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Comedian Robin Ince tells us why we need to get better at laughing at ourselves

Robin Ince
Robin Ince

The connoisseur of comedy, Robin Ince, mines the decades he spent delving into our eccentricities to create gags in his new book, I’m a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human.

Informed by personal insights from his own life as well as interviews with a bevy of A-list comedians, neuroscientists, psychologists and doctors – this is a hilarious and often moving primer to the mind.

I’m a Joke and So Are You combines psychology and neuroscientists – is comedy the new self-help?

I think comedy can be very useful for getting things out in the open.

Whereas many of the post war comics had a secret – sexuality, drinking, mental health – and their exterior bonhomie and absurdity was a cover, many 21st century comedians take their secrets and turn them into public spectacle - talking about anxiety, suicidal impulses and impulsive thoughts on stage can give permission to the audience to feel that they can talk about these things too.

Comics can strip away our carefully controlled masks and reveal the absurdity underneath, but don’t rely on us as experts, if you’ve really got a problem, you may need to seek the help of specialists, a punchline may not be enough.

There’s always been a stereotype perhaps of comedians being tied up closely with depression – do you see a correlation?

Jo Brand told me all the comics she knew were damaged, but they were coping too. Many of the people I know who have had depression are not comics, as Spike Milligan said, it just shows up more on a comedian, like a black ink stain on a white shirt - “Hey, how come the funny man is sad?” - I think it is a more alluring story.

‘You have to laugh’ seems to be a good response to all life’s challenges, with cliché’s like ‘laugher is the best medicine’ – should we take comedy more seriously in our lives?

I think we need to get better at laughing at ourselves rather than laughing at other people.

We are a strange and ridiculous creature and the more we realise how absurd we are, the better.

We are surrounded by leaders who are idiotic because they refuse to acknowledge they are ridiculous. The dictator soon arranges the assassination of anyone who laughs at them.

It seems like you ask some pretty big questions in your book. Was there one thing you discovered writing the book that really spoke to you? As a life lesson?

I think the most important thing I learned was the disparity in how we judge ourselves compared to how we judge others – we judge others from what they project and we judge ourselves from our inner thoughts.

I bet you get asked all the time ‘tell us a joke’ – but is there one joke that you do always tell, if so what?

The punchline is: “Now that is how you shake a towel”. Please feel free to ask me to tell it on stage or in the bar.

Who is your past (old school) comedy hero or heroine, and who do you love now on the comedy circuit?

Rik Mayall remains a huge influence and hero, Billy Connolly is still king, and Laurel and Hardy of course.

Of the current crop, Gavin Webster and Joanna Neary are magnificent, both pertinent and absurd.

Humour can work on lots of different levels – from the absurd to the cruel – what is its essential function to the human condition?

Now if I knew that I would have tenure at a prestigious American University or have a Freudian chair in a Viennese Laughter Institute. Whatever singular function it may have had, it now has many. Perhaps the most important is that it can bring us together and also make the strangeness of life worth living.

What do you hope audiences will experience (and leave with in their hearts/funny bones) from your talk in Harrogate at the Festival?

I hope they find it entertaining enough that we all retire to the bar afterwards and keep talking and regaling each other with stories that are rich and strange.

Robin Ince is at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival on Sunday October 21 at 2.30pm, the Crown Hotel.

Box Office 01423 562 303 or book online harrogateinternationalfestivals.com