairness I think he would be the first to admit that he had not been 100% true to his creative ambitions and would rather be sat on top of a unicycle, performing poetry, and juggling balls instead of portfolios and hedge funds.

        Ian Crawford

        PS whatever type of sausage you eat please do take care with your cutlery, fork injuries are up 7% this year.

      • robinince says:

        I am a quorn sausage eater…there, I said it

  7. Chris Neill says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Neill's Dirty Kitchen and commented:
    I’ve never posted anyone else’s blog to my own before, but Robin Ince’s words are so wise and rather lovely on the page, to boot. My experience of stand-up is that with failure I get worse and worse but I’m hoping the getting it wrong schtick will come right for me in the end. Thanks Robin. X

  8. Thanks, Robin… taken straight to heart. By the way, if you want to be considerably more hip than you are when dropping a Carlin reference, try reminding anyone of how Louis C.K. is doing with his death defying performances… I believe he now defines the edge of what is hip.

  9. I love the hurled bottles, the chance-your-arm kisses, the uncomfortable silences, the fall off the bike, the last Rolo. We should all be outpouring, regardless of the stagnant narrative of capitalist reliance. There’s nothing quite as funny as a collapsing rant. You know you’re alive after a punch on the nose. That idiosyncratic shit is the best shit. That’s enough of that shit… I really enjoyed this blog post. Yours sincerely, A. Lazy-Fearful-Hypocrite.

  10. Andrea says:

    I think this is genuinely one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read about this kind of thing. Whether it’s people like Josie or Nadia Kamil using comedy to talk about things that matter to them or someone like Grace Petrie who actually made me cry when I saw her at one of last year’s Christmas gigs because she actually bloody cared, art is so important as a means of putting across a message.

    I’ve seen ‘big name’ comedians do so much material over the years that may have made me laugh but which I can’t remember at all. Which isn’t to say that a degree of success means that you don’t have something important to say. But, as you suggest, I think sometimes that gets lost in striving for what is ‘appropriate’ for a wider audience when you’re in the entertainment industry.

    Yet I firmly believe it’s possible to be a Josie Long or a Mark Thomas or (of course) a Robin Ince and say something that actually matters. In 1999 I made a decision to boycott all Nestlé products because Mark Thomas’s comedy made me want to find out about what they were doing and act on it. 14 years later I am still boycotting them. Like all art, I want comedy to make me ask questions. When that also makes me laugh, that’s pretty much what I would say is the holy grail of good comedy. Or, if I were down with the kids, I would probably say it’s ‘achievement unlocked’. Or something. (Although anyone who uses the phrase ‘down with the kids’ clearly isn’t.)

    Your blog seems truly heartfelt and, dare I say it, wise. Because even if I’m not down with the kids, I do feel that comedy doesn’t have to exist solely as a commercial enterprise but can be both an art form and a medium for social change. And that matters.

    So thank you.

  11. Hi there just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I
    think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same results.

  12. Pingback: Doing The Right Thing | Tiernan Douieb's Blog

  13. I put this up under the lack of cover but incredibly empowering not-quite-the-cheapest wine, a loosely linked collection of thoughts on what you said, failure, and why I can’t remember what I intend to write by the time I get to writing it. I’ll remember this tomorrow and debate if I should return to it, but here it is now.

    I’ve just started blogging and this is incredibly narcissistic. I spent years feeling smart, doubting I that I’m smart, having my mother tell me I’m smart and then, a week ago I decided to see if I was smart and put my opinions out there in a place where I was firmly saying, “What I’m saying is important and good.” (Putting my ideas out there as “smart” invites too hard a blow.) That’s the kind of comedy I want, comedy where the person entertains me and says things I will realise are both important and good.

    I haven’t started writing my blog to make money. As far as I know there are no amateur comedians. Everyone at the least expects a few pints, or from the few worn comedians I’ve seen, some sparkling water, some thanks and an easy drive home.

    It’s hard to feel not valued, but that is a privilege (by the way I appreciate the method with which you “check your privilege.”) When Mr. Promoter said, “Great stuff Robin, as long as Mummy & Daddy are there to pay the bills.” It hits hard. I am not reliant on audiences and cash-in-hand to pay for my sparkling water addiction A reliance on audiences for life rather than simple value seems more authentic, although thinking of authenticity is again another privilege.

    It’s cliched to say, “I have to dedicate myself to my art at the moment” but that thought has occurred to me. When I want the reward of audiences and, dare I say it, money, it’s because that’s an indication that others think what I’m saying is important and good. I don’t think I’m inventive or original, I’m sure many people have said what I’m saying better and achieved far more in saying it. But I am saying what I’m saying because I’ve never heard anyone else say it and there might be someone else who hasn’t heard it. I find value in knowing that there are other people like me, people who share my thoughts and people who share my values. Comedy is funny when you get it.

    (Of course this is all based on my mother telling me I’m smart. Maybe I should move to New York. BOOM BOOM. Finish with a punchline, thank you Peter Kay.)

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