A possibly humanist monkey (uncaged) in search for unreachable brevity

Written in 25 minutes on the train home, expect mistakes. 

Why is brevity so hard to grasp? 45 years in to a life and still I overrun. It’s as if I have no confidence in anything and so I say everything.

The constant imp that crouches in crevices and mutters, “what do you think they think of you now?”

Early evening was spent recording an Infinite Monkey Cage with Prof Cox, Katy Brand, Kevin Fong (Dr) and Philip Ball. Brian and the producer often, and quite rightly, tease me for my preposterously long questions. Why use one word when you can use 57 which bear no resemblance to the meaning you require? It was a difficult record as we were dealing with war and the innovation that can sprout from the brutality. My job of levity (or ruining the mood and content, depending on your opinion) is made all the more precarious when dealing with a subject so laden with premature death and horror. The tiptoeing becomes voluble as you wonder when to throw in a joke about cannibalism when a historian talks of the 16th century treatment of burns using salt and onions. It was an intriguing topic with a rich and surprising history, stories of Marie Curie’s horse drawn X ray machine of the first world war and the rise of heart surgery after World War 2, mixed in with discussion on the possibility of amorality in atomic research during war. Astonishingly, we talked of Los Alamos without mentioning Richard Feynman.

We ran out of time before we could get to the question – “if a scientist makes a discovery that has a reasonable chance of leading to human catastrophe, should they refrain from revealing it?’ The Moral Maze can have that one on us.

I sweated my way to the Bloomsbury for a benefit for the British Humanist Association. Benefits can be a worry when you have been touring for a long time. You are so used to having two hours to set out your ludicrousness that it is hard to know where to start when restricted to 20 minutes. Stewart Lee began his introduction to me and I decided to furiously walk on stage and berate him and talk of how The Independent would celebrate him as a Ionesco or Beckett for saying things like, “I can see Robin Ince looking at a cup”, while I would have to gurn and leap and shout and propel my arms violently like a drowning pantomime dame for a sideline comment. “Then, a man came on who moved too much. He was damp and purple”.

Once such nonsense would have been defined as “banter”, but I am told that banter now means abuse and hostile demeaning, so it was just silly, faux fury nonsense. I have know Stewart since we talked of Hal Hartley’s Simple Men at the Cabbage Patch in Twickenham. These were days before I risked discovering free jazz. Lee did all the groundwork into the confusing noise genre. 


By the time I officially came on, I had quite forgotten what I had thought of talking about while eating peanuts in the green room, and it took me almost as long as my set time to find the starting point I wanted. I lacked concentration. I craved stillness. I overran. I am not sure I said what I meant. The imp watched me, leering and arch. I leave dissatisfied, so sleep will be elusive. I will play my intentions in my head, cross cut with the actual event (though on each replay it will become more fictitious). Next year, I plan on returning to some comedy clubs (if they’ll have me), to attempt to remaster the brevity of an idea. Even when I began, youthful and dark-haired, I found things never fitted in to 20 minutes as neatly as I had presumed. It may remind me how to begin.

You can be spoilt when you on your own are the show. You have time, most of the audience have entered with some presumption of what you might be. The stand up circuit demands you must show your intention to entertain clearly and concisely while, at the same time, facing the challenge of doing what you wish to do. You must meet your demands and the their demands. Have long shows made me lazy? The oddest moments are when you hear your critical commentary while your mouth is moving and your body is miming. “Why are you saying this? You have chosen wrongly. Bail out you detestable jester and find the thing you meant to say or hope to say or the thoughts that may surprise you”.

The ruthless edit is not available after the live gig has ended. The “might have been” cut is pointless, just another hessian vest for the way home.


My slapdash 3 hour DVD is here 

My slapdash incessant tour dates – Hull to Swansea, Newcastle to Newport and on here


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8 Responses to A possibly humanist monkey (uncaged) in search for unreachable brevity

  1. Michelle Coulter says:

    Just seen you this evening and enjoyed massively. Don’t shout at me but – have you tried melatonin…?

    • robinince says:

      I took some a while back, one of the better options. certainly better than the sleeping pills I tried that mean you are really groggy the next day and so might as well have just not slept.

  2. Andy says:

    Sounds excellent, Robin! Your haphazard meanderings as different ideas pop into and out of your head like quantum foam are one of the facets that make your shows so refreshing! Much more entertaining than the anodyne scripted gags that are the standard fare of so many of your peers. 🙂

  3. J Hughes says:

    Back when I used to teach classical musicians I found there always came a time to impart the core lesson of my own training; that once you are good enough, your entire musical life is given over to accepting the failure to achieve in concert the perfection you must aim for in practice. One might achieve 98% but dwell obsessively on the missing 2%. And if you don’t do that, you stop improving. The ‘might have been’ show sounds like that. I suppose that one must accept both failure (in order to improve) and success (in order to want to improve) at the same time.

  4. Con Franklin says:

    Robin, I enjoyed your set last night to the point where I’d describe it as an almost-spiritual experience.

  5. latambourine says:

    Robin, I wish you’d stop beating yourself up, look at the lovely comments above! I’ve recently been listening to Stephen Fry’s 2nd autobiography on audio CDs as a cheating way of reading an extra book and he is unapologetic about being long-winded because he loves words, and think how popular he is! (OK he is not trying to do stand-up but still!), I love your longwindedness & so do loads of other people. I am ridiculously long-winded myself. What on earth are we doing on Twitter? 🙂 That monkey cage sounds brilliant, I’ll look forward to it. K Eric Drexler talks about this in his book Radical Abundance because he thinks his concept of atomically precise manufacturing (previously know as nanotechnology) has potential to eradicate/reverse global climate change + cure cancer & get rid of world poverty but he thinks it is quite risky in terms of possibility of causing wars… So those things have to be weighed up…

  6. noego says:

    “Why is brevity so hard to grasp? 45 years in to a life and still I overrun. It’s as if I have no confidence in anything and so I say everything.”

    Now that’s a decent summary, maybe there is confusion in you yet.

  7. noego says:

    Concision even, damn auto..

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