Opinion

Robin Ince: As a stand-up comedian, it's best to not know what you're doing

Doing things correctly does not mean doing things best. Reliability can hamper invention.

A microphone with stage lights in the background

Image: Pexels from Pixabay

I was under my favourite railway arch turned bar when the ghost of a stand-up comedian came and tapped my skull. It was not Tommy Cooper or Little Tich, it was a ghost of me. I spent much of my working life defined as a stand-up comedian, though I always felt like an imposter, the one in the green room pretending to be a comic while all the rest were pros. In the last decade, I have let myself off the leash of limiting definitions.

On stage, I let my impetuous brain rush around, making connection after connection after connection, sometimes these are connections to jokes and sometimes to stories that have no punchline, but which I think are worth sharing. Though I am not as driven by laughter, I am still fuelled by a furious energy that never wants to bore people, and there is a still-valid voice that says “I think it is time for a laugh now”. 

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In the railway arch, The Wanstead Tap, I am talking about a new edition of my book I’m a Joke and So Are You, a title I was happy to hear greatly entertained a friend’s eight-year-old. 

There is humour in the book, but there are sad stories too. I never plan my talks too much, but I do try and fill my mind up with as much as possible. A few minutes before start time, my friend Susan said: “I’d better leave you alone so you can get in the zone.” 

But I was in the zone already, it is where I spend most of my life now – no vocal exercises or nerve-racked meditation required. Nowadays, I am just excited to begin, though I rarely begin at the beginning.

Like every other night, I think I know what the first words will be, but by the time I get the microphone, they are long forgotten in a femtosecond. 

After 70 minutes of barely getting to the themes of chapter one, I think the audience deserve a drink and I tell them I will then come back on, but bar owner Dan, aware that I have travelling this week says that he will not let me back on and will instead ensure I drink too much red wine while signing books. Out of respect for him, I dutifully drink. 

Tonight is the first time I have ever signed a book for a Finbar. I receive one of my favourite compliments – “I had no idea what to expect. This was not what I expected. I will be back to see you again.” 

On the train, I think how rule-bound I once was, trying to do what I thought you were meant to do, worrying that I would lose an audience if I did not follow the laws of what I presumed they expected. I still want them to have a great night out, but I am also aware that there are many more than the narrow confines of the entertainers’ rulebook. As Alan Moore wrote: “If the audience knew what they wanted, then they would be the artist.” 

The next day, I read an Andy Warhol book where he explains that he is not so keen on professional entertainers because they know what they are doing, whereas the amateur is more likely to do the truly unexpected, for good, or for ill. 

The Scottish comic Phil Kay wrote about a couple who came to his Edinburgh Fringe show and thought it was the funniest show they had seen. Returning a year later, and bringing friends, it was the worst show they saw that year. Giving him one more go at the next Fringe, it was similarly awful. But their tenacity of risking a fourth visit the year after paid off, and again, he was the funniest thing they had seen. 

Doing things correctly does not mean doing things best. Reliability can hamper invention. Behaving as we believe we are meant to can mean that we miss out on the possibility of something magnificent, not just on stage, but in life. 

Here’s to the passionate amateurs. 

Robin Ince’s book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £16.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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