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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42 Responses to Losing My Religion – on why I am giving up stand up

  1. Andrew Collins says:

    So selfish. (I personally support your decision. I hope it works out. One assumes you will still be writing?)

  2. James Curran says:

    I hope you’re going to continue the Infinite Monkey Cage. One of the most enjoyable science shows on radio (or TV) and it just wouldn’t be the same without you lowering the tone every once in a while.

  3. alistairbarrie says:

    For what it’s worth you remain one of my favourite stand ups, passing that acid (and surprisingly rare) test that I will always stop blathering and go and watch what you’re doing whenever we perform together. I understand – perhaps empathise is a better word – with much of your reasoning, but don’t for a minute doubt that you have inspired many stand ups, this one included, as much as those you yourself saw in a burn and gum hole carpeted pub room all those years ago.

    Good luck with your adrenaline withdrawal, quite right you should spend more time with your son and hopefully non-homicidal wife, and I watch this space with interest. Enjoy.

    By the way, do you fancy doing the Free Fringe benefit at the Bloomsbury on June 30? You can gaze around the green room feeling inferior whilst others throw exactly the same looks in your oblivious direction.

    This is of course a joke (unless you’d like to do it. We could call it the Robin Ince Valedictory PBH Free Fringe Benefit Show which has got a lovely ring to it.)

    See you soon I hope.

    Al x
    (Just another talkative middle class white male)

  4. Gimme says:

    Why isn’t point 11. numbered? is that significant? What happened to giving up sugar? the original addiction some say.

  5. rutty says:

    Best of luck Robin. Your’s is a unique voice in comedy, I think, and you’ll be missed.

    Looking forward to whatever else you can fill the void with 🙂

  6. It sounds like you are making a very wise decision for the sake of your actual life!

  7. Give me the loosely held together easily distracted ramblings of an insomniac over a tightly scripted slick ghost written tv career comic any day. Robin you were a delight on Lyme Regis last year and you will missed. Enjoy seeing your son grow up .

  8. patphoto14 says:

    I don’t know whether it’s something to do with touring Australia but when I travelled around there for a couple of months writing a book about the country I found it to be one of the weirdly loneliest experiences of my life. I felt as if I was isolated on the bottom of the planet and it made me have some soul searching internal conversations with myself. I began to doubt what I was doing with my life as I missed my friends, family and culture in a way that I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the world. Even though I was being paid to essentially explore, that ‘on paper’ what I was doing was 1000 times more fun than say working in an abattoir and not like a real job at all, I still couldn’t get into it. All that time alone can turn into a weird introspective nightmare of talking to yourself and feeling adrift from your moorings.
    I’d say mull on this decision until you get home and then maybe just scale back your public engagements…a bit like Prince Andrew is at the moment but with a less sinister reasoning behind it.
    You’re a funny stand-up, would be a shame for you to stop entirely

  9. Jason B Standing says:

    I think the day we see David Beckham release an album of tuba hits is the day we need to worry about sticking to our own niches…

    But, big decision and best of luck. Will you be doing radio still?

  10. Angela Spencer says:

    Enjoy the adventure, you wont regret being there for your son. But do go away knowing that you bring much joy and happiness to your audience, however unevenly spattered we may be (geographically speaking, and otherwise). Yappy dog sounds like a shit detector in overdrive, nothing some quality time with a 7 year old wont fix. Look forward to your return, from Melbourne.

  11. andorffson says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed every one of your shows that I have attended and it has been evident that the rest of the audience has felt the same way. As a performing (strictly hobby) musician, I understand the love/hate addiction and obsession that performance engenders; I took a long break from performing years ago and came back calmer, more measured and able to enjoy the experience in a much more laid back way and although the passion is still there, it has become nourishing rather than consuming. I hope that a break does the same for you. In the mean time, I hope you find other avenues to , er…exorcise healthily?

  12. Graham Lamb says:

    Thank goodness I saw you for the first time in Melbourne. It was better than I thought it would be (and I thought it would be pretty damn good)

  13. Tony De Meur says:

    If you’re not using it can I borrow your Heisenberg gag? It’ll kill at Jongleurs. ‘Rx’

  14. The first reason alone, is reason enough. There is nothing like hanging out with your kids. I once turned down an amazing job, just after my daughter was born, but it required lots of staying away and weekend work… I didn’t hesitate to turn it down and don’t regret the decision, 18 years later

    Mirren and I will miss you Robin, but we understand and support your reason why.

