14th October, 2018
Durham Town Hall
Review by Leonor Mozo Alonso
Robin Ince describes himself as a ‘professional idiot’, but this is difficult to accept. As an experienced comedian, he has been observing people’s eccentricities for years. In a world full of people forgetting how to really look at ourselves (and others), he calls attention to our wacky sides to make us laugh at our own absurdity. In his new book, I’m a Joke and So Are You, he does so in an ingenious, witty manner which makes it very hard for anyone to believe that he does not know what he is doing.
However, he has moved beyond dealing with superfluous clichés of human behaviour. ‘When [past comedians] went on stage they became something else,’ he says. Now, though, comedians seem to prefer to push aside the narrative to talk more about their own experiences, as painful and embarrassing as they may seem, and build the humour on these foundations. Robin Ince does not lack the tools for this – no matter how serious or disconcerting the topic, the talk always came back to its original funny, relaxed state, leaving the audience in a positive, happy mindset.
Robin’s book delves into those dark thoughts which cross our minds and which we very rarely admit, for fear of scaring others or even ourselves. ‘Sometimes the fear of shame is the reason why we don’t seek treatment,’ he says, referring to mental health and, particularly, to suicidal thoughts. He elaborates greatly and always very sensitively on this topic, which he was encouraged to take on by a woman who had lost her daughter to suicide, and who felt that if the topic was openly discussed suicidal thoughts would be easier to talk about. His role from that moment on, as a comedian, was using humour to combat such self-destroying thoughts and making them feel somehow ridiculous. All that with the difficult challenge of being aware of how to direct the puns so that nobody would be hurt by them, or – in his own terms – avoid causing ‘collateral damage.’
These ethical concerns are central throughout his playful discussion of other intrusive voices that enter everyone’s minds once in a while, such as the sudden desire to jump in front of the metro. He deals, too, with problematic thoughts such as Imposter Syndrome: that sense of not being good enough which is so often a cause of social anxiety among students. ‘Lots of times it’s about sharing,’ he says, remarking on the importance of therapy and feeling that you are not alone.
We have been told to fear opening up, to fear vulnerability: Robin describes how he hid himself to cry when his mother died; how he had felt guilt for years after his mother entered a coma when he was only three years old, which he decided not to share until the publishing of I’m a Joke and So Are You.
Sharing universal and personal experiences, talking about disturbing inner voices in a relaxed, funny and always respectful way – that is his goal. As his editor told him, those inner voices – sometimes uncontrolled and very discomfiting – are just the sound of the machinery. We can decide what to do with them. They are not us. Robin wants to be optimistic about the world, about a future where we let ourselves share our thoughts without shame or fear, and start seeing others as more than some cartoonish two-dimensional beings. He contributes to this change with his new book which, if it’s in any way similar to his talk on Sunday, promises to be thought-provoking and simply hilarious.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.