One of the most innovative, influential and accomplished comedy writers of the last thirty years, comedian Robin Ince burst onto the circuit during the early nineties in what many consider as the second or third wave of Alternative Comedy. The comedy scene in the nineties was heavily influenced by the explosion in music which was a direct response to the bleak social landscape of the previous generation. Hearing Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s cult Saturday afternoon Xfm show in the mid nineties, Ince was struck by how different this show was in comparison to their contemporaries. Unbeknown to him, this duo would have a dominant effect in the direction of his career and helped to transform Robin Ince from stand up comedian to comedy heavyweight.
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Contributing material to the seminal nineties Channel Four comedy merry go round The 11 O’Clock Show brought Robin into contact with some of the biggest names in comedy. It was here that he realised the true genius of Ricky Gervais and knew that he was bound to go on to bigger and better things. Not only did The 11 O’clock Show provide the perfect testing ground for Ricky together with Sasha Baron Cohen’s flare for character driven comedy but there was an abundance of other talent who would go on to bigger and better things: Jimmy Carr was the warm up man and used it to refine his now infamous comedy persona. The show also gave a platform to comedy newcomer Mackenzie Crook who was a contributor to topical reports. To be in the company of such talent was a revelation to the young writer and comedian which he used as the springboard to better things.
As a stand up, Robin has always been extremely conscientious about his specific audience and realises his responsibility to push the boundaries without any risk of offence. Alternative Comedy by its very nature is anti discriminatory and attempts to find humour in inclusive situations and areas. However, comedy is heavily subjective and entirely down to audience interpretation which is occasionally difficult for a comedian to gauge. Therefore Robin believes that it’s important for comedians like Jimmy Carr to push the boundaries of decency to prevent the country from being merely a colony of prudes. If someone has gone to the effort of parting with their hard earned money to buy a ticket to his gig, they surely will have some ideas of his style and material and so if he then performs material which is offensive to them, who’s indeed at fault? Ince as a performer is nowhere near as controversial as the aforementioned Carr yet recognises there shall forever be a need for a comedian to challenge and subvert the status quo.
An unlikely pairing of Ince and Professor Brian Cox resulted in the award winning Radio 4 discussion show The Infinite Monkey Cage which began in 2009. Each week the pair wax lyrical about a particular subject related to science from how the sun made us to the existence of aliens. Described as a ‘witty, irreverent and unashamedly rational look at the world according to science’, the show attempts to both cover and celebrate the whole breadth of the scientific world and make it universally informative and entertaining for any audience. Never one to be stuck for words, Robin’s conversational style is vital to ensure the pace of the show while Cox’s expertise in particle physics more than fulfils the scientific aspect. This formula is one of the secrets to the success of The Infinite Monkey Cage and has made it one of Radio 4’s most successful offerings.
Such popularity has spawned a successful nationwide tour which has seen the show transform into a live audience participation format which boasted a sell out arena tour. This year, due to popular demand, The Infinite Monkey Cage is preparing to go global with a tour of Australia which seems a long way from the tiny radio studio at Broadcasting House where it all began. Not even as a stand up comedian could Robin have ever imagined playing sold out international stadiums. Yet together with the former keyboard player for D-Ream, Ince has fulfilled one of the ultimate accolades in comedy (just with a science based show and not a stand up tour!). It’s very clear that The Infinite Monkey Cage has exceeded everyone’s expectations for a cult light hearted Radio 4 series. Yet with its current momentum, it remains exciting to see where the series shall take Ince and Cox next. With Ince’s innate pauchant for improvisation coupled with the philosophical wisdom of Cox, the sky is the limit!
Interviewing Robin Ince is both fascinating, joyous and complicated all at the same time. A maverick behind the microphone and on stage, he perfectly suits the podcast format unlike any other. Therefore it’s impossible for me to provide a detailed account of our conversation as it was wonderfully free flowing with glorious unexpected turns and very few signposts. Yet what we actually got was a definitive masterclass in the art of the podcast format from a man right at the very top of his game. It was an absolute pleasure and privilege to interview the all conquering Robin Ince and with one of the sharpest minds in comedy, it’s amazing to see where it shall take him next.