    Thanks again for everything you’ve done for us, with regards to Jamie, you’ve helped bring some happiness, into a fucking horrendous situation

  15. Troy Tarrant says:

    Robin, I can completely understand all your reasonings, especially those related to your son, and I wish you all the best for your abstinence. For the record I saw you in Adelaide less that a fortnight ago and found you one of the funniest of the many comedians I have ever seen (although I did start to wonder about your own sanity towards the end as you and your many internal voices began to go a little wayward, like a pro-science, cardigan-ed Gollum). Thank you for a wonderful night crying (& almost wee-ing myself) with laughter. You were great for improving my mood, expanding my brain, and increasing my fluid loss.

  16. zed says:

    Are you doing something else?
    Like writing a book, play or a science program?
    Monkey tennis?

    If you need any more ideas let me know, just £5 for each idea.

  17. Tim says:

    You certainly have enough pessimism, cynicism and self-defeatism to be a great comedian!
    Aristotle (another middle class white male) said, “There are countless ways to fail but only one way to succeed.”
    So let me be the one to urge you to keep going. Shake your voice out, burn your past words, hit a new stride. You’ll find a way to balance things.
    Life is too short for retreat.

  18. Tim says:

    Also, you are brilliant.

  19. Carole Curtis-Rose says:

    Completely respect yr reasons but selfishly hope you’ll still pop up on the radio sometimes – Infinite Monkey Cage always makes my day

  20. Eric McKee says:

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

    Yes. Fvck off and die you ridiculous, politically correct, middle class cvnt.

  21. asif 'the average-standup-slayer' khan says:

    Fantastic news! I’ve long campaigned for this.

  22. Dani says:

    A few years ago in Melbourne during the comedy festival I did the funny tonne competition. This involved seeing as many festival shows as possible over the month – it worked out to be over a hundred. That coupled with other factors means I developed a very low tolerance for bad comedy and sadly also developed the ability to spot the punchline a mile away, which, seeing as the whole thing works by the element of surprise, means I tend to get bored while watching stand up.

    Your show was completely different. I laughed out loud during your show. A lot. I loved listening to jokes that weren’t about Breaking Bad, your girlfriend, my mum, your latest Big Life Lesson, iPhones, or even politics. I don’t think you can include yourself into the ‘white middle class male’ comedian list if you’re doing jokes about electrons and piglet squids. I loved your mad, contagiously enthusiastic, rambling delivery, it made the show feel entirely unique and not just another by rote night of the tour by a bored, jet lagged international comedian. I loved that when I got home I had a list of things to google ranging from Edgar Allen Poe to Charles Darwin’s earthworms.

    I’m sorry that what makes us so happy makes you so sad and I do hope you come back after a few years off, (that’ll give me time to save up for the trip over). And while there are certainly enough valid reasons in that list above (#1 alone) I feel like I should say for what it’s worth coming from a stranger, I think that most of the numbered points are in fact the yappy dog talking.

    Enjoy your well earned break. Thanks for including Aus in your farewell tour. I’m so glad that I got to see you and and I’m still amazed at how good you were live, I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Kitson’s show – both were a bit like food for the brain as well as fun and funny shows.

    So, you know… thanks for the laughs.

  23. You had me at “The main reason is my son”. Speaking as a mere punter, I will miss you on the circuit, but your reasons are sound and I applaud you.

  24. Hakan says:

    Sorry to hear all this but all for the best! Ai hope to hear more ofmyour stand-up when you like to tell us about them. i can wait. Cheeers!

  25. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve missed reading your blog posts (and your podcasts are brilliant), but I sincerely hope that this break will make you feel better. All the best and I look forward to whatever you decide to do next!

  26. Kristian Petterson says:

    You don’t need my approbation or criticism and, if you’re wise (which I’m sure you are), they won’t matter to you. However, I’m here now.

    The lifestyle of a stand-up is, to my mind (ie, that of someone who’s never done it), clearly not good for someone who has young children – assuming you aren’t wanting to avoid them, that is. As such, your first reason is good enough without a supporting cast. I trust, however, that stand-up’s loss is not, more broadly, comedy’s loss and that you have irons in the fire that will allow you to express yourself and to amuse others with those expressions.

    Of more concern is the black dog element of the other reasons you cite. I hope you are correct when you say that a) it’s more grey than black and b) its appearance is transitory and infrequent. No-one deserves to feel the way you describe in those points and I hope you recognise that there are many, many people who disagree with them and that you are a very funny and evidently decent man. Look after yourself, Robin Ince.

  27. Graham says:

    A shame, I watched you at the Lowry and thoroughly enjoyed most of it. I was maybe the stony faced guy when you made a lame excuse for why liberal atheists don’t tackle problematic Islam, but most of it was good, interesting material and I and my companion both had a really enjoyable evening as did the rest of the audience around me.

    Still, its good that your son will get to see more of you.

    • robinince says:

      Not sure what I said, but if it is what I think it was, it was not meant to be about not tackling Islam, but about vacuous articles that state the obvious without containing knowledge or insight.

      • robinince says:

        I probably just voiced it clumsily.

      • Graham says:

        Fair play Robin and thanks for replying. Really enjoyed the show, not everything is going to resonate with 100% of the audience members 100% of the time, so no problem. I wasn’t angry about it, I just didn’t agree. Be a horrible world if everyone agreed with every word we said. 🙂

  28. Andre van Westreenen says:

    I don’t think you do your self justice, having said that, do the dinosaur thing with your boy, it will be most rewarding.

  29. Tony Pedley says:

    How dare you retire! Don’t you realise as soon as we paid good money to see you perform, we owned part of your soul like some time shared slave.

    You have made a Faustian bargain with us and we demand that you perform until there is nothing left or we tire of efforts and discard your husk like some broken toy.

    P.S

    But seriously, please don’t give up the Infinite Monkey Cage. There are so few positive voices in science and trying to have any conversation about it feels like shouting into the wilderness (For example i’m still waiting for any politician to explain why the UK has one smallest science budgets in the G7 and how that is supposed to help the UK in the future). We rely on you to ask the questions that we would all like to ask. Bridging the gap between science and pubic perception is an essential job, so don’t give it up

  30. farshnuke says:

    Hi Robin,
    Your main reason is of course huge enough to justify everything but the rest is, well I sympathize as my own black dog has been making me think much the same things and I’m just an idiot with a youtube channel with a blog.
    If I may I’d like to say a few things about the points raised.
    Firstly because it is of least significance it was your involvement in Ricky Gervais’s stand up that made me turn against the man. The actual stand up was funny if barbed and then there was intercut shots of Ricky Gervais abusing you and that just struck me as bullying. I realise now it was probably some staged office esque joke but I really didn’t finfd it funny.

    Secondly your point about being just another middle class white male speaks to my own insecurites. I am trying to be a scifi writer and hope to maybe script a series be it independently for youtube or Blip or as part of the BBC and I do find myself regularly pausing and asking myself “What right have I to be successful, to take the place of a more talented woman?” especially when I look at my favourite fantasy and Scifi and see just Naomi Novik and JK Rowling standing out amongst a bunch of white male authors. I really have no easy answer for this and neither do friends I’ve had who are so radically feminist we are now no longer friends. “We need more women in genre fiction and the media” is a lovely statement to make but always instinctively the refrain is “But I don’t want to give up my dream” I think it speaks to just how thoroughly enlightened you are that you are willing to relinquish it. I’m not sure I could make that choice so readily.

    As for the sense of failure, that no matter how hard the audience laughs someone won’t be. I have that only being on youtube the only people I hear from regularly are the sadists who just want to destroy me for a laugh so I have to rely on the views and the , 9, 90, 1 equation. That somewhere 90% of the viewers didn’t feel the need to comment because it was okay. That hope and faith (ha) is not so resilient in the face of adversity though and I find myself regularly “Quitting” in fits of despair without telling anyone, only to go back the next week when I have something important or cool to talk about because talking to strangers with shameless honesty has almost become a compulsion (probably why I’m writing an essay to someone I regard as a proper tele celebrity). The Question is would it be a good thing or a bad thing if you did feel compelled to comeback to stand up in a week or a month? Is stand up something you enjoy that is a fundamental part of you that helps you function properly or is it a problematic addiction that screws you up? Only you can answer that.

    Finally I will say that as much as I love you on the Infinite Monkey Cage, the way I see you is as your bit on the one show some years back about Franz Kafka. I don’t watch, listen or read your stuff to be entertained and laugh like a loon, I do it to bask in your intelligence, your cynical pessmistic wisdom and your apt metaphors and delightful language. I feel like you should do a podcast with friends discussing current affairs or spend 30 minutes ranting on youtube about whatever you feel like or heck even just a regular Guardian opinion piece. In the age of the cult of personality your personality is something I like a lot and want to experience more of.

    As for giving things up, I once tried to give up youtube for lent (just a convenient excuse, not religious) and I succeeded even if it was a challenge but I learned from it why youtube is good for me and not a problem. Hopefully you’ll learn if and why stand up is good for you.

    So long Rob, I liked what little of your stuff I saw, best of luck with your future endeavours.
    Sincerely an idiot with a youtube channel

  31. Due to work circs (or lack of it) recently I’ve had to severely curtail my gig going & my reference for you is radio and your podcasts. Which I really enjoy. You can’t please everyone all the time but the person you can please is yourself, if this is what will recharge you then all the best for it and I hope you come back stronger. But 43 tickets is 41 more than I could sell and one of those would be a free pass to my gf (whomever she may be at the time) I’m hoping you will rethink this and let it be a brief hiatus.

  32. Bletherskite says:

    It was the first time I had really gone to Edinburgh during the festival, and I’d got hold of the PBH Free Fringe Wee Blue Book. Flicking through the pages, the show that caught my eye was “Carl Sagan is my God, Oh and Richard Feynman too” by some bloke. I recognised those names and ‘Robin Ince’ seemed familiar from somewhere so I decided to take a punt, I mean it was free so nothing to lose!

    How glad I was that I did, I was utterly sold, laughed like a drain and was completely bowled over by this stream of ideas and information. What was more wonderful was that it wasn’t presented as ‘this is how it is’, it was ‘here’s things I’ve learned, this is what this person said, I think this, that and the other and want to share that but hey you go and do some reading and see what you think’. I’ve seen many of your shows since then and that feeling has never left, mainly because every show is so different and genuine.

    Have a great break. Doctor Who Top Trumps and dinosaurs sound like a most effective use of time for the next wee while. Hopefully you will be popping up here and there though and I do selfishly look forward to the time when the lure of the regional venue, Travelodge and hidden away second hand book shops brings you back out to a venue near me.

  33. mraemiller says:

    The thing is with writing or science you can just stop and start when you want. With stand up because everything is booked so far ahead stopping involves a sort of pre-planning that is slightly odd. I’ve often thought I should stop to spend more time writing and doing science but am too disorganised. If you’re that into science why dont you retrain in it Mr I. Do it properly… get a degree in it… It’s great being a scientist. Every day I go into the office and a lot of the time I have no real idea what I’m doing or how to do it. I just make it up …within reason… I mean obviously I’ve got some idea what I’m doing butb sometimes I think no one knows what they’re doing.

    I think everyone sane suffers rom outsider syndrome… But arts centres and theatres are particularly bad for it. Back rooms full of props and the detritus of people who work collectively …you just cant help feeling a fraud who’s shuffled into the place to talk bollocks for no reason.

  34. scmayo says:

    Me and my family really enjoyed your show in Melbourne. I hope you’ve had a decent nights sleep since then (you did mention insomnia!). Take care of yourself and if you ever feel game to return to standup I’ll be there with bells on. It seems I have a world of your podcasts to explore in any case 🙂

  35. Matt says:

    If everyone likes you then you’re doing something wrong as a comedian. That said, I like you.

  36. Gary says:

    You’re pretty funny on Monkey Cage pal. Now get those US episodes up!!

  37. Peter Stamp says:

    Love your stand-up shows – especially as they aren’t ‘just’ comedy but so much more. But I also love your work on BBC4 and elsewhere, so just look forward to that. ‘Robin takes away with one hand, but gives back with the other…’ Where’ve I heard that before?

    Thanks for all the blobfish.

  38. Mike S says:

    So no more stand-up. Fine, follow your heart (seriously). You’d already said the Christmas show was ending. Bye-Bye “old rope”.
    What about the Infinite Monkey cage or other TV/Radio?
    Last time I saw you was “Greenwich Skeptics”. Was that standup, or a serious message delivered in a humorous way?
    Can you define the boundaries in your work? You need to, to be able to make this work.
    I suspect what you mean is “I don’t want to tour, give me a few major appearances to pay the rent, and let me find something else from home.” I sense a book…..
    Improve your work/life balance, but please keep ranting at us SOMEWHERE. It never fails to be worth my time.

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